Melanoma: Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that uses your body’s own immune system. It uses medicines that help your immune cells recognize and attack the cancer cells.

When might immunotherapy be used for melanoma?

Your doctor may suggest immunotherapy if one of these cases applies to you:

  • You have advanced melanoma. In this case, the goal of immunotherapy is to help shrink the tumor. You may have this treatment alone. Or you may have it along with chemotherapy. Your doctor may also suggest a clinical trial of a new immunotherapy medicine that could help you.

  • You have had surgery to remove the melanoma, but you are at higher risk of it coming back. Immunotherapy used after surgery is called adjuvant therapy. It may help lower the risk that the cancer will come back. Or it may delay the amount of time before the cancer comes back. It may also help some people live longer.

What types of immunotherapy can be used to treat melanoma?

The types of immunotherapy medicines used for melanoma include:

  • Anti-PD-1 therapy

  • Anti-CTLA-4 therapy

  • Cytokine therapy (interferon alpha, interleukin-2)

  • Intratumoral vaccine therapy

Anti-PD-1 therapy

Pembrolizumab and nivolumab are medicines that uses antibodies to block the PD-1 protein on immune cells. An antibody is a substance that attacks other substances in the body. This helps the immune system to attack melanoma cells. This medicine is used to treat advanced melanoma. It’s given as an IV infusion every 3 weeks. 

Common side effects can include:

  • Cough

  • Feeling tired

  • Nausea

  • Skin rash

  • Itching

  • Loss of appetite

  • Constipation

  • Joint pain

  • Diarrhea

These medicines can also allow the immune system to attack other cells in your body. This can lead to less common but more serious side effects such as damage to the lungs, liver, intestines, kidneys, hormone-making glands, and other organs. It's important to report any side effects to your doctor or nurse right away.

Anti-CTLA-4 therapy 

Ipilimumab is a medicine that uses an antibody to target a protein on immune cells called CTLA-4. The CTLA-4 protein may help melanoma cells survive, so targeting it boosts the immune system to help fight melanoma. This medicine is used to treat advanced melanoma. It can also be used after surgery for some melanomas that have reached the lymph nodes. This will help lower the risk that they will come back. It is given as an IV (intravenous) infusion, usually once every 3 weeks.

Side effects of the medicine can sometimes be severe. In some cases the immune system may attack other parts of the body. It may attack the intestines, liver, nerves, skin, eyes, glands that make hormones, or other organs. These problems seem to occur more often with ipilimumab than with the anti-PD-1 medicines. They can lead to serious or even life-threatening symptoms. Other side effects can include:

  • Feeling tired

  • Skin rash

  • Itching 

  • Diarrhea

  • Allergic reactions during medicine infusion 

It's important to report any side effects to your doctor or nurse right away.

Cytokine therapy

Cytokines are proteins that trigger your immune system. These two cytokines are used to treat melanoma:

  • Interferon-alpha

  • Interleukin-2 (IL-2)

Doctors use medicines with cytokines to boost general immunity. For example, the interleukin-2 cytokine helps the growth of certain white blood cells. These medicines are given by IV or as injections.

Side effects from cytokine therapy can be serious, and can include:

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Aches

  • Depression

  • Low blood cell counts

  • Fatigue (severe tiredness)

  • Stomach upset

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Fluid buildup in the body

Some side effects are specific to certain cytokines. For example, high doses of interleukin-2 can cause low blood pressure and large amounts of fluid to build up in the body. High doses of interferon alpha can cause more severe forms of many of the side effects above, as well as effects on the heart and liver. People getting these treatments often need to be watched closely, so treatment might need to be given in the hospital. Some people can't take the high doses needed for treatment. But side effects usually get better after the treatment is done.  

Intratumoral vaccine therapy

Special types of vaccines can be injected directly into some melanoma tumors to help shrink them:

Talimogene laherparepvec (T-VEC) is a type of virus that can be injected into tumors on the skin or in lymph nodes. The virus can kill cancer cells and help boost the immune response against the cancer cells. It can shrink some tumors, but it is not clear if it can help people live longer. Side effects can include pain at the injection site and flu-like symptoms. 

Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) is a germ related to the one that causes tuberculosis. BCG does not cause serious disease in humans, but it does make the immune system active. The BCG vaccine can work like a cytokine, boosting the entire immune system. It can be used to help treat melanoma by injecting it directly into a tumor.

Other types of vaccines that target melanoma cells are being tested in clinical trials. The most common types of vaccines are pieces of proteins called peptides, and dead cancer cells. These may be injected under the skin with other immune boosters. The theory is that they may create an immune reaction in the body to the vaccine that will also work against the cancer cells.

Talking with your doctor

Make sure to talk with your doctor about these medicines and their effects. He or she will discuss with you the risks and benefits. You can also ask your doctor about clinical trials. You may be eligible for a clinical trial that tests a new medicine.