Immunotherapy for advanced melanoma

Some drugs can stimulate the body’s immune system to recognise and fight melanoma cancer cells. There have been a number of new developments in the use of immunotherapy for advanced melanoma.

Ipilimumab, nivolumab and pembrolizumab are three immunotherapy drugs that are approved for the treatment of advanced melanoma. These drugs are known as checkpoint inhibitors because they block proteins that suppress the immune response, helping the immune system to recognise and attack melanoma cancer cells. These drugs are usually administered into a vein (intravenously).

If the melanoma comes back on the skin, it may be treated using an immunotherapy cream or with an injection of an immunotherapy drug directly into the recurrence.

Around one in three people with advanced melanoma will respond to immunotherapy drugs. However, melanoma can become resistant to these drugs and tumours can start to regrow.

Immunotherapy drugs are sometimes used in combination, and different combinations of drugs suit different people. Treatments in this area are changing rapidly. It is important to talk to your doctor about your particular circumstances to see what therapies are appropriate for you.

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Side effects

The side effects of immunotherapy drugs will vary depending on which drugs you are given. They can include tiredness, inflammation, joint pains, diarrhoea, low hormone levels, and skin problems such as rash and itch.

It’s important to discuss any side effects with your medical team as soon as they appear so they can be managed appropriately. Early treatment for side effects is likely to shorten their duration.

Contact your medical team if you are experiencing side effects which concern you.

Because immunotherapy drugs stimulate the immune system, they can cause major inflammatory reactions such as dermatitis, hepatitis and colitis. Consider wearing a medical alert bracelet to ensure that medical staff know you are undergoing immunotherapy treatment.

Video: What is immunotherapy?

Watch this short video to learn more about targeted and immunotherapy.

This information was last reviewed in January 2017
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