Immunotherapy is a type of biologic therapy that can treat certain diseases and cancers, including advanced melanoma, a type of skin cancer.

Immunotherapy uses drugs to make the immune system more effective in recognizing and attacking cancer cells, which helps improve the chance of recovery and reduce cancer recurrence. The treatment can take the form of an injection or intravenous (IV) injection.

Read on to learn more about immunotherapy for melanoma, including the types, success rates, and side effects.

Medic looking at immunotherapy drugs Share on Pinterest
Bowery Image Group Inc./Stocksy

Immunotherapy is a treatment that treats certain types of cancer and other diseases. It uses substances from either the body or a laboratory to stimulate and alter how the immune system functions. This makes the immune system more effective at locating and destroying cancerous cells, which helps slow or inhibit their growth.

A person may receive immunotherapy through an injection or IV infusion.

Immunotherapy can serve as the sole treatment for melanoma. Alternatively, it may involve several forms of the treatment, for example, a combination of injections and topicals.

Doctors may use immunotherapy in conjunction with other treatments, such as:

There are several types of immunotherapy for melanoma. Some target specific areas, while others focus on the entire body. Treatments may combine different types of immunotherapy.

Immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy

Immune checkpoint inhibitors are the most common immunotherapy drugs for treating melanomas. They remove or deactivate checkpoint proteins, which are blockades that prevent the immune system from responding to stimulation. This helps the immune system from overreacting.

Melanoma cells may hide behind checkpoints to prevent detection and attack from the immune system. Immune checkpoint inhibitors block immune molecules, stimulate the immune response, and expose the cancer cells.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors include:

  • PD-1 inhibitors: pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and nivolumab (Opdivo)
  • PD-L1 inhibitor: atezolizumab (Tecentriq)
  • CTLA-4 inhibitor: ipilimumab (Yervoy)

Additionally, a new class of LAG-3 antibodies recently received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Interleukin-2 (IL-2)

IL-2 stimulates the immune system and enhances the body’s immune response. It increases the growth and activity of immune cells, particularly lymphocytes, a class of white blood cells that fight and destroy cancerous cells. This may help destroy melanoma cells and shrink advanced tumors.

Oncolytic virus therapy

Oncolytic viruses, which healthcare experts produce in a laboratory, can treat tumors locally. They activate the immune system and kill cancer cells, which may help shrink tumors.

Talimogene laherparepvec (Imlygic) is an oncolytic virus that targets skin or lymph node melanomas when surgical removal is not possible.

Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine

The BCG vaccine stimulates the immune system to destroy cancerous cells in certain areas of the body. However, this is not a common treatment.

Immunotherapy is a promising treatment for advanced melanoma that shows varying levels of effectiveness and adverse effects.

Research from 2018 suggests that immunotherapy is generally an effective treatment. However, activating the immune system may lead to other unintended side effects. While these are typically mild or moderate, some cases are severe and can even lead to death.

According to a 2021 review, using palliative radiotherapy in combination with immune checkpoint inhibitors is a safe and effective treatment that showed varying survival rates. In comparison with using immune checkpoint inhibitors alone, combining them with palliative radiotherapy did not cause increased side effects. However, more detailed research is necessary to expand on these findings.

Research from 2021 found that new treatments, including immunotherapy with checkpoint inhibitors and targeted therapy, have helped improve the prognosis of people with advanced melanoma. After 5 years, more than half of them were alive. However, this means that the treatments were ineffective for the remaining individuals. With this in mind, the researchers call for the development of more effective treatments for those who do not respond to current therapies.

There are several risks and side effects of immunotherapy for melanoma. They can vary depending on the type of treatment and a person’s stage of cancer and health. Combination therapies may cause more severe side effects in some people.

People should report any side effects to their doctor, especially if they are severe.

Immunotherapy can cause a range of side effects. Some of these possible side effects include, but are not limited to:

  • fatigue
  • cough
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • fever
  • chills
  • aches
  • skin rash
  • reduced appetite
  • constipation
  • joint pain
  • injection site pain
  • reduced blood cell counts
  • fluid retention, or edema

Early detection and treatment of melanoma are crucial, as it can grow and spread to other areas of the body, making it more difficult to treat. Immunotherapy is a promising treatment for advanced melanomas that surgery cannot fully remove.

Immunotherapy functions differently than other treatments, as it uses the body’s natural defense system rather than chemicals. However, people have different responses to immunotherapy, and it is not effective for everyone. After treatment, melanoma can recur in different areas of the body or the original site it developed. However, researchers are continuing to develop more effective treatments.

People with advanced melanoma may also opt to participate in a clinical trial that uses new or experimental therapies.

Immunotherapy is a class of treatments for some diseases and cancers such as melanoma. It uses immune system modulators that improve the immunity of a person. This allows the immune system to detect and attack cancer cells more effectively.

Depending on the stage of cancer and type of tumor, a doctor may recommend immunotherapy on its own or in combination with additional treatments. Healthcare professionals may also recommend using several types of immunotherapy.

Before starting any treatment, a person must discuss the benefits and risks with their doctor. They should also speak with a healthcare professional if they experience side effects, particularly if they are severe.