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.
What types of immunotherapy can be used to treat melanoma?
The types of immunotherapy medicines used for melanoma include:
Pembrolizumab, cemiplimab, and nivolumab are medicines that use antibodies to block the PD-1 protein on immune cells. They are called PD-1 inhibitors. They help the immune system attack melanoma cells. These medicines are given as an IV infusion every 2 to 6 weeks.
Common side effects can include:
Loss of appetite
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 healthcare provider right away.
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. Ipilimumab is most commonly given with nivolumab.
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:
It's important to report any side effects to your healthcare provider right away.
Cytokines are proteins that trigger your immune system. These 2 cytokines are used to treat melanoma:
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:
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. This can help to shrink them. These include:
Talimogene laherparepvec (T-VEC). This 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). This vaccine is not commonly used. 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.