New Treatments for Melanoma

Dana-Farber researchers announce that melanoma patients are living longer than ever before.

Hugh Jackman announced via a selfie Friday that he had a basal cell carcinoma removed from his nose. While this form of skin cancer is malignant, it’s unlikely to spread to other parts of the body. Melanomas, on the other hand, are highly aggressive and tend to spread to other parts of the body. Jackman is lucky to not have the most deadly form of the disease. Fortunately, progress has been made in finding treatments for melanoma.

Dana-Farber researchers say that there hasn’t been much progress in treating life-threatening malignant melanoma cancers. But in the last five years, several new drugs have come onto the scene with the purpose of boosting the immune system to attack the cancer cells. These new treatments, according to researchers, have resulted in dramatic long-term survival benefits for some patients.

Louise M. Perkins, PhD, chief science officer for the Melanoma Research Alliance, which funds research on the skin cancer says that the outlook for patients has never been so good. “We anticipate that in the next year or two it will be much better,” she says.

Dana-Farber published a blog post which outlines the new treatments. Researchers turned to a new strategy, making antibodies that would block other molecules in the immune system that restrain or turn off the immune response to prevent an over-reaction. One of those antibodies is called ipilimumab, which was approved by the FDA for treating advanced melanoma in 2011. Last September, Dr. F. Stephen Hodi, director of the Melanoma Treatment Center at Dana-Farber, reported that about 20 percent of metastatic melanoma patients treated in research studies with ipilimumab were living as long as 10 years, which Hodi says is “a stunning result.”

Created in a laboratory at Dana-Farber, nivolumab, an even newer type of antibody, which evolved from years of research, targets a molecule called PD-1 that melanoma cells often have on their surface. In clinical trials, many patients who were given nivolumab to target PD-1 had their tumors shrink and achieved long-term responses. While more studies are needed, nivolumab may prove more effective than ipilimumab.

Dana-Farber researchers say on the blog that prevention is still the best way to combat melanoma.

Public education focuses on avoiding excess ultraviolet exposure from the sun and artificial sources such as tanning beds. Monthly skin self-exams and awareness of the warning signs of melanoma may be helpful in finding most melanomas when they are at an early, curable stage.