How immunotherapy is improving outlook for melanoma patients

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer in the world. While traditional therapies include chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, immunotherapy has emerged as an effective treatment for the disease.

3D structure of a melanoma cell. Credit: National Cancer Institute

“Before the development of these newer therapies, many patients with melanoma rarely lived five years after their diagnosis. With the new treatments that are available, including immunotherapy and targeted therapy, we’ve seen significant progress in terms of survival,” said Dr. Daniel Wang, an oncologist at Baylor College of Medicine. “As we get more data, we see patients living longer – even those with metastatic melanoma.”

Wang says the five-year overall survival rate was less than 10% in patients prior to the emergence of these therapies. It has since tripled to over 30%.

When is immunotherapy used?

For stage-four melanoma, Wang says immunotherapy is typically considered to be the first line treatment option.

“We also test for a mutation called BRAF, which is targetable with some of the oral treatments available.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, BRAF is known as an oncogene. When mutated, oncogenes can cause normal cells to become cancerous.

“We use immunotherapy first because we’ve seen patients have durable responses, which means they have responded positively for a long period of time, even when therapy ends.”

Immunotherapy ‘releases the brakes’ on the immune system. While this can be beneficial by attacking cancer cells, it can sometimes accidently target the patient’s normal cells. Wang says this can cause a variety of inflammatory or autoimmune-type side effects.

“With immunotherapy, we’re encountering different side effects and toxicities compared to the more traditional chemotherapy, which is important for both clinicians and patients to think about.”

Wang says that with more research and clinical trials, new treatment options will continue to be discovered for individuals with melanoma.

“Ten years ago, metastatic melanoma was considered a death sentence for many patients. Nowadays, we see a brighter future,” he said. “We have a completely different treatment paradigm with these newer options.”

Dr. Wang is an assistant professor of medicine-oncology at Baylor. Call 713-798-2262 to schedule an appointment with the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center or request an appointment online.

Additional Resources

Learn more about melanoma symptoms and prevention.

Read about melanoma treatment options at Baylor.

-By Nicole Blanton


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