Thanks to the development of new treatments, survival rates for melanoma are higher than ever before. But how close are we to a cure?
Melanoma is a type skin cancer. It’s usually diagnosed in the early stages, when it’s highly treatable. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, removing melanoma with surgery provides a cure in most cases.
But when melanoma isn’t detected and treated early enough, it can spread from the skin to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body. When that happens, it’s known as advanced-stage melanoma.
To treat advanced-stage melanoma, doctors often prescribe other treatments with or instead of surgery. Increasingly, they’re using targeted therapies, immunotherapy, or both. Although advanced-stage melanoma is difficult to cure, these treatments have dramatically improved survival rates.
Targeted therapies are designed to identify and target cancer cells, mostly without harming normal cells.
Many melanoma cancer cells have mutations in the BRAF gene that help the cancer grow. About half of people who have melanoma that’s spread or melanoma that can’t be surgically removed have mutations in this gene, according to the National Cancer Institute.
BRAF and MEK inhibitors are targeted therapies that help prevent the growth of melanoma cells when BRAF gene mutations are present. These medications block the BRAF protein or related MEK protein.
However, research has found that a majority of people who initially respond well to these targeted therapies develop resistance to them within a year. Scientists are working to prevent that resistance by finding new ways to give and combine existing treatments. Studies are also underway to develop therapies that target other genes and proteins associated with melanoma cells.
Immunotherapy helps your natural immune system to attack cancer cells.
One group of immunotherapy drugs in particular has shown great promise for treating advanced-stage melanoma. These drugs are known as checkpoint inhibitors. They help the immune system’s T cells recognize and attack melanoma cells.
Studies have found these medications improve survival rates for people with advanced-stage melanoma, report the authors of a review article in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. Research published in The Oncologist has also found that people with melanoma can potentially benefit from treatment with these drugs, regardless of their age.
But immunotherapy doesn’t work for everyone. According to a research letter published in the journal Nature Medicine, only a portion of people with melanoma benefit from treatment with checkpoint inhibitors. More research is needed to learn which people are most likely to respond well to this treatment.
A 2017 review of phase III clinical trials found that current targeted therapies and immunotherapy work well to improve overall survival rates in people with advanced-stage melanoma. But the authors say that more research is needed to learn which therapy to try first.
Scientists are developing and testing strategies to identify which patients are most likely to benefit from which treatments. For example, researchers have found that people who have high levels of certain proteins in their blood may respond better than others to checkpoint inhibitors.
Studies are also underway to develop and test new therapies. According to an article in Gland Surgery, early research findings suggest that personalized anti-tumor vaccines may be a safe treatment approach. Scientists are also testing drugs that target melanoma with certain abnormal genes, reports the American Cancer Society.
New combinations of existing treatments might also help improve outcomes for some people with melanoma. Scientists are continuing to study the safety, efficacy, and optimal use of medications that have already been approved to treat this disease.
Before 2010, the standard treatment for people with advanced-stage melanoma was chemotherapy, and survival rates were low.
In the past decade, survival rates for people with advanced-stage melanoma have dramatically improved, in large part because of targeted therapies and immunotherapy. These treatments are the new standards of care for advanced stages of melanoma. However, researchers are still trying to learn which therapies are most likely to help which patients.
Scientists are also continuing to test new treatments and new combinations of existing treatments. Thanks to ongoing breakthroughs, more people than ever before are being cured of this disease.