What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy are treatments that work to trigger the body’s own immune system to fight melanoma.

This idea was inspired by the fact melanoma sometimes shows signs of regression (getting smaller) on its own without treatment. This is attributed to the body’s immune system attempting to fight the cancer cells. Sometimes primary melanomas may even disappear from the skin entirely, but not before tumour cells have spread to other parts of the body. These distant tumour are called occult melanoma or melanoma with unknown primary tumour.

Researchers have used knowledge that the body can sometimes mount an attack on melanoma with two general strategies – activating an immune response with checkpoint inhibitors or “training” an immune response with vaccines.

How do immunotherapies work?

Checkpoint inhibitors

Cancer grows in our bodies by tricking the immune system into ignoring it. Checkpoint inhibitor drugs stimulate the immune system to recognise and destroy melanoma cells.

Checkpoint inhibitor drugs are showing exciting promise for the future outcomes of melanoma patients. Several drugs are in different phases of development and we are undertaking active research into a number of therapies at MIA (read more). The immunotherapy drugs currently getting the most attention for melanoma patients are nivolumab and pembrolizumab.

Vaccine approach

This approach is based on the concept of using immunisation to treat disease rather than prevent it as it is used in childhood vaccines. The idea is to prepare an antigen made from melanoma tumour cells that enables the immune system to identify and destroy the disease more readily.

Though vaccines for other diseases are highly effective, melanoma vaccines have so far not been found to be consistently effective, although research continues.

Immunotherapy currently available 

  • Ipilimumab 
  • Pembrolizumab 
  • Nivolumab

Side Effects

Immunotherapy can sometimes cause your immune system to attack healthy cells in the body, resulting in side effects.

The most common side effects of immunotherapy include:

  • skin problems (redness, dry skin, rash, blistering)
  • flu-like symptoms (feeling tired, fever, weakness)
  • diarrhoea
  • cough
  • breathing difficulty
  • neurological problems (weakness/numbness).

Different types of immunotherapy cause different side effects. You should speak to your healthcare team about what to expect from your specific drug before commencing treatment.