Targeted therapies

What are targeted therapies?

A targeted therapy is a drug that blocks the growth of cancer by interfering with specific molecules involved in tumour growth. This is different to non-specific treatments like chemotherapy that simply aim to kill rapidly dividing cells. 

This new generation of drugs has resulted in a big improvement in melanoma treatment for patients with the spread of the disease to other organs.

Researchers have identified some of the key genetic mutations that drive the growth of melanoma in patients. These discoveries are opening new avenues for treatment options using drugs that selectively block activity of these driving mutations, known as ‘targeted therapy’.

The genetic mutations involved in melanoma development that have been discovered so far have interesting names. They include:

  • BRAF (“BEE-raff”)
  • NRAS (“EN-rass")
  • C-KIT (“SEE-kit”)

More mutations are continuing to be discovered.

How do they work?

Messages are sent inside the cell by a series of molecules that tell the cell how to grow and divide. This process is called a ‘signalling pathway.’

Mutations, or abnormalities, in these signalling pathways can cause cells to rapidly divide and replicate out of control, resulting in tumour formation. The mutated signalling pathways in melanoma cells are the targets for therapy.

Not all melanomas have the same driving mutations. By identifying which molecules are mutated in different forms of the disease patients can be categorised and treated based on their specific mutation. Identifying all of these molecular mutations is what molecular oncology researchers around the world are working on.

Who are they for?

Not every patient has mutations in their melanoma that are affected by the drugs that are currently available or in trial. Part of treatment at Melanoma Institute Australia includes being tested for these mutations and pairing you with the best option for your situation.

Some of the drugs are still under investigation in clinical trial testing. That means that even though you might have the mutation that correlates to a drug, the trial’s inclusion criteria could still prevent you from qualifying. Take a look at the Clinical Trials section of this site to learn more about how trials work.

Side effects

Common side effects of targeted therapies include:

  • Development of squamous cell carcinomas.
  • Appearance of minor skin disruptions similar to acne or warts.
  • Hair follicle changes e.g. hair loss, curly hair, grey hair etc.
  • Sensitivity to light.