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Medications for Melanoma

The primary treatment for melanoma is surgical removal of the tumor. For metastatic melanoma or in cases when surgery is not an option, immunotherapy or targeted therapy may be used.


Immunotherapy, or biological response modifier therapy, involves using medications to boost the effects of the body's immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells. These medications are given through an IV or injected under the skin.

Types of immunotherapy medications include:

  • Cytokines—Signals and boosts the body's natural immune response of white blood cells called lymphocytes. A different cytokine can inhibit cancer cells from dividing. This will help slow the growth of the tumor.
  • PD-1 inhibitors—PD-1 is a protein found on the surface of T-cells to keep them from attacking the body's own cells. Blocking the effects of PD-1 allows the T-cells to recognize and kill cancer cells.
  • CTLA-4 inhibitors—Like PD-1 inhibitors, CTLA-4 inhibitors block the effects of a protein found on the surface of the T-cells.
  • Oncolytic virus therapy—A virus is injected directly into a tumor or lymph node when surgery cannot be done. The virus kills the cancer cells and shrinks the tumor.
  • Bacille Callmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine—BCG is a form of the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. It is injected directly into a tumor where it stimulates an immune response.
  • Topical imiquimod—A cream is applied to the skin for stage 0—melanoma in situ or tumors in sensitive areas of the body. The cream stimulates an immune response. Because of potentially serious skin reactions, it may not be suitable for everyone.

Side effects include chills, fever, aches, depression, skin reactions, and fatigue.

Targeted Therapy

About half of melanomas have a gene mutation known as BRAF. This gene causes the body to make proteins that accelerate the growth of cancer cells. Targeted therapy uses medications to seek out the cells with the BRAF mutation and destroy them.

Targeted therapy medications include:

  • Vemurafenib
  • Dabrafenib
  • Trametinib
  • Cobimetinib

Although these medications do not offer a cure for advanced melanoma, they can prolong life. The most common side effects are joint pain, fatigue, hair loss, rash, itching, sensitivity to the sun, and nausea.

Revision Information

  • Bedikian AY, Johnson MM, Warneke CL, et al. Systemic therapy for unresectable metastatic melanoma: impact of biochemotherapy on long-term survival. J Immunotoxicol. 2008;5(2):201-207.

  • Eggermont AM, Robert C. New drugs in melanoma: It's a whole new world. Eur J Cancer. 2011;47(14):2150-2157.

  • Hancock BW, Wheatley K, Harris S, et al. Adjuvant interferon in high-risk melanoma: the AIM HIGH Study—United Kingdom Coordinating Committee on Cancer Research randomized study of adjuvant low-dose extended-duration interferon Alfa-2a in high-risk resected malignant melanoma. J Clin Oncol. 2004;22(1):53-61.

  • Lens M. The role of vaccine therapy in the treatment of melanoma. Expert Opin Biol Ther. 2008;8(3):315-323.

  • Lipson EJ, Drake CG. Ipilimumab: an anti-CTLA-4 antibody for metastatic melanoma. Clin Cancer Res. 2011;17(22):6958-6962.

  • Melanoma. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated August 26, 2016. Accessed October 20, 2016.

  • Melanoma. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: Updated July 2015. Accessed October 20, 2016.

  • Melanoma skin cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed October 20, 2016.

  • Stein JA, Brownell I. Treatment approaches for advanced cutaneous melanoma. J Drugs Dermatol. 2008;7(2):175-179.

  • Treatment option overview. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Updated July 22, 2016. Accessed October 20, 2016.

  • Treatment options by stage. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Updated July 22, 2016. Accessed October 20, 2016.