Combination Therapy for Melanoma
Advanced melanoma often has gene mutations within the cancer cells, which cause the cancer to grow and spread. Targeted therapy and immunotherapy can effectively treat metastatic cancer, which has spread from its original location to other parts of the body.
Cancer experts have found that combining two drugs may treat advanced melanoma more effectively than either medication on its own, for certain patients.
Since 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several combinations of medications to treat advanced melanoma. Some combination therapies are composed of two targeted therapies, and some are composed of two immunotherapies.
Watch Dr. Evan J. Lipson of Johns Hopkins discuss more about combination therapy.
How Do Targeted Therapy Combinations Work?
Targeted therapy is medication that interferes with the function of certain molecules that regulate the growth of cancer tumor cells. These molecules can be activated (turned on) by certain genetic mutations or in other ways that send signal to the cancer cells to grow and spread.
The goal of targeted therapy is to slow the growth of melanoma cells by blocking the action of the mutated molecules and/or their signals—without harming healthy tissue.
The FDA-approved targeted therapy combinations use two different drugs that each focus on different molecular targets within melanoma cells. Because each drug works differently, using them in combination can fight melanoma more effectively than just one therapy alone.
Learn more about targeted therapy.
How Do Immunotherapy Combinations Work?
Cancer immunotherapy is treatment that helps boost the immune system's ability to detect and attack cancer cells. The immune system protects your body by attacking infections caused by viruses and bacteria. It also works to destroy abnormal cells in your body, such as cancer cells.
Your immune system has certain molecules on its own immune cells that act as checkpoints, which work like gates or stoplights, to prevent attacks on healthy cells. Melanoma cells can sometimes take advantage of checkpoint molecules to avoid being detected by the immune system.
The goal of immunotherapy drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors is to kill melanoma cells by stimulating the body's immune response to attack the cancer. These drugs target and block the checkpoints, leading to immune activation, essentially unleashing the immune cells to attack melanoma cells.
An FDA-approved immunotherapy combination uses two different drugs that work against a different type of immune checkpoint. This combination helps certain patients who can benefit from having both checkpoints blocked to produce a stronger immune response.
Read more about immunotherapy.
Latest Combination Therapies for Melanoma
Since 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved these combinations of drugs to treat advanced melanoma:
- Dabrafenib (Tafinlar) + Trametinib (Mekinist)
- Vemurafenib (Zelboraf) + Cobimetinib (Cotellic)
- Nivolumab (Opdivo) + Ipilimumab (Yervoy)
Since its founding in 2007, the Melanoma Research Alliance has awarded over $100 million to research aimed at better preventing, diagnosing and treating melanoma. Learn more about our funded research.
Last reviewed: May 2016
Reviewers: Paul Chapman, Louise Perkins