Ipilimumab (Yervoy®)

Immunotherapy is cancer treatment that stimulates the body’s immune system to fight cancer, such as melanoma, anywhere in the body.

Immunotherapy is systemic, which means that the treatments reach all parts of your body through the bloodstream. Systemic cancer treatments fight cancers that have spread from their original location to other parts of the body.

Ipilimumab (Yervoy) shrinks tumors and helps patients with advanced melanoma live longer. It is also approved for adjuvant therapy. 

What Is Ipilimumab (Yervoy)?

Ipilimumab is an anti-CTLA-4 inhibitor, which is:

  • A type of immunotherapy known as a checkpoint inhibitor, which helps your own immune system attack cancer cells
  • An anti-CTLA-4 antibody that helps strengthen the immune system by promoting the function and growth of T cells (white blood cells that help your body fight disease)

How Does Ipilimumab (Yervoy) Work?

Ipilimumab blocks the activity of a molecule called CTLA-4, a protein that prevents T cells from attacking your normal body cells and cancer cells. The normal function of CTLA-4 is to act as a checkpoint on the immune system and prevent it from attacking the body in autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis (an inflammatory bowel disease).

By blocking CTLA-4, ipilimumab increases your immune system’s response to melanoma cells and tumors. The drug works to activate T cells so that they can multiply and attack melanoma cells anywhere in your body.

Which Patients May Benefit from Ipilimumab (Yervoy)?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved ipilimumab in 2011 to treat patients who have advanced stages of melanoma:

  • Stage III that is unresectable (unable to be completely removed by surgery)
  • Stage IV, also known as metastatic (melanoma cells that have spread to organs and other parts of the body)

Ipilimumab may not be right for certain patients, such as those who are receiving active immunosuppressive therapy for an active autoimmune condition such as: 

  • Crohn’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
  • Ulcerative colitis

Patients should discuss ipilimumab and other immunotherapy treatments with their physicians to understand the potential risks and benefits of a particular treatment.

Ipilimumab (Yervoy) for Advanced Melanoma

Ipilimumab works as a systemic treatment with the goals of:

  • Controlling melanoma
  • Treating symptoms of melanoma
  • Helping patients live longer

Ipilimumab works through your immune system, which has an immunological “memory.” That means that ipilimumab may help your immune system continue to attack melanoma cells even after treatment.

Results from studies and clinical trials found that ipilimumab prolongs overall survival compared to a vaccine, leading to approximately 20 percent of patients being alive years later.

Physicians now have extensive experience with ipilimumab outside clinical trials. Patients can experience complete or partial regression, or stabilization of tumor growth without shrinkage. These effects can persist for several years.

Melanoma treatments, like ipilimumab, have side effects, which can sometimes be serious. Patients should talk with their physician to learn more about the side effects of ipilimumab and other melanoma treatment options.

Ipilimumab (Yervoy) as Adjuvant Therapy for Melanoma

In 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved ipilimumab as an adjuvant therapy (after surgery) for patients with stage III melanoma. The goal of this new use of ipilimumab is to reduce the risk of melanoma recurrence.

Patients with stage III melanoma usually undergo surgery to remove the primary melanoma on the skin and the nearby lymph nodes. With ipilimumab as adjuvant treatment after surgery, patients can experience a longer relapse-free survival (RFS).

In a recent clinical trial, researchers studied the effectiveness of ipilimumab as adjuvant therapy in patients who had already had surgery to remove melanoma tumors. The results showed that ipilimumab extended the amount of time before cancer returned by an average of 9 months. The clinical trials are ongoing to assess the potential effect of ipilimumab on overall survival rates.

Melanoma treatments, like ipilimumab, have side effects, which can sometimes be serious. Patients should talk with their physician to learn more about the side effects of ipilimumab and other melanoma treatment options.

Learn more about adjuvant therapy for high-risk melanoma (stages IIB, IIC, III and IV).

How Is Ipilimumab (Yervoy) Given?

Patients receive ipilimumab intravenously (into a blood vein).

  • Each dose takes about 90 minutes to complete.
  • Patients receive ipilimumab on an outpatient basis without the need for a hospital stay.
  • For metastatic melanoma, patients receive ipilimumab in doses of 3 mg/kg every 3 weeks for up to 4 doses.

What Should I Ask My Doctor About Ipilimumab (Yervoy)?

It’s important to keep in mind that not all treatments work for all patients. If you are interested in learning more about ipilimumab, here are some questions you should ask your physicians:

  • Will my melanoma tumor be tested for BRAF genetic mutations?
  • Am I eligible for ipilimumab?
  • What is your experience with ipilimumab?
  • Is ipilimumab a good option for my melanoma treatment?
  • Is there an alternative to ipilimumab for me?
  • How successful has ipilimumab been for patients like me?
  • What are the side effects of ipilimumab?
  • Are there any clinical trials for ipilimumab that I should consider?
  • What other treatments are FDA-approved for treating advanced melanoma?
  • What are the risks and benefits of the available treatment options?
  • What are the goals for my treatment?

Latest Treatments for Advanced Melanoma

Learn more about the latest, most effective treatments for patients who have advanced melanoma:


Melanoma Research

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.

Updated: January 2018
Last reviewed: May 2016
Reviewers: John Kirkwood, Lynn Schuchter, Louise Perkins

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