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Treatment of Melanoma

Treatment of melanoma is determined by the stage. For advanced (metastatic) melanoma treatment is not “one size fits all” but rather will be personalised with the guidance of your treating clinician.

Treatment Options – Early Stage Melanoma

Surgery for a primary melanoma –Stages 0-I-II

For patients in stage 0, I or II, wide local excision surgery is the main treatment. This includes the removal of the primary melanoma with adequate excision margins to ensure that all the high-risk cells surrounding the melanoma are removed. After the surgery, a pathologist determines whether margins are clear by examining the excised tumour edges.

If the wound is small it can usually be closed with stitches or staples. A skin graft may be required for a larger wound.

Treatment Options – Advanced Melanoma

Surgery to remove lymph nodes

If lymph nodes are positive for melanoma then surgery is generally undertaken. The most common site for the lymph nodes to be removed is from the neck, armpit (axilla) or groin regions. A removal or block dissection of lymph nodes in the region surrounding the positive lymph node/s is undertaken. A pathologist determines whether the surgical margins are clear of the disease and the number of lymph nodes involved.


Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy treatments work by stimulating a patient’s own immune system so that it can recognise and destroy cancer cells more effectively. These therapies modulate various components of the immune system.

Keytruda (pembrolizumab)

Keytruda is an immunotherapy which works with the body’s immune system to treat cancer.  Keytruda works by blocking a pathway that allows tumours to remain hidden from the immune system This helps to increase the ability of the body’s immune system to detect and fight tumor cells. Keytruda is also known as a checkpoint inhibitor.

Checkpoint inhibitors like Keytruda work by blocking the interaction between PD-L1 (a protein found on the surface of tumor cells) with PD-1 ( a receptor found on immune cells). Blocking the PD-1/PD-L1 connection allows a patient’s immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells.

Keytruda targets PD-1 and it works by “disarming” the tumour’s defences that block the the ability of T cells (white blood cells critical for the body’s immune responses) to attack the tumour.

Keytruda is administered intravenously every 3 weeks.

Keytruda is generally well tolerated but common side effects include fatigue and joint pain. Inflammation of major organs including intestines, lungs and liver can also occur.  It is important that patients tell their healthcare professionals about any side effects, even if they seem minor as inflammation may cause serious damage to your body and some inflammatory conditions may be life-threatening.

Keytruda is listed on the  Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) for first line treatment of BRAF wild-type advanced melanoma and as a 2nd line treatment of BRAF mutation positive advanced melanoma.

Opdivo® (nivolumab or “nivo”)

Opdivo is an immunotherapy which works with the body’s immune system to treat cancer.  Opdivo works by blocking a pathway that allows tumours to remain hidden from the immune system This helps to increase the ability of the body’s immune system to detect and fight tumor cells. Opdivo is also known as a checkpoint inhibitor.

Checkpoint inhibitors like Opdivo work by blocking the interaction between PD-L1 (a protein found on the surface of tumor cells) with PD-1 ( a receptor found on immune cells). Blocking the PD-1/PD-L1 connection allows a patient’s immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells.

Opdivo targets PD-1 and it works by “disarming” the tumour’s defences that block the the ability of T cells (white blood cells critical for the body’s immune responses) to attack the tumour.

Opdivo is administered intravenously every 2 weeks.

Opdivo is generally well tolerated but common side effects include fatigue and joint pain. Inflammation of major organs including intestines, lungs and liver can also occur.  It is important that patients tell their healthcare professionals about any side effects, even if they seem minor as inflammation may cause serious damage to your body and some inflammatory conditions may be life-threatening.

Opdivo is listed on the  Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) for first line treatment of BRAF wild-type advanced melanoma and as a 2nd line treatment of BRAF mutation positive advanced melanoma.

Yervoy® (ipilimumab or “ipi”)

Yervoy is an immunotherapy which works with the body’s immune system to treat cancer.  It is also known as a checkpoint inhibitor.

Yervoy is an antibody that targets CTLA-4 expressed on T-cells. CTLA-4 acts like a “brake” on the immune system.  By binding to CTLA-4, Yervoy releases the brake which allows the immune system to build its T-cell army to respond to cancer. T cells are white blood cells critical for the body’s immune responses.

Sometimes, in this process, the T-cells may cause inflammation of healthy cells and may result in serious side effects.  Side effects are generally manageable, if appropriately identified and treated.

Healthcare professionals use established guidelines to treat these side effects and the earlier the side effect is identified and treated, the better.  It is important that patients tell their healthcare professionals about any side effects, even if they seem minor, as inflammation may cause serious damage to your body and some inflammatory conditions may be life-threatening.

Common sites of inflammation include the skin (itchiness and rashes), the liver (causing liver enzymes to increase) and the bowel and stomach (causing diarrhoea).

Yervoy treatment consists of four infusions administered every 3 weeks (ie over 10 weeks) through an intravenous infusion (ie a drip).
Yervoy is listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) for advanced melanoma.

Combination Treatment – Yervoy (ipilumimab) and Opdivo (nivolumab)

Opdivo and Yervoy target different checkpoint pathways (PD-1 and CTLA-4) to boost the immune system’s response to cancer.

When used together, they have a complementary effect.  In summary, Yervoy builds the T-cell army and Opdivo unleashes the T-cell army against the tumour.

Sometimes, in this process, the T-cells may cause inflammation of healthy cells and may result in serious side effects.  (See Yervoy and Opdivo side effects.)  More people experience serious side effects when treated with the combination of Opdivo and Yervoy than single agent treatment.   Side effects are generally manageable, if appropriately identified and treated. Healthcare professionals use established guidelines to treat these side effects and the earlier the side effect is identified and treated, the better.  It is important that patients tell their healthcare professionals about any side effects, even if they seem minor, as inflammation may cause serious damage to your body and some inflammatory conditions may be life-threatening.

The combination is Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approved only for patients with Stage IV (metastatic) melanoma defined as Stage M1C or elevated LDH:

  • Stage M1c describes the situation where a patient’s melanoma has spread beyond the lungs to other organs or sites around the body
  • elevated LDH (lactic dehydrogenase) is an enzyme found in blood at increased levels when healthy tissue is damaged. LDH levels are considered when staging advanced melanoma.

When used in combination:

  • Opdivo and Yervoy are administered together for the first four treatments, every 3 weeks (ie four treatments over 10 weeks)
  • Opdivo is then administered on its own every 2 weeks
  • Treatment is stopped if the cancer progresses or there are unacceptable side effects.

The combination of OPDIVO and YERVOY is approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia but not reimbursed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).

Talimogene Laherparepvec (Imlygic or Tvec)

Imlygic is a genetically modified live oncolytic herpes virus designed to replicate within cancer cells and produce an immunostimulatory protein called GM-CSF (granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor).

Imlygic is injected directly into the melanoma tumour, causing cell lysis, or death, which ruptures the tumors, and releases tumor-derived antigens, which along with GM-CSF, may promote an anti-tumor immune response. However, the exact mechanism of action is unknown.
Imlygic is injected every 2 weeks for a period of 6 months at which point treatment ceases if there has been no response. Alternatively treatment continues until the tumours are no longer present.

Imlygic is a live virus and therefore proper handling and wound dressing is important. It presents a treatment option for a subset of patients that have comorbidities, are elderly and/or frail or that have a poor IV profile as it is well tolerated with few side effects.

This treatment is not available on the PBS at this time.

Interferon-alfa2b (interferon, IFN, Intron A)

Interferon is a naturally occurring protein that is part of the body’s immune system. Interferon used to treat melanoma is produced in a laboratory using genetic engineering.

Interferons are cytokines, which are chemicals produced by white blood cells in response to a virus, bacteria, or other foreign bodies. They attach to foreign cells and cause changes including slowing down the rate of cell division and reducing the ability of a tumour cell to protect itself from the immune system.

Interferon is usually given intravenously over one month and then subcutaneously to complete a 1-year period and is sometimes considered for Stage III melanoma (after surgery and free of disease) to reduce the likelihood of melanoma returning.

Side effects include severe flu like symptoms and fatigue.

The treatment is rarely used in Australia.


Targeted Therapies

Some patients have a mutation in the protein called BRAFV600 which can cause the cell to grow in an uncontrolled manner, resulting in the formation of a tumour. Targeted therapies can be used to block uncontrolled signals and slow down the rate of tumour growth.

Tafinlar (dabrafenib) and Mekinist (trametinib)

Tafinlar and Mekinist are treatments used in combination for those with the BRAFV600 mutation.
They are both protein inhibitors and target the pathways that allow tumour growth, slowing down cell growth and division.

Tafinlar and Mekinist used in combination form a double blockade and the combination of the two inhibitors (BRAF inhibitor and MEK inhibitor) has shown significantly improved survival and delayed drug resistance over the use of a single agent.

This treatment combination is taken orally (in pill form) each day.

Tafinlar and Mekinist can cause side effects. The most common side effects include fever,diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, skin rash, swelling of ankles or feet and eye problems.

The combination of Tafinlar and Mekinist is listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) for the treatment of BRAFV600 mutation-positive unresectable metastatic melanoma.

Zelboraf (vemurafenib) and Cotellic (cobimetinib)

Zelboraf and Cotellic are treatments used in combination for those with the BRAFV600 mutation.
They are both protein inhibitors and target the pathways that allow tumour growth, slowing down cell growth and division.

Zelboraf and Cotellic used in combination form a double blockade and the combination of the two inhibitors (BRAF inhibitor and MEK inhibitor) has shown significantly improved survival and delayed drug resistance over the use of a single agent.

This treatment combination is taken orally (in pill form) each day.

Zelboraf and Cotellic can cause side effects. The most common side effects include sunburn or sun sensitivity, Cutaneous Squamous Cell Carcinoma (lesions) skin rash, blistering, swelling of the face, hands, or soles of the feet, joint discomfort and eye problems.

The combination of Zelboraf and Cotellic is listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) for the treatment of BRAFV600 mutation-positive unresectable metastatic melanoma.


Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is a localised treatment that uses high energy radiation to remove cancer cells. It does this by damaging the DNA of cells that are dividing. Radiotherapy may be used as an alternative to surgery in patients who are medically unfit for surgery or who can not have the melanoma removed surgically because it is too extensive or inaccessible. It is also used to relieve symptoms, with the purpose of making people feel more comfortable. For stage III melanoma, postoperative radiotherapy (external beam radiation) around the lymph area is sometimes considered for those who are considered as high risk for recurrence.

For those with brain metastases whole brain radiation or Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) may be used. SRS involves several powerful beams of radiation located at different angles around the head come together to focus precisely on the tumor. Gamma Knife is one of the most advanced forms of SRS.


Chemotherapy

Decarbazine (DTIC)

Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment (involving the whole body) which focuses on removing cancer cells by targeting rapidly dividing cells. Cancer cells as well as the cells of the digestive system, hair cells and other healthy cells are all rapidly dividing cells. Damage to healthy cells cause side effects including hair loss, nausea and fatigue.

DTIC is given to shrink or slow the growth of melanoma tumors that have spread throughout the body.
It is a chemotherapy drug, specifically an alkylating agent, that interferes with the growth of cancer cells.

Decarbazine is rarely used due to its poor response rates and significant side effects.

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