Melanoma: Latest Research

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2014

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about the scientific research being done now to learn more about this type of cancer and how to treat it. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Doctors are working to learn more about melanoma, ways to prevent it, how to best treat it, and how to provide the best care to people diagnosed with this disease. The following areas of research may include new options for patients through clinical trials. This section is not meant to be a complete list of new trials as this field is changing rapidly. Always talk with your doctor about the diagnostic and treatment options best for you.

Enhanced prevention and early detection methods. There is ongoing research on better prevention and early detection strategies for melanoma. Both primary and secondary prevention are important. Primary prevention involves keeping melanoma from developing, while secondary prevention includes methods of early detection. One promising area is the screening of people with a high risk of developing melanoma.

Targeted therapy. As discussed in the Treatment Options section, targeted therapy is a treatment that targets specific genes or proteins. It is a major area of research for melanoma. Ongoing research has identified a number of molecular pathways and activated or mutated genes in melanoma. This includes the most commonly mutated gene BRAF as well as activation of the MAP kinase pathway. Ongoing laboratory and clinical research confirms the importance of these genes and pathways in melanoma.

Clinical trials are testing new drugs to inhibit the MAP kinase pathway and other pathways that melanoma might use to grow and spread. Strategies to prevent the melanoma from becoming resistant to treatment are also being tested such as using combinations of drugs or exploring novel drug administration schedules (see the Treatment Options section).

Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy, which boosts the immune system to fight cancer, is also a major focus in melanoma research. An active area of research is blocking PD1/PD-L1 interactions to allow the immune system to destroy melanoma. Several clinical trials have shown that anti-PD1 antibody treatments can cause significant shrinkage of melanoma in more than 30% of patients. Some of these responses have been complete, which means the melanoma is no longer detectable. Combinations of anti-PD1 antibody treatment and ipilimumab are also being tested. 

Another type of experimental immunotherapy involves altering a person’s white blood cells, known as lymphocytes, in a laboratory to increase their ability to fight the tumor. The changed cells are given back to the patient, often in combination with interleukin-2 or other immunotherapies. These types of treatments are known as adoptive cell transfer (ACT).

A variety of new agents are being developed to inject directly into melanoma tumors. Some of these are chemicals, others are viruses. Although the injected tumors often respond to treatment, other distant tumors that are not injected with the agent usually don’t.

Melanoma peptide vaccines are being evaluated in clinical trials for patients with both localized and advanced melanoma. Research has shown that vaccination can cause the immune system to fight melanoma, even in advanced disease, but these therapies are still considered experimental. The vaccines are made using certain proteins found only on a melanoma tumor and are given as an injection; the person’s immune system then recognizes the proteins and destroys melanoma cancer cells. Learn more about vaccines.

Supportive care. Clinical trials are underway to find better ways of reducing symptoms and side effects of current melanoma treatments in order to improve patients’ comfort and quality of life.

Looking for More About the Latest Research?

If you would like additional information about the latest areas of research regarding melanoma, explore these related items that take you outside of this guide:

  • To find clinical trials specific to your diagnosis, talk with your doctor or search online clinical trial databases now.
  • Review research announced at ASCO’s recent scientific meetings about advances in the treatment of melanoma, especially for metastatic disease, by reading these easy-to-understand summaries or by listening to a short podcast led by an ASCO expert in melanoma.
  • Visit ASCO’s CancerProgress.Net website to learn more about the historical pace of research for melanoma. Please note this link takes you to a separate ASCO website.

The next section addresses how to cope with the symptoms of the disease or the side effects of its treatment. Use the menu on the side of your screen to select Coping with Side Effects, or you can select another section, to continue reading this guide.