Eye Cancer (Melanoma and Lymphoma)

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Treating Eye Cancer TOPICS

Targeted drugs and immune therapy for eye cancer

Medicines for eye melanoma

Melanoma that has spread outside of the eye can be hard to treat, and unfortunately standard chemotherapy drugs are usually not very effective.

In recent years, researchers have developed newer types of drugs to treat advanced melanomas. Several of these drugs are now used to treat melanomas of the skin, but it is not yet clear if they will be as helpful in treating uveal (eye) melanomas. These newer drugs generally fall into 2 groups.

Immunotherapy drugs: These drugs work by helping the body’s own immune system recognize and attack cancer cells. Ipilimumab (Yervoy®) is a drug that has been shown to help some people with melanoma of the skin, and it is now being studied for use in eye melanomas. Several other immunotherapy drugs have also shown promise in early studies, but some of these might be available only through clinical trials.

Targeted drugs: Some newer drugs target parts of melanoma cells that make them different from normal cells. For example, about half of all skin melanomas have a change (mutation) in a gene called BRAF, and several drugs that target this gene change are now available to treat these cancers. Unfortunately, this mutation is much less common in uveal melanomas, but in people who have it, these drugs might be helpful. Drugs targeting other gene changes are now being studied as well.

For more information on some of these newer drugs, see “What’s new in eye cancer research and treatment?

Monoclonal antibodies for eye lymphoma

Antibodies are proteins normally made by the immune system to help fight infections. Man-made versions, called monoclonal antibodies, can be designed to attack a specific target, such as a substance on the surface of lymphocytes (the cells in which lymphomas start).

Several monoclonal antibodies are now being used to treat lymphoma. In some cases they may be used to help treat lymphoma of the eye.

Rituximab (Rituxan®) is an antibody that attaches to a substance called CD20 that is found on the surface of many lymphoma cells. This attachment seems to make the lymphoma cell die. Rituximab may be given by intravenous (IV) infusion or injected directly into the eye. The treatments can be given in the doctor’s office or clinic. Common side effects are usually mild but may include chills, fever, nausea, rashes, fatigue, and headaches. Even if these symptoms occur during the first rituximab infusion, it is very unusual for them to recur with later doses. Rituximab is often combined with chemotherapy.

Other monoclonal antibodies, such as ibritumomab tiuxetan (Zevalin®) and tositumomab (Bexxar®), are similar to rituximab but have radioactive molecules attached to them, which may help them work better. Because of the radiation, these drugs are somewhat harder for doctors to give than rituximab. Another limitation is that they cannot be used along with chemo because they also lower blood counts. At this time they are generally used if chemo and/or rituximab are no longer working.


Last Medical Review: 09/13/2013
Last Revised: 02/11/2014