What’s new in melanoma skin cancer research?
Research into the causes, prevention, and treatment of melanoma is being done in many medical centers around the world.
Causes, prevention, and finding melanoma early
Sunlight and UV rays
Recent studies suggest there could be 2 ways that UV rays causes melanoma.
The first way is linked to a lot of sun exposure and sunburns as a child or teen. This early sun exposure may cause changes in the DNA of skin cells that starts them on a path to becoming melanoma cells many years later. Some doctors think this is why melanomas often start on the legs and trunk, places that aren’t often exposed to the sun in adulthood.
The second way is linked to melanomas that start on the arms, neck, and face. These areas are often exposed to sun, particularly in men.
Tanning booths may also help either kind of melanoma start.
Researchers are looking to see if melanomas that start as a result of these types of UV exposure have different gene changes that would mean they should be treated differently.
It is also important to find melanoma early, when it is most likely to be cured. Check your skin every month and be aware of the warning signs of melanoma.
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) sponsors free skin cancer screenings around the country every year. Many local American Cancer Society offices work with the AAD to help with these screenings. The phone number and web address for the AAD are listed in the “How can I learn more?” section.
Along with recommending staying in the shade, the American Cancer Society uses the slogan, “Slip! Slop! Slap! ® ... and Wrap.” It is a catchy way to remind yourself to slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat, and wrap on sunglasses when you are going to be outdoors.
Lab tests to help determine prognosis
Most melanomas found at an early stage can be cured with surgery. But a small portion of these cancers eventually spread to other parts of the body, where they can be hard to treat.
A new lab test based on the gene patterns in melanoma cells, known as DecisionDx-Melanoma, can help show if early-stage melanomas are likely to spread. This test might help tell if someone with early-stage melanoma should get additional treatment or if they need to be watched more closely after treatment to look for signs of recurrence.
Early-stage melanomas can often be cured with surgery, but more advanced melanomas are often much harder to treat. Newer types of treatment are now being tested for more advanced melanomas.
Vaccines are being developed to try to make the body’s immune system kill the cancer cells. But making a vaccine against a tumor like melanoma is harder than making a vaccine to prevent a disease such as polio. Clinical trials are testing the value of treating people who have advanced melanoma with vaccines, sometimes combined with other treatments. The results of these studies have been mixed so far, but newer vaccines may hold more promise.
Other forms of immunotherapy are also being studied. Some early studies have shown that treating patients with high doses of chemotherapy and radiation therapy and then giving them immune system cells found in tumors can shrink melanoma tumors and perhaps prolong life as well.
Another possible approach to treatment is to combine different types of immunotherapy, which may be more effective than any single treatment for advanced melanoma.
New drugs that attack gene changes in melanoma cells are being studied.
A gene called BRAF is changed in the cells of about half of all melanomas. Drugs that target cells with this gene change, such as vemurafenib (Zelboraf), dabrafenib (Tafinlar), and trametinib (Mekinist), are now used to treat some advanced melanomas.
Certain types of melanomas sometimes have changes in a gene called C-KIT. Some targeted drugs are already used to treat other cancers with changes in C-KIT. Clinical trials are now looking to see if these drugs might help people with these types of melanoma.
Several other drugs that target other abnormal genes or proteins, such as sorafenib (Nexavar), bevacizumab (Avastin), pazopanib (Votrient), and everolimus (Afinitor), are now being studied in clinical trials as well. Researchers are also looking at combining some of these targeted drugs with other types of treatments, such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy.
Last Medical Review: 05/01/2015
Last Revised: 02/01/2016