Targeted Drugs and Immunotherapy for Eye Cancer

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

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’s not yet clear if they will be as helpful in treating uveal (eye) melanomas. These newer drugs generally fall into 2 groups: immunotherapy and targeted therapy.

Immunotherapy drugs

These drugs work to stimulate the body’s own immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells more effectively. They are very helpful in treating skin melanoma and a few initial studies with the drugs pembrolizumab (Keytruda®) and ipilimumab (Yervoy®) have shown benefit in some people with uveal eye melanoma. (See Immunotherapy for Melanoma Skin Cancer.) These and some other immunotherapy drugs are being studied in people with eye melanomas.

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. (See Targeted Therapy for Melanoma Skin Cancer.) This mutation is very uncommon in uveal melanomas, but in people who have it, these drugs might be helpful. These drugs are also being tested in people with conjunctival melanoma. Drugs targeting other gene changes are also being studied.

For more information on some of these newer drugs, see What's New in Eye Cancer Research?

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Carvajal RD. Management of metastatic uveal melanoma.  UpToDate website. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/management-of-metastatic-uveal-melanoma. Updated March 19, 2018. Accessed August 27, 2018.

Finger PT. Chapter 116: Intraocular melanoma. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015.

Harbour JW, Shih HA. Initial management of uveal and conjunctival melanomas. UpToDate website. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/initial-management-of-uveal-and-conjunctival-melanomas. Updated Aug. 3, 2018. Accessed August 15, 2018.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Uveal Melanoma. V.1.2018. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/uveal.pdf on August 15, 2018.

Last Medical Review: November 30, 2018 Last Revised: November 30, 2018

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