The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has expanded approval of a new immunotherapy drug to include frontline treatment for patients with advanced melanoma.
Pembrolizumab (marketed under the brand name Keytruda by Merck) works by short circuiting the mechanism that slows down or stops the body’s immune system. In doing so, the drug allows T cells—the body’s natural defenders against disease—to recognize, attack, and kill cancer cells.
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer caused by damage to the DNA of melanocyte cells in the skin. Melanocytes produce melanin, a pigment in skin that is primarily responsible for skin color. When the cell’s DNA is damaged, it may cause it to mutate—leading to rapid, uncontrolled growth and the formation of malignant tumors.
While melanoma is curable when caught and treated in its earliest stages, prognosis is poor for melanomas that have metastasized and spread to other parts of the body. Now, thanks to new advances in immunotherapy drugs like pembrolizumab, patients with advanced melanoma have a new weapon and greater hope of successfully combating the disease.
In 2014, pembrolizumab initially received accelerated approval by the FDA for melanoma, but, until recently was only given to patients who were not responding to ipilimumab (marketed as Yervoy). Ipilimumab is another form of immunotherapy that works in a similar way as pembrolizumab, by cutting the brakes on the immune system.