There has been welcome excitement in the cancer field lately about immune-based treatments, which co-opt the body’s own immune system to fight tumors. The so-called immunotherapies have transformed everything from solid cancers like melanoma and lung, to blood cancers like lymphoma and leukemia.
In the latest study involving one of the first immunotherapies approved by the Food and Drug Administration, researchers report that an immune-based approach can even help people with advanced melanoma, which has spread to the brain, to live longer.
The study, published in Cancer Immunology Research, included more than 2,700 cases of stage 4 melanoma that were recorded in the National Cancer Database, a national repository of newly diagnosed cancer cases in the U.S. Of these, about 40% involved metastasis of the melanoma to the brain (the remainder had metastases to the brain as well as other parts of the body). Immunotherapies have been approved since 2011 to treat advanced melanoma and have dramatically improved overall survival; the immune-based treatment is so effective that chemotherapy is no longer used as first-line treatments for these patients. Still, few studies have looked specifically at the role these anti-cancer medications might have in people with disease that has spread to the brain. Many metastatic cancers are treated with steroids, which doctors thought would interfere with the effectiveness of the immune therapies.