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Immunotherapy & Biologic Targeted Therapies

For patients at an elevated risk for recurrence, the Melanoma and Skin Cancer Program has been a leader in the advancement of immunotherapies, having developed the first federal Food and Drug Administration-approved immunotherapy for prevention of melanoma relapse.

Immunotherapy, also commonly referred to as biotherapy, is the use of substances that boost or restore the body's immune system, so it can better recognize and control diseases such as melanoma.

This therapy can be used to treat inoperable melanoma but has shown its greatest effects when used as adjuvant therapy following surgery to remove primary melanomas. It has increased the cure of melanoma for one-third of patients at risk of relapse and death.

Types of Immunotherapy for Skin Cancer

  • Interferons – naturally produced proteins that help activate the immune system to fight disease.
  • Interleukins – naturally produced proteins that help the immune system produce more infection- and cancer-fighting cells.
  • Cancer vaccines – proteins that mark tumor cells so they are recognized by the immune system. These proteins and peptides may enlist other components of the immune system, including T cells and B cells, to directly attack tumor cells or stimulate other immune cell function against tumor cells.
  • Dendritic cell based vaccines – made of the patient's own cells to provoke an immune response to tumor antigens to prevent the spread of disease.
  • Angiogenesis inhibitors – prevent or alter the growth of new blood vessels that feed malignant tumors.
  • Immune checkpoint blockade inhibiting antibodies – antibodies that block regulators of the immune system that may improve the control of cancer but also may result in side effects from immune inflammation of skin, bowels, or glands.

Skin Cancer Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapies are drugs that block the development and growth of cancer through inhibiting the driver pathways of cancer development.

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center continuously offers an expanding array of new immunological, targeted, and biological therapies, as well as novel, individualized approaches to chemotherapy for melanoma patients

Melanoma Related to UV Exposure

Melanoma is caused, in large part, by ultraviolet (UV) radiation, a type of light emitted by the sun that damages skin cells. Exposure to UV rays raises a person's individual risk for developing melanoma.

Recreational indoor tanning, which uses the same UV waves that are emitted in sunlight but at a much higher concentration, have been linked to melanoma risk. Research into the processes that cause cells to mutate and become cancerous have suggested that two-thirds of melanomas are caused by intermittent UV irradiation from tanning or indoor tanning beds. A specific gene, known as BRAF, which is involved in cell growth, has been found to mutate, or become switched on, as an early event in melanoma development.

In melanoma, targeted therapies are used to destroy tumors and block the genetic damage that causes melanomas to form.

Genetically-linked Melanoma

Some types of melanoma are not related to UV exposure. These include melanomas forming on the soles of the feet and palms of the hand (called "acral melanoma") or the mucous membranes of the body. These types of melanomas are thought to have genetic links.

Genes, including one known as p16, have been found to be mutated in some patients with hereditary melanoma.

Recurrent Melanoma

One of the major risks in treating melanoma is the possibility of relapse, since the genes related to melanoma remain, even if the melanoma is successfully removed. Our specialists' knowledge about the biological causes of melanoma assists in handling all forms of melanoma, including these recurrent cases, with targeted therapies.


The Melanoma and Skin Cancer Program holds the highly competitive Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant for melanoma and skin cancer research from the National Cancer Institute. This grant was just renewed for five years through 2018 and will bring four new areas of research to the clinic.