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Melanoma Treatment (PDQ®)

Treatment Option Overview for Melanoma

Table 8. Standard Treatment Options for Melanoma
Stage (TNM Staging Criteria) Standard Treatment Optionsa
aClinical trials are an important option for patients with all stages of melanoma because advances in understanding the aberrant molecular and biologic pathways have led to rapid drug development. Standard treatment options are available in many clinical trials. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Stage 0 melanoma Excision
Stage I melanoma Excision +/− lymph node management
Stage II melanoma Excision +/− lymph node management
Resectable Stage III melanoma Excision +/− lymph node management
Unresectable Stage III, Stage IV, and Recurrent melanoma Immunotherapy
  Signal transduction inhibitors
  Palliative local therapy


Surgical excision remains the primary modality for treating melanoma. Cutaneous melanomas that have not spread beyond the site at which they developed are highly curable. The treatment for localized melanoma is surgical excision with margins proportional to the microstage of the primary lesion.

Lymph node management

Sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB)

Lymphatic mapping and SLNB can be considered to assess the presence of occult metastasis in the regional lymph nodes of patients with primary tumors larger than 1 to 4 mm, potentially identifying individuals who may be spared the morbidity of regional lymph node dissections (LNDs) and individuals who may benefit from adjuvant therapy.[1-6]

To ensure accurate identification of the sentinel lymph node (SLN), lymphatic mapping and removal of the SLN should precede wide excision of the primary melanoma.

Multiple studies have demonstrated the diagnostic accuracy of SLNB, with false-negative rates of 0% to 2%.[1,6-11] If metastatic melanoma is detected, a complete regional lymphadenectomy can be performed in a second procedure.

Complete lymph node dissection (CLND)

Patients can be considered for CLND if the sentinel node(s) is microscopically or macroscopically positive for regional control or considered for entry into the Multicenter Selective Lymphadenectomy Trial II (NCT00297895) to determine whether CLND affects survival. SLNB should be performed prior to wide excision of the primary melanoma to ensure accurate lymphatic mapping.

Adjuvant Therapy

High-dose interferon alpha-2b was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1995 for the adjuvant treatment of patients with melanoma who have undergone a complete surgical resection but who are considered to be at a high risk of relapse (stages IIB, IIC, and III). However, prospective, randomized, multicenter treatment trials have demonstrated that high-dose interferon alpha-2b and pegylated interferon improve relapse-free survival but do not improve overall survival (OS).

Therapies that have improved OS in patients with recurrent or metastatic disease are now being tested as adjuvant therapy in clinical trials, including NCT01274338, NCT01667419, and NCT01682083.

Limb Perfusion

A completed, multicenter, phase III randomized trial (SWOG-8593) of patients with high-risk primary stage I limb melanoma did not show a disease-free survival or OS benefit from isolated limb perfusion with melphalan, when compared with surgery alone.[5]

Systematic Treatment for Unresectable Stage III, Stage IV, and Recurrent disease

Although melanoma that has spread to distant sites is rarely curable, treatment options are rapidly expanding. Two approaches—checkpoint inhibition and targeting the mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway—have demonstrated improvement in OS in randomized trials in comparison to dacarbazine (DTIC). Although none appear to be curative when used as single agents, early data of combinations are promising. Given the rapid development of new agents and combinations, patients and their physicians are encouraged to consider treatment in a clinical trial for initial treatment and at the time of progression.


Checkpoint inhibitors: Ipilimumab has demonstrated an improvement in progression-free survival (PFS) and OS in international, multicenter, randomized trials in patients with unresectable or advanced disease, resulting in FDA approval in 2011. In an international, multicenter, randomized trial, pembrolizumab received accelerated approval in 2014 for demonstrating durable responses in patients whose disease had progressed after they received ipilimumab and, if BRAF V600 mutation positive, a BRAF inhibitor. Multiple phase III trials of PD-1 (programmed cell death-1) and PD-L1 (programmed death-ligand 1) checkpoint inhibitors alone and in combination (e.g., with ipilimumab) are in progress to assess their ability to improve PFS and OS.

Interleukin-2 (IL-2): IL-2 was approved by the FDA in 1998 on the basis of durable complete response (CR) rates in a minority of patients (6%–7%) with previously treated metastatic melanoma in eight phase I and II studies. Phase III trials comparing high-dose IL-2 with other treatments and providing an assessment of relative impact on OS have not been conducted.

Signal transduction inhibitors

Studies to date indicate that both BRAF and MEK inhibitors can significantly impact the natural history of melanoma, although they do not appear to be curative as single agents.

BRAF inhibitors

Vemurafenib, approved by the FDA in 2011, has demonstrated an improvement in PFS and OS in patients with unresectable or advanced disease. Vemurafenib is an orally available, small-molecule, selective BRAF V600E kinase inhibitor, and its indication is limited to patients with a demonstrated BRAF V600E mutation by an FDA-approved test.[11]


Dabrafenib, an orally available, small-molecule, selective BRAF inhibitor that was approved by the FDA in 2013, showed improvement in PFS when compared with DTIC in an international, multicenter trial (BREAK-3 [NCT01227889]).

MEK inhibitors

Trametinib is an orally available, small-molecule, selective inhibitor of MEK1 and MEK2 that was approved by the FDA in 2013 for patients with unresectable or metastatic melanoma with BRAF V600E or K mutations. Trametinib demonstrated improved PFS over DTIC.

Combination signal transduction therapy

In 2014, the combination of dabrafenib and trametinib received accelerated approval from the FDA for patients with unresectable or metastatic melanomas that carry the BRAF V600E or V600 K mutation. The combination demonstrated improved durable response rates over single-agent dabrafenib. Full approval is pending completion of ongoing clinical trials and demonstration of clinical benefit on OS.

c-KIT inhibitors

Early data suggest that mucosal or acral melanomas with activating mutations or amplifications in c-KIT may be sensitive to a variety of c-KIT inhibitors.[12-14] Phase II and phase III trials are available for patients with unresectable stage III or stage IV melanoma harboring the c-KIT mutation.


DTIC: DTIC was approved in 1970 on the basis of overall response rates. Phase III trials indicate an overall response rate of 10% to 20%, with rare CRs observed. An impact on OS has not been demonstrated in randomized trials.[15-18] When used as a control arm for recent registration trials of ipilimumab and vemurafenib in previously untreated patients with metastatic melanoma, DTIC was shown to be inferior for OS.

Temozolomide: Temozolomide, an oral alkylating agent, appeared to be similar to intravenous DTIC in a randomized phase III trial with a primary endpoint of OS; however, because the trial was designed to demonstrate the superiority of temozolomide, which was not achieved, the trial was left with a sample size that was inadequate to provide statistical proof of noninferiority.[16]

Palliative local therapy

Melanoma metastatic to distant, lymph node–bearing areas may be palliated by regional lymphadenectomy. Isolated metastases to the lung, gastrointestinal tract, bone, or sometimes the brain may be palliated by resection, with occasional long-term survival.[19-21]


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  • Updated: November 7, 2014