Pembrolizumab (Keytruda®) Offers New Hope for Patients with Metastatic Melanoma
In the summer of 2015, a brand-new cancer therapy known as “Jimmy Carter’s cancer drug” shot to fame. Called pembrolizumab, it was instrumental in former President Jimmy Carter’s successful treatment for metastatic melanoma.
Previously, patients with metastatic melanoma (skin cancer that has spread to other areas of the body) could undergo a combination of treatment methods, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. In 2015, pembrolizumab received FDA approval to be used as a first-line treatment for melanoma that has metastasized or cannot be surgically removed.
Here are four things you need to know about pembrolizumab:
It’s a type of immunotherapy. Pembrolizumab works by activating the body’s immune system to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors.
Release the T cells! T cells play an important role in your body’s immunity as they work to detect and fight off cancer cells. Cancer cells, however, have been found to use certain immune signaling pathways (PD-1 pathways) to hide from T cells, allowing the cancer cells to grow and spread. Pembrolizumab works to block a cancer cell’s ability to hide in the PD-1 pathway, thereby allowing T cells to get back to doing their job: identifying and destroying cancer cells. Pembrolizumab is the first anti-PD-1 therapy to be approved by the EPA.
It’s a full-body medication. Pembrolizumab is a systemic therapy, like chemotherapy, which means it affects the entire body. While this makes it effective in destroying cancer cells that have metastasized, it also means it is often accompanied by side effects. Pembrolizumab may cause your body’s T cells to attack normal tissues and organs in addition to the cancer cells, leading to symptoms such as fatigue, cough, nausea, rash, decreased appetite, constipation, joint pain and diarrhea.
There have been promising results. So far, results for the drug are promising. Studies showed that after six months, 45 percent of patients responded to therapy, compared to 26 percent of patients receiving ipilimumab, the traditional first-line treatment.
For patients with metastatic melanoma, pembrolizumab offers hope for a cancer-free future. Learn more about our comprehensive care for skin cancer and other skin diseases at UCLA Dermatology.