Immunotherapy for melanoma

From Cancer Guidelines Wiki

Systematic review evidence

Immunotherapy is now standard treatment for most patients with unresectable stage III and stage IV melanoma. Antibodies targeting the CTLA-4 and PD-1 checkpoints on activated T-cells have significant activity to shrink melanoma, and induce and durable responses and prolong survival. Immunotherapy is now considered first-line for most patients with unresectable stage III and stage IV melanoma.

Evidence included from outside the systematic review is identified with an asterisk (*) following the reference.


Three randomised controlled studies have been conducted with the anti-CTLA4 antibody ipilimumab. The first two showed a survival benefit for either ipilimumab monotherapy (3mg/kg) (HR 0.66 vs gp100 vaccine, median overall survival [OS] 10.1 months) or ipilimumab combined with DTIC (3mg/kg) (HR 0.72 vs DTIC, median OS 11.2 months). A third trial of ipilimumab at two doses (10mg/kg vs 3mg/kg) showed benefit with the higher dose (HR 0.84, median OS 15.7 months).

Toxicity is frequent with ipilimumab, but manageable, largely reversible and rarely fatal. Immune-related adverse events (irAE) occurred in 60% of patients on ipilimumab at 3mg/kg, and 15–20% had grade 3–4 toxicity.[1][2] Higher dosing of ipilimumab (10mg/kg) or in combination with chemotherapy (DTIC) resulted in greater toxicity (grade 3 in 34% and 42%, respectively) with no increase longer-term efficacy in the case of the DTIC combination, and insufficient increase in longer-term efficacy when balanced against toxicity for the 10mg/kg dose. As such these are not approved and should not be used in the clinic.[3][2]

A pooled analysis of approximately 1800 patients on ipilimumab trials demonstrated an OS plateau at approximately 20% at 3 years that persisted to 10 years.[4]*

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Anti-PD-1 antibodies, alone and in combination with ipilimumab

There have been three randomised phase III trials of the anti-PD-1 antibodies pembrolizumab and nivolumab in patients with advanced melanoma, demonstrating superiority over chemotherapy and ipilimumab monotherapy. Combination ipilimumab and nivolumab therapy appears more effective but more toxic than anti-PD1 monotherapy.

Nivolumab has been shown to be superior to chemotherapy (DTIC) in BRAF wild-type patients, with a higher response rate (40% vs 14%), and superior OS (HR 0.43, 1-year 73%, 2-year 58%).[5]* Nivolumab and pembrolizumab have each been proven to be superior to ipilimumab, with higher response rates, superior OS (HR 0.69 pembro vs ipi, HR 0.57 nivo vs ipi) and less toxicity (see below). In the pembrolizumab trial, treatment duration was two years and 91% of patients remain in disease control after a median of nine months follow-up time from cessation.[6]*

Combination ipilimumab (3mg/kg) and nivolumab (1mg/kg) has been studied in a single phase III trial of the combination versus nivolumab versus ipilimumab (CheckMate 067). While the trial was only powered to compare the nivolumab containing arms to ipilimumab, combination therapy had a numerically higher response rate (58% vs 44%) and numerically superior OS (HR 0.85, 3-year OS 58% vs 52%) than nivolumab. The greatest benefit of combination was seen in the PD-L1 negative, BRAF mutant melanoma and elevated LDH subgroups.

PD-1 antibodies as monotherapy were well tolerated, with grade 3+ irAEs occurring in approximately 15%, and only 4–8% of patients discontinued treatment for toxicity. In contrast, 55% had grade 3+ irAEs with combination therapy, and 36% discontinued due to toxicity. While there have been no trials comparing nivolumab and pembrolizumab, cross-trial comparisons suggest similar efficacy and toxicity. Studies exploring PD-1 antibodies in combination with lower doses of ipilimumab are underway in the hope that efficacy may be maintained with lower toxicity.

Trials using various cutoffs and scoring techniques demonstrate that PD-L1 expression does influence the response rate and PFS with PD-1 monotherapy, with higher expression correlating with higher efficacy.[7][8]* Negative staining does not preclude benefit and should not exclude patients from receiving PD-1 monotherapy. Early phase trials have demonstrated higher response rates and superior PFS when immunotherapy is used first-line compared to later lines,[9]* including in BRAF mutant patients. In contrast, BRAF inhibitors have been shown to have consistent response rates and PFS when used any line.[10][11]*

In patients who progress on PD-1 antibodies, ipilimumab and combination ipilimumab and nivolumab has been shown to have efficacy in retrospective series.[12][13]* Similarly, toxicity with one class of inhibitor does not preclude use of another, and selected patients with autoimmune disease have been shown to be safely treated with both ipilimumab or PD-1 antibodies as monotherapy.[14][15][16]*

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Evidence summary table

Evidence summary Level References
First-line/upfront anti-PD1 immunotherapy with nivolumab or pembrolizumab improves the progression-free survival (PFS) and overall survival (OS) compared with ipilimumab monotherapy, regardless of BRAF mutation status. First-line nivolumab improves the PFS and OS compared with dacarbazine chemotherapy (3-year landmark OS nivo vs chemo 56% vs 68%, HR 0.69 [95% CI 0.44–1.07]) in patients whose melanoma is BRAF wild-type. II [17], [18], [19]
First-line/upfront combined therapy with nivolumab and ipilimumab improves the response rate, PFS (3-year landmark PFS combi vs ipi 39% vs 10%, HR 0.43, p<0.001) and OS (3-year landmark OS combi vs ipi 58% vs 34%, HR 0.55, p<0.001) compared with ipilimumab monotherapy, regardless of BRAF mutation status. II [17], [8]
First-line/upfront combined therapy with nivolumab and ipilimumab improves the response rate and PFS compared with nivolumab monotherapy 3-year landmark PFS combi vs nivo 39% vs 32%, HR 0.78 [95% CI 0.64–0.96]), regardless of BRAF mutation status of melanoma. II [17], [8]
Ipilimumab monotherapy or in combination with chemotherapy (dacarbazine) improves the PFS and OS compared with gp100 or dacarbazine, respectively. Ipilimumab at a dose of 10mg/kg improves the OS compared with ipilimumab at a dose of 3mg/kg. II [1], [3], [2]

Next section: Targeted therapies (MEK and BRAF inhibitors)

See the Summary of all recommendations section for all recommendations and practice points.

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  1. 1.0 1.1 Hodi FS, O'Day SJ, McDermott DF, Weber RW, Sosman JA, Haanen JB, et al. Improved survival with ipilimumab in patients with metastatic melanoma. N Engl J Med 2010 Aug 19;363(8):711-23 Available from:
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Ascierto PA, Del Vecchio M, Robert C, Mackiewicz A, Chiarion-Sileni V, Arance A, et al. Ipilimumab 10 mg/kg versus ipilimumab 3 mg/kg in patients with unresectable or metastatic melanoma: a randomised, double-blind, multicentre, phase 3 trial. Lancet Oncol 2017 Mar 27 Available from:
  3. 3.0 3.1 Robert C, Thomas L, Bondarenko I, O'Day S, Weber J, Garbe C, et al. Ipilimumab plus dacarbazine for previously untreated metastatic melanoma. N Engl J Med 2011 Jun 30;364(26):2517-26 Available from:
  4. Schadendorf D, Hodi FS, Robert C, Weber JS, Margolin K, Hamid O, et al. Pooled Analysis of Long-Term Survival Data From Phase II and Phase III Trials of Ipilimumab in Unresectable or Metastatic Melanoma. J Clin Oncol 2015 Jun 10;33(17):1889-94 Available from:
  5. Atkinson V. Two-Year Survival and Safety Update in Patients (pts) with Treatment-Naïve Advanced Melanoma (MEL) Receiving Nivolumab (NIVO) or Dacarbazine (DTIC) in CheckMate-066. Pigment Cell & Melanoma 2015;28(6).
  6. Robert C, Long GV, Schachter J, Arance A, Grob JJ, Mortier L. Long-term outcomes in patients (pts) with ipilimumab (ipi)-naive advanced melanoma in the phase 3 KEYNOTE-006 study who completed pembrolizumab (pembro) treatment. Journal of Clinical Oncology 2017;35 Available from:
  7. Carlino M, Ribas A, Gonzalez R, Hoeller C, Bar-Sela G, Barrow C, Chao D, Wolter P, Berking C, Straume O, Berrocal A, Holgado E, Gangadhar TC, Weiss G, Zhou HH, Emancipator K, Ibrahim N, Schadendorf D. KEYNOTE-006: PD-L1 expression and efficacy in patients (Pts) treated with pembrolizumab (pembro) vs ipilimumab (IPI) for advanced melanoma. Cancer Research 2016;76(14 Suppl).
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Wolchok JD, Chiarion-Sileni V, Gonzalez R, Rutkowski P, Grob JJ, Cowey CL, et al. Overall Survival with Combined Nivolumab and Ipilimumab in Advanced Melanoma. N Engl J Med 2017 Sep 11 Available from:
  9. Ribas A, Hamid O, Daud A, Hodi FS, Wolchok JD, Kefford R, et al. Association of Pembrolizumab With Tumor Response and Survival Among Patients With Advanced Melanoma. JAMA 2016 Apr 19;315(15):1600-9 Available from:
  10. Hauschild A, Grob JJ, Demidov LV, Jouary T, Gutzmer R, Millward M, et al. Dabrafenib in BRAF-mutated metastatic melanoma: a multicentre, open-label, phase 3 randomised controlled trial. Lancet 2012 Jul 28;380(9839):358-65 Available from:
  11. Young K, Minchom A, Larkin J. BRIM-1, -2 and -3 trials: improved survival with vemurafenib in metastatic melanoma patients with a BRAF(V600E) mutation. Future Oncol 2012 May;8(5):499-507 Available from:
  12. Bowyer S, Prithviraj P, Lorigan P, Larkin J, McArthur G, Atkinson V, et al. Efficacy and toxicity of treatment with the anti-CTLA-4 antibody ipilimumab in patients with metastatic melanoma after prior anti-PD-1 therapy. Br J Cancer 2016 May 10;114(10):1084-9 Available from:
  13. Zimmer L, Apuri S, Eroglu Z, Kottschade LA, Forschner A, Gutzmer R, et al. Ipilimumab alone or in combination with nivolumab after progression on anti-PD-1 therapy in advanced melanoma. Eur J Cancer 2017 Apr;75:47-55 Available from:
  14. Gutzmer R, Koop A, Meier F, Hassel JC, Terheyden P, Zimmer L, et al. Programmed cell death protein-1 (PD-1) inhibitor therapy in patients with advanced melanoma and preexisting autoimmunity or ipilimumab-triggered autoimmunity. Eur J Cancer 2017 Apr;75:24-32 Available from:
  15. Johnson DB, Sullivan RJ, Ott PA, Carlino MS, Khushalani NI, Ye F, et al. Ipilimumab Therapy in Patients With Advanced Melanoma and Preexisting Autoimmune Disorders. JAMA Oncol 2016 Feb;2(2):234-40 Available from:
  16. Menzies AM, Johnson DB, Ramanujam S, Atkinson VG, Wong ANM, Park JJ, et al. Anti-PD-1 therapy in patients with advanced melanoma and preexisting autoimmune disorders or major toxicity with ipilimumab. Ann Oncol 2017 Feb 1;28(2):368-376 Available from:
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Larkin J, Chiarion-Sileni V, Gonzalez R, Grob JJ, Cowey CL, Lao CD, et al. Combined Nivolumab and Ipilimumab or Monotherapy in Untreated Melanoma. N Engl J Med 2015 Jul 2;373(1):23-34 Available from:
  18. Robert C, Schachter J, Long GV, Arance A, Grob JJ, Mortier L, et al. Pembrolizumab versus Ipilimumab in Advanced Melanoma. N Engl J Med 2015 Jun 25;372(26):2521-32 Available from:
  19. Robert C, Long GV, Brady B, Dutriaux C, Maio M, Mortier L, et al. Nivolumab in previously untreated melanoma without BRAF mutation. N Engl J Med 2015 Jan 22;372(4):320-30 Available from:

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