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The three main types of immunotherapy for melanoma are cytokine therapy, vaccine therapy and anti-cytotoxic T lymphocyte-associated antigen 4 (CTLA-4) therapy. Cytokine therapy works by tricking the immune system into mounting a stronger response against the tumor cells. Vaccine immunotherapy for melanoma works by magnifying the ability of the immune system to identify and destroy tumor cells. Anti-CTLA-4 therapy prevents the suppression of the essential immune responders known as T-cells.
Cytokines are protein molecules used in cell-to-cell communication and signaling. By harnessing the power of these signal molecules, oncologists have been able to treat melanoma. The two types of cytokine immunotherapy for melanoma are interferon-alpha and interleukin-2.
When a cell is infected with a foreign material, it is called the host cell. The infection triggers the production and release of interferon by the host cell and the interferon activates the immune response. Oncologists have harnessed this biochemical process by giving their patients large doses of interferon-alpha to increase the immune response against the melanoma. Interleukin-2 immunotherapy for melanoma works by piquing the development of the white blood cells, T lymphocytes and B lymphocytes. These cells help to seek and destroy the cancer cells throughout the body, and are often employed when melanoma has metastasized.
Vaccine immunotherapy for melanoma also works by boosting the immune response against the tumor cells. Most tumor cells have marker proteins associated with them. Vaccine therapies augment the ability of the immune system to detect the tumor marker proteins, initiating and maintaining a strong immune response. Many different vaccine immunotherapy options are available. Often combining vaccine therapy and interleukin-2 increases the efficacy of the chemotherapy.
CTLA-4 is a protein that prevents the important immune response of the white blood cells known as T-cells and blocking this protein, CTLA-4, may not only help the immune response against a tumor cells, but may also help the action of melanoma vaccines. In this type of therapy, a monoclonal antibody against CTLA-4 binds to the CTLA-4 and prevents it from interfering with the function of the T-cells. Ipilimumab is one of the drugs used to fight melanoma that takes advantage of this biochemical principle. Immunotherapy for melanoma is constantly evolving as new ways to harness the immune system against tumor cells are explored. In addition, oncologists are beginning to understand how to use combinations of these types of immunotherapy to maximize efficacy of chemotherapy and minimize the side effects.