Immunotherapy (also known as Biological therapy) stimulates your immune system to help it fight the cancer. Biological medications are the same as, or similar to, natural immune chemicals your body produces. Available immunotherapy include interferon alpha, interleukin-2, and Yervoy™.
- Interferon alpha: Interferon alpha stimulates the immune system to attack the melanoma. Interferon alpha may be injected into a vein, usually at the hospital or a clinic. It may also be injected under the skin, usually at home or in the doctor’s office. Interferon alpha is usually given for one year and usually to people in whom the melanoma has been removed to prevent it coming back. Interferon alpha is also available in a long-acting version, called peginterferon alpha. This version is usually given for five years.
- Interleukin-2: Interleukin-2 is given into a vein, usually at the hospital. A maximum of 14 doses are given, every eight hours, over several days. Interleukin-2 may be given to some people with metastatic melanoma (stage 4), if their health is good enough to tolerate it. Interleukin-2 can produce complete durable remission, or disappearance of melanoma for some time. Interleukin-2 may be given as an initial therapy.
- Yervoy (ipilimumab): This immunotherapy helps the body’s immune system recognize and destroy melanoma cells. Yervoy is usually given to people whose disease has not responded to usual therapy. It may also be given if side effects were severe enough for treatment to be discontinued. Yervoy is given as an infusion into a vein. One dose is given every three weeks for four doses. Yervoy can lengthen life in people with advanced disease.
Immunotherapy Side Effects
Common side effects of biological therapies are generally similar to flu symptoms. These include fever, chills, fatigue, headache, and muscle aches. Biological therapy may also cause rash or swelling where the injection is given. Symptoms may differ, depending on the person and the therapy. Medications may be given to prevent side effects of biological therapy. Side effects usually stop when treatment is finished.
Interferon alpha may affect the bone marrow or the liver. Interleukin-2 can cause a drop in blood pressure and a build-up of fluid in your body. Yervoy™ (ipilimumab) may cause immune system side effects. All biological therapies should be used with caution based on their potential toxicities.