Posts Tagged ‘Ipilimumab’

Author: Ziv Raviv, PhD


Cutaneous melanoma is a type of skin cancer that originates in melanocytes, the cells that are producing melanin. While being the least common type of skin cancer, melanoma is the most aggressive one with invasive characteristics and accounts for the majority of death incidences among skin cancers. Melanoma has an annual rate of 160,000 new cases and 48,000 deaths worldwide. Melanoma affects mainly Caucasians exposed to sun high UV irradiation. Among the genetic factors that characterize the disease, BRAF mutation (V600E) is found in most cases of melanoma (80%).  Awareness toward risk factors of melanoma should lead to prevention and early detection*. There are several developmental stages (I-IV) of the disease, starting from local non-invasive melanoma, through invasive and high risk melanoma, up to metastatic melanoma. As with other cancers, the earlier stage melanoma is being detected, the better odds for full recovery are. Treatment is usually involving surgery to remove the local tumor and its margins, and when necessary also to remove the proximal lymph node(s) that drain the tumor. In high stages melanoma, adjuvant therapy is given in the form of chemotherapy (Dacarbazine and Temozolomide) and immunotherapy (IL-2 and IFN). Until recently no useful treatment was available for metastatic melanoma. However, research efforts had led to the development of two new drugs against metastatic melanoma: Vemurafenib (Zelboraf), a B-Raf inhibitor; and Ipilimumab (Yervoy), a monoclonal antibody that blocks the inhibitory signal of cytotoxic T lymphocyte-associated antigen 4 (CTLA-4). Both drugs are now available for clinical use presenting good results.

Personalized therapy for melanoma

In an attempt to develop personalized therapies for malignant melanoma, a unique strategy has been taken by the group of Prof. Yardena Samuels at the NIH (now situated at the WIS) to identify recurring genetic alterations of metastatic cutaneous melanoma. The researchers approach employed the collections of hundreds of tumors samples taken from metastasized melanoma patients together with matched normal blood tissues samples. The samples are undergoing exome sequencing for the analysis of somatic mutations (namely mutations that evolved during the progress of the disease to the stage of metastatic melanoma, unlike genomic mutations that may have contribute to the formation of the disease). The discrimination of such tumor related somatic mutations is done by comparison to the exome sequencing of the patient’s matched blood cells DNA. In addition, the malignant cells derived from the removed cancer tissue of each patient are extracted to form a cell line and are grown in culture. These cells are easily cultivate in culture with no special media supplements, nor further genetic manipulations such as hTERT are needed, and are extremely aggressive as determined by various cell culture and in vivo tests. The ability to grow these primary tumor-derived cell lines in culture has a great value as a tool for studying and characterizing the biochemical, functional, and clinical aspects of the mutated genes identified.

In one study [1] Samuels and her colleagues performed this sequencing process for mutation analysis for the protein tyrosine kinase (PTK) gene family, as PTKs are frequently mutated in cancer. Using high-throughput gene sequencing to analyze the entire PTK gene family, the researchers have identified 30 somatic mutations affecting the kinase domains of 19 PTKs and subsequently evaluated the entire coding regions of the genes encoding these 19 PTKs for somatic mutations in 79 melanoma samples. The most frequent mutations were found in ERBB4, a member of the EGFR/ErbB family of receptor tyrosine kinase (RTK), were 19% of melanoma patients had such mutations. Seven missense mutations in the ERBB4 gene were found to induce increased kinase activity and transformation capability. Melanoma derived cell lines that were expressing these mutant ERBB4 forms had reduced cell growth after silencing ERBB4 by RNAi or after treatment with the ERBB inhibitor Lapatinib. Lapatinib is already in use in the clinic for the treatment of HER2 (ErbB2) positive breast cancers patients. Following this study, a clinical trial is now conducted with this drug to evaluate its effect in cutaneous metastatic melanoma patients harboring mutations in ERBB4.

In another study of this group [2], the scientists employed the exome sequencing method to analyze the somatic mutations of 734 G protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) in melanoma. GPCRs are regulating various signaling pathways including those that affect cell growth and play also important role in human diseases. This screen revealed that GRM3 gene that encode the metabotropic glutamate receptor 3 (mGluR3), was frequently mutated and that one of its mutations clustered within one position. Mutant GRM3 was found to selectively regulate the phosphorylation of MEK1 leading to increased anchorage-independent cell growth and cellular migration. Tumor derived melanoma cells expressing mutant GRM3 exhibited reduced cell growth and migration upon knockdown of GRM3 by RNAi or by treatment with the selective MEK inhibitor, Selumetinib (AZD-6244), a drug that is being testing in clinical trials. Altogether, the results of this study point to the increased violent characteristics of melanomas bearing mutational GRM3.

In a third study, melanoma samples were examined for somatic mutations in 19 human genes that encode ADAMTS proteins [3]. Some of the ADAMTS genes have been suggested before to have implication in tumorigenesis. ADAMTS18, which was previously found to be a candidate cancer gene, was found in this study to be highly mutated in melanoma. ADAMTS18 mutations were biologically examined and were found to induce an increased proliferation of melanoma cells, as well as increased cell migration and metastasis. Moreover, melanoma cells expressing these mutated ADAMTS18 had reduced cell migration after RNAi-mediated knockdown of ADAMTS18. Thus, these results suggest that genetic alteration of ADAMTS18 plays a major role in melanoma tumorigenesis. Since ADAMTS genes encode extracellular proteins, their accessibility to systematically delivered drugs makes them excellent therapeutic targets.

Conclusive remarks

The above illustrated research approach intends to discover frequent melanoma-specific mutations by employing high-throughput whole exome and genome sequencing means. For the most highly mutated genes identified, the biochemical, functional, and clinical aspects are being characterized to examine their relevancy to the disease outcomes. This approach therefore introduces new opportunities for clinical intervention for the treatment of cutaneous melanoma. In addition to the discovery of novel highly mutated genes, this approach may also help determine which pathways are altered in melanoma and how these genes and pathways interact. Finding melanoma-associated highly mutated genes could lead to personalized therapeutics specifically targeting these altered genes in individual melanomas. Along with the opportunity to develop new agents to treat melanoma, the approach takes advantage of existing anti-cancer drugs, utilizing them to treat these mutated genes melanoma individuals. In addition to their potential for therapeutics, the discovery of highly mutated genes in melanoma patients may lead to the discovery of new markers that may assist the diagnosis of the disease. The implications of these screenings findings on other types of cancer bearing common pathways similar to melanoma should be examined as well. Finally, this elegant approach should be adopted in research efforts of other cancer types.

* Special review will be published further in the cancer prevention section of Pharmaceutical Intelligence


1. Prickett TD, Agrawal NS, Wei X, Yates KE, Lin JC, Wunderlich JR, Cronin JC, Cruz P, Rosenberg SA, Samuels Y (2009) Analysis of the tyrosine kinome in melanoma reveals recurrent mutations in ERBB4. Nat Genet 41 (10):1127-1132

2. Prickett TD, Wei X, Cardenas-Navia I, Teer JK, Lin JC, Walia V, Gartner J, Jiang J, Cherukuri PF, Molinolo A, Davies MA, Gershenwald JE, Stemke-Hale K, Rosenberg SA, Margulies EH, Samuels Y (2011) Exon capture analysis of G protein-coupled receptors identifies activating mutations in GRM3 in melanoma. Nat Genet 43 (11):1119-1126

3. Wei X, Prickett TD, Viloria CG, Molinolo A, Lin JC, Cardenas-Navia I, Cruz P, Rosenberg SA, Davies MA, Gershenwald JE, Lopez-Otin C, Samuels Y (2010) Mutational and functional analysis reveals ADAMTS18 metalloproteinase as a novel driver in melanoma. Mol Cancer Res 8 (11):1513-1525

Related articles on melanoma on this open access online scientific journal:

1.  In focus: Melanoma Genetics. Curator: Ritu Saxena, Ph.D.

2.  In focus: Melanoma therapeutics. Author and Curator: Ritu Saxena, Ph.D.

3.  A New Therapy for Melanoma.  Reporter- Larry H Bernstein, M.D.

4. Thymosin alpha1 and melanoma. Author, Editor: Tilda Barliya, Ph.D.

5. Exome sequencing of serous endometrial tumors shows recurrent somatic mutations in chromatin-remodeling and ubiquitin ligase complex genes. Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.

6. How Genome Sequencing is Revolutionizing Clinical Diagnostics. Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN.

7. Issues in Personalized Medicine in Cancer: Intratumor Heterogeneity and Branched Evolution Revealed by Multiregion Sequencing. Curator and Reporter: Stephen J. Williams, Ph.D.




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In focus: Melanoma therapeutics


Author and Curator: Ritu Saxena, Ph.D.

In the last post of Melanoma titled “In focus: Melanoma Genetics”, I discussed the clinical characteristics and the genetics involved in Melanoma.  This post would discuss melanoma therapeutics, both current and novel.

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 76,000 new cases and more than 9100 deaths from melanoma were reported in the United States in 2012[1] Melanoma develops from the malignant transformation of melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells that reside in the basal epidermal layer in human skin. Although most melanomas arise in the skin, they may also arise from mucosal surfaces or at other sites to which neural crest cells migrate.

Melanoma therapeutics

Surgical treatment of cutaneous melanoma employs specific surgical margins depending on the depth of invasion of the tumor and there are specific surgical treatment guidelines of primary, nodal, and metastatic melanoma that surgeons adhere to while treatment. Melanoma researchers have been focusing on developing adjuvant therapies for that would increase the survival post-surgery.


Among traditional chemotherapeutic agents, only dacarbazine is FDA approved for the treatment of advanced melanoma (Eggermont AM and Kirkwood JM, Eur J Cancer, Aug 2004;40(12):1825-36). Dacarbazine is a triazene derivative and alkylates and cross-links DNA during all phases of the cell cycle, resulting in disruption of DNA function, cell cycle arrest, and apoptosis. Currently, 17 clinical trials are underway to test the efficacy and effectiveness of dacarbazine against melanoma as either a single agent or in combination chemotherapy regimens with other anti-cancer chemotherapeutic agents such as cisplatin, paclitaxel. Temozolomide is a triazene analog of dacarbazine and is approved for the treatment of malignant gliomas. At physiologic pH, it is converted to a short-lived active cytotoxic compound, monomethyl triazeno imidazole carboxamide (MTIC). MTIC methylates DNA at the O6 and N7 positions of guanine, resulting in inhibition of DNA replication. Unlike dacarbazine, which is metabolized to MITC only in the liver, temozolomide is metabolized to MITC at all sites. Temozolomide is administered orally and penetrates well into the central nervous system. Temozolomide is being tested in many combination regimens for patients with melanoma metastatic to the brain (Douglas JG and Margolin K, Semin Oncol, Oct 2002;29(5):518-24).


Melanoma and the immune system are closely related. Hence, immunotherapy has been explored in the treatment of the disease. The two most widely investigated immunotherapy drugs for melanoma are Interferon (IFN)-alpha and Interleukin-2 (IL-2).

The role of IFNalpha-2b in the adjuvant therapy of patients with localized melanoma at high risk for relapse was established by the results of three large randomized trials conducted by the US Intergroup; all three trials demonstrated an improvement in relapse-free survival and two in overall survival. One of these trials, a large randomized multicenter trial performed by the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG), in high-risk melanoma patients showed significant improvements in relapse-free and overall survival with adjuvant IFN-α-2b therapy, compared with standard observation (ECOG 1684). The results of the study led to FDA approval of IFN-α-2b for treatment of melanoma. This study was performed on patients with deep primary tumors without lymph node involvement and node-positive melanomas. In other studies, little antitumor activity has been demonstrated in IFN-α-2b–treated metastatic stage IV melanoma.

Recombinant IL-2 showed an overall response rate of 15-20% in metastatic melanoma and was capable of producing complete and durable remissions in about 6% of patients treated. Based upon these data, the US FDA has approved the use of high-dose IL-2 for the therapy of patients with metastatic melanoma. Aldesleukin (Brand name: Proleukin) is a recombinant analog of the endogenous cytokine interleukin-2 (IL-2). It binds to and activates the IL-2 receptor (IL-2R), followed by heterodimerization of the IL-2R beta and gamma(c) cytoplasmic chains; activation of Jak3; and phosphorylation of tyrosine residues on the IL-2R beta chain, resulting in an activated receptor complex (NCI). The activated complex recruits several signaling molecules that act as substrates for regulatory enzymes associated with the complex. It is administered intravenously and stimulates lymphokine-activating killer (LAK) cells, natural killer (NK) cells and the production of cytokines such as gamma interferon (nm|OK). Several clinical trials are currently underway using Aldesleukin to determine the efficacy of combination treatment in melanoma patients.

Another anti-cancer immunotherapeuty-based mechanism involved inhibition of inhibitory signal of cytotoxic T lymphocyte-associated antigen 4 (CTLA-4), a molecule on T-cells that plays a critical role in regulating natural immune responses. Ipilimumab (Brand name: Yervoy) was by FDA for melanoma treatment.  It is a human monoclonal antibody (MAb) T-cell potentiator that specifically blocks CTLA-4. It is approved for inoperable advanced (Stage III) or metastatic (Stage IV) melanoma in newly diagnosed or previously treated patients (nm|OK). The approval, March 25, 2011, was based on a randomized (3:1:1) double-blind double-dummy clinical trial (MDX010-20) in patients with unresectable or metastatic melanoma who had received at least one prior systemic treatment for melanoma. Patients were randomly assigned to receive either ipilimumab, 3 mg/kg intravenously, in combination with the tumor vaccine (n=403); ipilimumab plus vaccine placebo (n=137); or tumor vaccine with placebo (n=136). Patients treated with ipilimumab alone had a median overall survival (OS) of 10 months while those treated with tumor vaccine had a median OS of 6 months. The trial also demonstrated a statistically significant improvement in OS for patients treated with the combination of ipilimumab plus tumor vaccine compared with patients treated with tumor vaccine alone. For more information on the trial, check the clinical trials website,

Signaling pathway inhibitors

Approximately 90% of BRAF gene mutations involve valine (V) to glutamic acid (E) mutation at number 600 residue (V600E). The resulting oncogene product, BRAF (V600E) kinase is highly active and exhibits elevated MAPK pathway. The BRAF(V600E) gene mutation occurs in approximately 60% of melanomas indicating that it could be therapeutically relevant. Vemurafenib (Brand name: Zelboraf) is a novel small-molecule inhibitor of BRAF (V600E) kinase. It selectively binds to the ATP-binding site and inhibits the activity of BRAF (V600E) kinase. Vemurafebib inhibits over active MAPK pathway by inhibiting the mutated BRAF kinase, thereby reducing tumor cell proliferation (NCI). Encouraging results of phase III randomized, open-label, multicenter trial were reported recently at the 2011 ASCO meeting (Chapman PB, et al, ASCO 2011, Abstract LBA4).  The trial compared the novel BRAF inhibitor vemurafenib with dacarbazine in patients with BRAF-mutated melanoma. Previously untreated, unresectable stage IIIC or stage IV melanoma that tested positive for BRAF mutation were randomized (1:1) to vemurafenib or dacarbazine. The response rate (RR) was significantly high (48.4%) in vemurafenib treated patients as compared to 5.5% in dacarbazine among the 65% of patients evaluable for RR to date. In addition, vemurafenib was associated with significantly improved OS and PFS compared to dacarbazine in patients with previously untreated BRAF (V600E) mutation bearing patients with metastatic melanoma.


Biochemothreapy combine traditional chemotherapy with immunotherapies, such as IL-2 and IFN-α-2b. These combination therapies seemed promising in phase II trials, however, seven large studies failed to show statistically significant increased overall survival rates for various biochemotherapy regimens in patients with stage IV metastasis (Margolin KA, et al, Cancer, 1 Aug 2004;101(3):435-8). Owing to inconsistent results of the available studies with regard to benefit including RR, OS and progression time, and consistently high toxicity rates, clinical practice guideline do not recommend biochemotherapy for the treatment of metastatic melanoma (Verma S, et al, Curr Oncol, April 2008; 15(2): 85–89).


The use of therapeutic vaccines is an ongoing area of research, and clinical trials of several types of vaccines (whole cell, carbohydrate, peptide) are being conducted in patients with intermediate and late-stage melanoma. Vaccines are also being tested in patients with metastatic melanoma to determine their immune effects and to define their activity in combination with other immunotherapeutic agents such as IL-2 or IFNalpha (Agarwala S, Am J Clin Dermatol, 2003;4(5):333-46). In fact, recently investigators at the Indiana University Health Goshen Center for Cancer Care (Goshen, IN) conducted a randomized, multicenter phase III trial involving 185 patients with stage IV or locally advanced stage III cutaneous melanoma. The patients were assigned into treatment groups with IL-2 alone or with vaccine (gp100) followed by IL-2. The vaccine-IL-2 group had a significantly improved OR as compared to the IL-2-only group (16% Vs. 6%) and longer progression free survival (2.2 months Vs. 1.6 months). The median overall survival was also longer in the vaccine-interleukin-2 group than in the interleukin-2-only group (17.8 months Vs. 11.1 months). Thus, a combination of vaccine and immunotherapy showed a better response rate and longer progression-free survival than with interleukin-2 alone in patients with advanced melanoma (Schwartzentruber DJ, et al, N Engl J Med, 2 Jun 2011;364(22):2119-27).

Which Treatment When?

Earlier, there were essentially two main options for patients suffering from advanced melanoma, dacarbazine and IL-2. Dacarbazine, a chemotherapeutic agent produces modest improvements in survival or symptomatic benefits in most patients. Interleukin-2 -based drugs, on the other hand, induce long-term remissions in a small group of patients but are highly toxic. Recently, FDA approved ipilimumab and vemurafenib for patients with metastatic melanoma. Apart from these, therapies are also aiming at starving the tumor by inhibiting angiogenesis or depleting nutrients essential for cancer growth. Of the antiangiogenic compounds, VEGFR inhibitors SU5416 and AG-013736 demonstrated broad-spectrum antitumor activity in mice bearing xenografts of human cancer cell lines originating from various tissues, including melanoma. In addition, several trials are currently underway to test the efficacy of the drugs in combination. In the future, personalized medicine-based recommendations of novel and existing drugs for melanoma patients might be the way to go.


  1. Eggermont AM and Kirkwood JM, Eur J Cancer, Aug 2004;40(12):1825-36
  2. Douglas JG and Margolin K, Semin Oncol, Oct 2002;29(5):518-24
  3. Chapman PB, et al, ASCO 2011, Abstract LBA4
  4. Margolin KA, et al, Cancer, 1 Aug 2004;101(3):435-8
  5. Verma S, et al, Curr Oncol, April 2008; 15(2): 85–89
  6. Agarwala S, Am J Clin Dermatol, 2003;4(5):333-46
  7. Schwartzentruber DJ, et al, N Engl J Med, 2 Jun 2011;364(22):2119-27
  8. Chudnovsky Y, et al, J Clin Invest, Apr 2005;115(4):813-24.
  9. National Cancer Institute (National Institute of Health)
  10. Clinical Trials reported on the U.S. Institute of Health
  11. New Medicine Oncology KnowledgeBase (nm|OK)

Related articles on Melanoma on this Open Access Online Scientific Journal: 

  1. In focus: Melanoma Genetics Curator- Ritu Saxena, Ph.D.
  2. Thymosin alpha1 and melanoma Author/Editor- Tilda Barliya, Ph.D.
  3. A New Therapy for Melanoma  Reporter- Larry H Bernstein, M.D.
  4. Melanoma: Molecule in Immune System Could Help Treat Dangerous Skin Cancer Reporter: Prabodh Kandala, Ph.D.
  5. Why Braf inhibitors fail to treat melanoma. Reporter: Prabodh Kandala, Ph.D.


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