Targeted Therapy for Melanoma

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
March 20, 2023
Targeted Therapy for Melanoma

Targeted therapy is medicine that targets the parts of cancer cells that make them unlike normal cells. Your doctors may use targeted therapy for your melanoma.

Targeted therapy is the use of medicines that target the parts of cancer cells that make them unlike normal cells. Targeted medicines for melanoma work on genes and proteins in melanoma cells. Targeted medicines are different from standard chemotherapy medicines. They can work when chemotherapy medicines don’t.


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BRAF inhibitors

BRAF is a gene that’s part of body cells. About half of all melanomas have changes in the BRAF gene. These changes help melanoma cancer cells grow.

Some medicines can target this gene to help attack melanoma cancer. Before you receive the medicines, your doctor will test a sample of melanoma tissue for changes in the BRAF gene. Targeted medicines do not help melanoma cells that don’t have a change in the BRAF gene.

Vemurafenib (Zelboraf), dabrafenib (Tafinlar), and encorafenib (Braftovi) are medicines that target the BRAF gene. They treat advanced melanomas that surgery can’t remove. They can often shrink tumors for at least several months or slow their growth. You will take the medicine daily as pills or capsules.

The most common side effects of BRAF inhibitors include:

  • Skin rashes with itching
  • Skin thickening
  • Sun sensitivity
  • Joint pain
  • Feeling tired
  • Nausea
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Hair thinning

In some cases, these medicines can cause squamous cell carcinoma, a less serious type of skin cancer that can be easily treated with surgery. Less common but more serious side effects are also possible. Talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of these medicines for you.

MEK inhibitors

A protein in cells called MEK can interact with the BRAF protein to help melanoma cells grow. Trametinib (Medkinist), cobimetrinib (Cotellic), and binimetinib (Mektovi) target MEK proteins.

You take MEK inhibitors daily as a pill to help treat advanced melanomas. It is helpful only for people whose melanoma cells have BRAF gene changes.

Combining MEK inhibitors with BRAF inhibitors seems to shrink tumors for longer periods of time than either type of drug alone, while lowering the risk of getting other skin cancers.

The most common side effects of MEK inhibitors include:

  • Rash
  • Diarrhea
  • Swelling

Some other side effects are less common but can be more serious. Talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of this medicine for you.

Drugs that target cells with C-KIT gene changes

A small number of melanomas have changes in the C-KIT gene that help them grow, typically on your palms, soles of your feet, or inside your mouth or under nails. They can also develop in areas with chronic sun exposure.

Imatinib (Gleevec) and nilotinib (Tasigna) can help.

Drugs that target other gene changes are under study in clinical trials. If you’re interested in a medicine that is part of a clinical trial, talk with your healthcare provider. He or she can help you find out whether a clinical trial would be right for you.


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March 20, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O'Dell, RN