Nivolumab (Opdivo®)

Cancer specialists can treat many types of cancer, including melanoma, with medications that stimulate the body’s own immune system. This type of treatment, known as immunotherapy, is systemic, which means that the drugs travel through the bloodstream to all parts of your body.

As a systemic cancer treatment, immunotherapy is effective in fighting metastatic cancer, which has spread from the original tumor to other areas. Nivolumab (Opdivo) helps shrink tumors, helps patients with advanced melanoma to live longer and decreases the risk of the melanoma coming back after surgery. It is also approved for adjuvant therapy. 

What Is Nivolumab (Opdivo)?

  • A checkpoint inhibitor, a type of immunotherapy that helps make cancer cells more vulnerable to attack by your body’s own immune system
  • An antibody that promotes the tumor-killing effects of T cells (white blood cells that help your body fight disease)
  • It is used to treat advanced melanoma that is unresectable or has spread to organs and other parts of the body. In addition, nivolumab is also used as adjuvant therapy, that is, treatment after complete surgical resection of melanoma to reduce the risk of the melanoma returning. To learn more about the use of nivolumab as adjuvant therapy for melanoma, click here.

How Does Nivolumab (Opdivo) Work?

Nivolumab blocks the activity of a molecule called PD-1, a protein that prevents T cells from recognizing and attacking inflamed tissues and cancer cells. PD-1 can trick your immune system into overlooking melanoma cells as normal cells.

Nivolumab triggers your immune system’s response to melanoma by blocking the PD-1 protein on T cells. The drug activates T cells so that they can attack melanoma cells anywhere in your body. 

Which Patients May Benefit from Nivolumab (Opdivo)?

Patients with Advanced Melanoma

In 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved nivolumab to treat patients who have advanced stages of melanoma:

  • Stage III that is unresectable (unable to be completely removed by surgery)
  • Stage IV, also known as metastatic (melanoma cells that have spread to organs and other parts of the body)

Many experts recommend anti-PD-1 therapy, like nivolumab, as a first-line treatment for patients with advanced melanoma. Patients should speak with their physicians about the risks and benefits of various treatment options as first-line treatment.

Adjuvant Therapy of Melanoma

In December 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of nivolumab for the treatment melanoma patients with lymph node involvement or metastatic disease who have undergone complete resection. Treatment after surgery is known as adjuvant therapy. The goal of this use of nivolumab is to reduce the risk of melanoma coming back after surgery.  Patients should speak with their physicians about the risks and benefits of various treatment options as adjuvant therapy.

How Is Nivolumab (Opdivo) Given for the Treatment of Advanced Melanoma?

Patients receive nivolumab intravenously (into a blood vein).

  • Each dose takes about 60 minutes to complete.

  • Patients usually receive nivolumab every two weeks unless their melanoma worsens or they experience unacceptable side effects.

  • Nivolumab is given on an outpatient basis without the need for a hospital stay.

What Are the Goals of Nivolumab (Opdivo) for the Treatment of Advanced Melanoma?

The goals of using nivolumab include:

  • Controlling melanoma and shrinking tumors anywhere in the body
  • Treating symptoms of melanoma
  • Helping patients live longer

Because nivolumab is an antibody that builds up your immune system, it can produce an immunological “memory” in T cells. That means that nivolumab may help your immune system continue to attack melanoma cells even after treatment.

Melanoma treatments, like nivolumab, have side effects, which can sometimes be serious. Patients should talk with their physician to learn more about the side effects of nivolumab and other melanoma treatment options.

What Should I Ask My Doctor About Nivolumab (Opdivo) for the Treatment of Advanced Melanoma?

Not all treatments work for all melanoma patients, because everyone is different. If you are interested in learning more about nivolumab, here are some questions you should ask your physicians:

  • Will my melanoma tumor be tested for BRAF genetic mutations?
  • Am I eligible for nivolumab?
  • What is your experience with nivolumab?
  • Is nivolumab a good option for my melanoma treatment?
  • Is there an alternative to nivolumab for me?
  • How successful has nivolumab been for patients like me?
  • What are the side effects of nivolumab?
  • Are there any clinical trials for nivolumab that I should consider?
  • What other treatments are FDA-approved for treating advanced melanoma?
  • What are the risks and benefits of the available treatment options?
  • What are the goals for my treatment?

Latest Treatments for Advanced Melanoma

Learn more about the latest, most effective treatments for patients who have advanced melanoma:


Melanoma Research

Since its founding in 2007, the Melanoma Research Alliance has awarded over $100 million to research aimed at better preventing, diagnosing and treating melanoma. Learn more about our funded research.

Last Updated: January 2018
Last reviewed: May 2016
Reviewers: Paul Chapman, Antoni Ribas, Louise Perkins 

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