Immunotherapy is an effective systemic treatment for cancer, including melanoma, because it activates the body’s immune system to fight cancer.
Systemic treatments are drugs that reach all parts of your body through the bloodstream. Such drugs fight cancer cells that have metastasized, or spread, from the original tumor to other areas.
Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) is an immunotherapy medication that helps shrink tumors and helps patients with advanced melanoma live longer.
What Is Pembrolizumab (Keytruda)?
Pembrolizumab is an anti-PD-1 inhibitor, which is:
- A type of immunotherapy known as a checkpoint inhibitor, which 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)
How Does Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) Work?
Pembrolizumab blocks the activity of a molecule called PD-1, a protein that prevents T cells from recognizing and attacking inflamed tissues and cancer cells.
By blocking PD-1, pembrolizumab increases your immune system’s ability to attack melanoma cells and tumors. The drug works to unleash T cells so that they can invade melanoma anywhere in your body.
Which Patients Benefit from Pembrolizumab (Keytruda)?
In 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved pembrolizumab 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 pembrolizumab, 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.
How Is Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) Given?
Patients receive pembrolizumab intravenously (into a blood vein).
- Each dose takes about 30 minutes to complete.
- Patients usually receive pembrolizumab every three weeks unless their melanoma worsens or they experience side effects.
- Patients receive pembrolizumab on an outpatient basis without the need for a hospital stay.
What Are the Goals of Pembrolizumab (Keytruda)?
Pembrolizumab works as a systemic treatment with the goals of:
- Controlling melanoma and shrinking tumors anywhere in the body
- Treating symptoms of melanoma
- Helping patients live longer
Because pembrolizumab is an antibody that works through your immune system, it can produce an immunological “memory” in T cells. That means that pembrolizumab may help your immune system continue to attack melanoma cells even after treatment.
Melanoma treatments, like pembrolizumab, have side effects, which can sometimes be serious. Patients should talk with their physician to learn more about the side effects of pembrolizumab and other melanoma treatment options.
What Should I Ask My Doctor About Pembrolizumab (Keytruda)?
Because every patient is different, not all treatments will work for everyone. Your physicians can determine whether pembrolizumab may be right for you.
If you are interested in learning more about pembrolizumab, here are some questions you should ask your physicians:
- Will my melanoma tumor be tested for BRAF genetic mutations?
- Am I eligible for pembrolizumab?
- What is your experience with pembrolizumab?
- Is pembrolizumab a good option for my melanoma treatment?
- Is there an alternative to pembrolizumab for me?
- How successful has pembrolizumab been for patients like me?
- What are the side effects of pembrolizumab?
- Are there any clinical trials for pembrolizumab 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:
- Other types of immunotherapy, including:
- Targeted therapy
- Combination therapy
- Adjuvant therapy
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 reviewed: May 2016
Reviewers: Paul Chapman, Antoni Ribas, Louise Perkins