Melanoma is by far the most serious form of skin cancer. Although the disease is usually diagnosed at an early stage, when it is highly treatable, survival remains low for more advanced cases – often less than two years. Recently, however, studies have shown that molecularly-targeted treatments can extend the lives of some people with even the most advanced stages of the disease.
For all stages of melanoma combined, five-year survival has increased from 82 percent in the late 1970s to 93 percent in recent years. In part, this likely reflects increased awareness of the disease and more widespread screening in doctors' offices. Other advances have also contributed. For example, melanoma researchers have played a pioneering role in the field of immunotherapy, using drugs to trigger the body's immune defenses to fight melanoma tumors. Surgeries have also become more advanced and far less aggressive, offering patients far fewer cosmetic and physical side effects than in the past.
In 2010, researchers showed for the first time that a drug targeting the immune system can improve survival among people with advanced melanoma. The following year, a second drug targeting a genetic abnormality in some melanomas achieved a similar result. While investigators continue to study why these treatments don't work in all patients, or yet cure the disease, they signal that progress against melanoma is gaining speed and that therapy will become increasingly personalized in the years ahead.
Meanwhile, efforts to prevent melanoma – which is becoming increasingly common in the United States, especially among women – remain a top priority. Researchers continue to pursue a better understanding of the disease's link to sun exposure, together with improved methods for detecting the disease at its earliest and most curable stages.