Melanoma and Skin Cancers

Melanoma and Skin Cancer Chemotherapy Oncology Services

UPMC CancerCenter's interdisciplinary oncologists, specializing in melanoma and skin cancer, offer a full range of therapy for melanoma, ranging from immunological and targeted therapies to chemotherapy and focused radiotherapy.

Biologic Targeted Therapies

For patients at an elevated risk for recurrence, the Melanoma and Skin Cancer Program has been a leader in the advancement of immunotherapies, having developed the first federal Food and Drug Administration-approved immunotherapy for prevention of melanoma relapse.

Immunotherapy, also commonly referred to as biotherapy, is the use of substances that boost or restore the body's immune system, so it can better recognize and control diseases such as melanoma.

This therapy can be used to treat inoperable melanoma but has shown its greatest effects when used as adjuvant therapy following surgery to remove primary melanomas. It has increased the cure of melanoma for one-third of patients at risk of relapse and death.

Types of Biologic Therapies

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapies are drugs that block the development and growth of cancer through inhibiting the driver pathways of cancer development.

The University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) continuously offers an expanding array of new immunological, targeted, and biological therapies, as well as novel, individualized approaches to chemotherapy for melanoma patients

Melanoma Related to UV Exposure

Melanoma is caused, in large part, by ultraviolet (UV) radiation, a type of light emitted by the sun that damages skin cells. Exposure to UV rays raises a person's individual risk for developing melanoma.

Recreational indoor tanning, which uses the same UV waves that are emitted in sunlight but at a much higher concentration, have been linked to melanoma risk. Research into the processes that cause cells to mutate and become cancerous have suggested that two-thirds of melanomas are caused by intermittent UV irradiation from tanning or indoor tanning beds. A specific gene, known as BRAF, which is involved in cell growth, has been found to mutate, or become switched on, as an early event in melanoma development.

In melanoma, targeted therapies are used to destroy tumors and block the genetic damage that causes melanomas to form.

Genetically-linked Melanoma

Some types of melanoma are not related to UV exposure. These include melanomas forming on the soles of the feet and palms of the hand (called "acral melanoma") or the mucous membranes of the body. These types of melanomas are thought to have genetic links.

Genes, including one known as p16, have been found to be mutated in some patients with hereditary melanoma.

Recurrent Melanoma

One of the major risks in treating melanoma is the possibility of relapse, since the genes related to melanoma remain, even if the melanoma is successfully removed. Our specialists' knowledge about the biological causes of melanoma assists in handling all forms of melanoma, including these recurrent cases, with targeted therapies.


The Melanoma and Skin Cancer Program holds the highly competitive Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant for melanoma and skin cancer research from the National Cancer Institute. This grant was just renewed for five years through 2018 and will bring four new areas of research to the clinic.


Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs to systemically treat certain types of cancer. Although surgery is often the first line of treatment, some melanomas are best treated with chemotherapy, often in combination with newer agents that improve the effects of chemotherapy when surgery or radiation therapy may not be an option. Chemotherapy may improve the effects of biologically targeted therapies or may be taken in combination with immunotherapies.

Depending on the type and stage of the cancer, chemotherapy may be:

Clinical trials are an important component of care for patients with melanoma and skin cancer, and participation in clinical trials is integrated into each person's plan of care when appropriate. At UPMC CancerCenter, people have access to the latest therapies and clinical trials through our collaboration with UPCI, western Pennsylvania's only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Clinical Pathways

When appropriate, melanoma patients are placed on Clinical Pathways, disease-specific treatment strategies developed by UPMC CancerCenter's physicians to ensure that all patients receive the same quality, evidence-based care.

Each pathway combines innovative and promising clinical trial options with the best of the standard of care therapies. Ongoing review by the clinical team ensures that each pathway remains to be the best and most effective treatment option available.