Therapeutic implications of melanoma heterogeneity

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Over the last decade, the treatment of metastatic melanoma has been revolutionized by the translation of molecular insights into therapeutic benefit for patients. These include advances in immunotherapeutic and small-molecule approaches aimed at destroying cells with immunogenic antigens or gene mutations. Despite these advances, the limited durability of clinical response and eventual disease progression underscores a need for better understanding of mechanisms underlying tumor development. Current targeted therapies are developed partly based on the rationale that tumors are primarily clonal with respect to mutant oncogene or cell surface antigen target. However, with the advancement of cell isolation and transplantation approaches coupled with deep sequencing and mutation detection techniques, it has become increasingly clear that tumors are polyclonal. As a result, sensitive malignant cells are eradicated by treatment while the remaining tumor cell populations are conferred varying degrees of resistance and survival advantages by harbouring or acquiring certain epigenetic and genetic abnormalities. Tumor heterogeneity thus represents a major obstacle to the successful application of current therapies. Gaining insights into the cellular and molecular aspects of tumor diversity will not only facilitate the development and selection of therapeutic targets but also promote the evolution of precision medicine. In this viewpoint, we will discuss the implications of tumor heterogeneity for the treatment of metastatic melanoma and propose approaches to accelerate the translation of scientific discovery into improved clinical outcomes.

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