Use of Immunomodulating Drugs and Risk of Cutaneous Melanoma: A Nationwide Nested Case-Control Study

Clin Epidemiol. 2020 Dec 18;12:1389-1401. doi: 10.2147/CLEP.S269446. eCollection 2020.


Purpose: Cutaneous melanoma is among the fastest growing malignancies in Norway and ultraviolet radiation (UVR) exposure is the primary environmental risk factor. Immunomodulating drugs can increase skin photosensitivity and suppress immune responses, and by such mechanisms influence melanoma risk. We, therefore, aimed to examine the associations between use of immunomodulating drugs and melanoma risk, at a nationwide population level.

Patients and methods: In the Cancer Registry of Norway, we identified all cases aged 18-85 with a first primary cutaneous melanoma diagnosed in 2007-2015 (n=12,106). These were matched to population controls from the Norwegian National Registry 1:10 (n=118,564), on sex and year of birth using risk set sampling. Information on prescribed drugs (2004-2015) was obtained by linkage to the Norwegian Prescription Database (NorPD). Conditional logistic regression was used to estimate rate ratios (RRs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for associations between use of immunomodulating drugs (immunosuppressants and corticosteroids) and melanoma risk, adjusted for ambient UVR and other drug use.

Results: Compared with ≤1 prescription, use of ≥8 prescriptions of immunosuppressants was associated with increased risk of melanoma (RR 1.50, 95% CI 1.27, 1.77). Similar associations were found for subgroups of immunosuppressants: drugs typically prescribed to organ transplant recipients (OTRs) (RR 2.02, 95% CI 1.35, 3.03) and methotrexate (RR 1.27, 95% CI 1.04, 1.55). Similar results were found for high levels of cumulative doses and across all histological subtypes. Use of corticosteroids was not associated with melanoma risk.

Conclusion: We found a positive association between use of immunosuppressants and melanoma risk, with the highest risk seen for drugs prescribed to OTRs. Knowledge about this risk increase is important for physicians and users of these drugs, for intensified surveillance, awareness and cautious sun exposure.

Keywords: corticosteroids; immunosuppressants; melanoma; pharmacoepidemiology; prescription drugs; registry-based.

Grant support

The study is funded by the South-Eastern Norway Regional Health Authority (no. 16/00451-33).