After inching up since the 1980s, the annual death rate from the skin cancer melanoma took a sudden dive in recent years. Researchers attribute this promising shift to the introduction of new forms of treatment for melanoma, including those that harness the power of the immune system to fight the disease and treatments that directly target melanoma cells that carry a particular mutated gene.

Melanoma is a commonly occurring cancer in the United States and is diagnosed in about 100,000 people each year. Traditionally, if the cancer metastasizes—meaning it spreads from the skin throughout the body—it was very difficult to treat. Chemotherapy has a minimal effect on this cancer.

Publishing their findings in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers from New York University and Harvard University analyzed new diagnoses and deaths recorded by the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This included data on nearly 1 million cases of the cancer, spanning 1986 to 2016.

The annual metastatic melanoma death rate increased by 7.5% between 1986 and 2013 and then fell by nearly 18% between 2013 and 2016.

The steep decline in the death rate outpaced decreases seen in death rates related to prostate, breast and lung cancer.

The melanoma death rate decrease coincides with the introduction of 10 new treatments for the disease. These newer treatments are much less toxic than standard chemotherapy. The therapies include those that target the BRAF gene, which is mutated in nearly half of people with the cancer, as well as immune checkpoint inhibitors, which block melanoma tumors from fooling the immune system into overlooking the cancer.

“Our findings show how quickly patients and physicians accepted these new drugs because they profoundly reduce deaths from melanoma,” co–senior study author David Polsky, MD, PhD, of the NYU Langone Health and its Perlmutter Cancer Center, said in a press release. “These therapies are now considered the backbone of how we treat this cancer.”

Sun exposure and the use of tanning beds increases the risk of melanoma, especially among people with fairer skin.

To read the study abstract, click here.

To read a press release about the study, click here.