Australia has approved the world’s first drug to prolong the lives of people with advanced melanoma. The drug Yervoy received the nod from the Therapeutics Good Association (TGA) on Friday amid hopes it could add two years to the life of people with the deadliest form of skin cancer but for whom other treatments have failed.
Advanced melanoma is extremely difficult for doctors to treat, with the average patient surviving just six months say experts. At present the drug will only be available to patients with similar medical backgrounds to those in the study because that is what the TGA based its approval on. But there are hopes it could be made more widely available.
The researcher team recruited 676 people with previously treated or inoperable melanoma found that 45 per cent of patients given Yervoy were still alive after one year. More than 20 per cent lived at least two years, with a small number managing to survive for six years.
Yervoy works by attacking and destroying cancer cells. The drug would be given by an intravenous drip once every three weeks for a total of four doses. While it may improve survival rates, Yervoy can produce side effects from diarrhoea and vomiting to serious blood infections and kidney failure.
Professor Peter Hersey, consultant immunologist to the Melanoma Institute Australia, said no other drug had improved survival rates like Yervoy. “Not all patients respond to it but those who do have a good chance of living longer than they would have otherwise,” he said. “It has been many years since a new therapy for metastatic melanoma has been approved in Australia and oncologists have had to rely on access to clinical trials for potential treatment options,” he added. Cancer Council Australia chief executive Ian Olver said the drug was “a very big deal. We have really lacked treatment once the melanoma has spread beyond the skin.”
Bristol-Myers Squibb has applied to the Government’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme review committee for Yervoy to be subsidized in Australia. In the meantime, it is being made available free through a patient access program.
Melanoma is the fourth most common cancer in Australia, with 10,300 people diagnosed each year with 1,200 deaths annually.