European licence for drug to treat advanced melanoma

In collaboration with the Press Association

A European licence has been granted to drug manufacturers Bristol-Myers Squibb to market the cancer drug ipilimumab (also known by its brand name, Yervoy) for the treatment of advanced melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

Ipilimumab has shown in trials that it can extend the lives of patients with advanced melanoma who have already received another treatment.

It helps to fight cancer by boosting the body's immune system, interfering with a protein called CTLA-4, whose normal function is to stop the immune system from attacking itself, but which also stops it from spotting and attacking cancer.

A recent trial presented at a US conference earlier this year showed that 47.3 per cent of patients given ipilimumab in combination with the current treatment - dacarbazine - were still alive a year later, compared to 36 per cent of patients who were given dacarbazine alone.

The drug is given as a series of four injections, each costing around £18,000. The average cost per patient is thought to be around £75,000.

The manufacturer has submitted data to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), so they can make a decision as to whether the treatment should be routinely available on the NHS.

Patients may be able to access the drug through the government's Cancer Drugs Fund, which pays for non-NICE approved treatments under certain circumstances.

Every year more than 2,000 people in the UK die from malignant melanoma, and more than 11,000 people develop the disease.

Dr Paul Lorigan, senior lecturer in medical oncology from the Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester, said: "The authorisation of ipilimumab represents a real advance in the treatment of patients with advanced melanoma as this is the first treatment for 30 years in the UK to extend patients's life expectancy.

"After years of no progress in the treatment of this terrible illness, we have now made a stride forward."

Sarah Woolnough, Cancer Research UK's director of policy, said: "It's exciting that ipilimumab is now licensed for use in the UK, as this means it is one step closer to becoming available for patients with melanoma - the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

"This is one of the first effective treatments we have for advanced melanoma and it's important that NICE makes a decision as quickly as possible on whether or not the drug should be made routinely available to all appropriate patients.

"In the meantime decisions about whether patients can get this drug will have to be made through the Cancer Drugs Fund or through other means locally."

Copyright Press Association 2011