June 2, 2011 / 5:36 PM / 8 years ago

Bristol, Roche team up on melanoma study

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Bristol-Myers Squibb and Roche Holding AG said on Thursday they would evaluate their respective cancer drugs as a potential combination therapy for metastatic melanoma.

The collaboration involves a Phase I/II study with Bristol’s recently approved Yervoy and Roche’s experimental drug, vemurafenib, to determine the safety and efficacy of the combination in treating the deadliest form of skin cancer.

The announcement comes as the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting begins this weekend in Chicago, where emerging treatments for melanoma will be in the spotlight.

Among the most eagerly anticipated studies being presented at the ASCO meeting will be a Phase III trial intended to show that vemurafenib extended the lives of patients with advanced melanoma, and another study comparing Yervoy to chemotherapy in patients with the fatal disease.

Yervoy won U.S. approval in March for patients with inoperable or metastatic melanoma, making it the first new treatment option in many years for patients for whom there was little hope and virtually no effective medicines.

Roche and Japanese drugmaker Daiichi Sankyo Co recently submitted U.S. and European applications seeking approval for vemurafenib. The drug was developed by Roche’s Genentech unit and Plexxikon, which was recently acquired by Daiichi.

Vemurafenib, a so-called BRAF inhibitor, is designed to selectively target and inhibit a mutated form of the BRAF protein found in about half of all cases of melanoma. The combination study with Yervoy will be in patients with BRAF-mutated metastatic melanoma, Roche said.

Roche is also developing a combination diagnostic to help identify those patients with the BRAF mutation who are likely to benefit from vemurafenib.

“We are entering a new era for melanoma, and are committed to studying exciting combinations with investigational medicines in our own pipeline,” Roche Chief Medical Officer Hal Barron said in a statement.

If proven effective and approved the Yervoy-vemurafenib combination would be an extremely expensive treatment option that could meet with reimbursement resistance from government programs and health insurers.

Bristol priced a four-infusion course of Yervoy at about $120,000. Vemurafenib will likely also command premium pricing if it too demonstrates an ability to help patients live longer.

More than 70,000 people in the United States and 160,000 worldwide are diagnosed with melanoma each year, according to the American Cancer Society. The five-year survival rate for the aggressive cancer is just 15 percent.

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