The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Bristol-Myers Squibb Co’s immunotherapy drug combination to treat a form of skin cancer, setting the tone for other companies developing similar cocktails.

This is the first time the FDA has approved a combination of two immuno-oncology drugs, Bristol-Myers said on Thursday, adding that the treatment will be available immediately.

The company said a late-stage study showed that the two drugs, Opdivo and Yervoy, were more effective combined than Yervoy alone in treating skin cancer that has spread or cannot be operated on.

Yervoy and Opdivo belong to a class of drugs called checkpoint inhibitors, which boost the immune system’s response to cancer and are safer and more effective than chemotherapy.

Wall Street analysts expects such drugs to generate sales of over $20 billion a year by 2020.

Yervoy was approved in 2011 and Opdivo at the end of 2014. The two drugs raked in sales of $783 million for Bristol-Myers in the first half of this year.

Four doses of the combination would cost $141,000, about six percent more than the cost of Yervoy alone, and an annual regimen would cost $256,000, a Bristol-Myers spokeswoman told Reuters.

Opdivo and Yervoy, bought separately, would cost about $295,000 for just under a year’s treatment, according to calculations by cancer specialist Leonard Saltz.

Many big pharmaceutical companies have their own checkpoint inhibitors. Drugmakers such as Pfizer Inc, AstraZeneca Plc, GlaxoSmithKline Plc, Merck & Co and Eli Lilly & Co are working towards developing checkpoint inhibitor combinations, either alone or with other companies.

Merck is testing Keytruda, one of the most recognized names among checkpoint inhibitors, in combination with other cancer treatments in at least 10 studies.

Bristol-Myers is testing its Yervoy + Opdivo combination to also treat lung cancer and kidney cancer.

The company’s shares were little changed at $59.11 in early trading on Thursday.


(Reporting by Vidya L Nathan in Bengaluru; Editing by Kirti Pandey and Savio D’Souza)

Source: Reuters Health