FDA Approves Yervoy to Reduce the Risk of Melanoma Returning After Surgery

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Today the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expanded the approved use of Yervoy (ipilimumab) to include a new use as adjuvant therapy for patients with stage III melanoma, to lower the risk that the melanoma will return following surgery.

Melanoma, the most aggressive type of skin cancer, is the leading cause of death from skin cancer. Melanoma is more likely to spread to other parts of the body than other forms of skin cancer and has been on the rise over the past several decades, according to the National Cancer Institute, with an estimated 73,870 new cases and 9940 deaths from the disease this year. In stage III melanoma, the cancer has reached ≥1 lymph nodes. Patients with stage III melanoma are generally treated by surgery to remove the melanoma skin lesions and the nearby lymph nodes.

“Today’s approval of Yervoy extends its use to patients who are at high risk of developing recurrence of melanoma after surgery,” said Richard Pazdur, MD, director of the Office of Hematology and Oncology Products in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “This new use of the drug in earlier stages of the disease builds on our understanding of the immune system’s interaction with cancer.”

Yervoy, administered intravenously, was originally approved in 2011 to treat late-stage melanoma that cannot be removed by surgery. Yervoy is a monoclonal antibody that blocks a molecule known as CTLA-4 (cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen). CTLA-4 may play a role in slowing down or turning off the body’s immune system, and affects its ability to fight off cancerous cells. Yervoy may work by allowing the body’s immune system to recognize, target and attack cells in melanoma tumors.

The safety and effectiveness of Yervoy for this new use were studied in 951 patients who received Yervoy or a placebo as adjuvant therapy following complete surgical removal of melanoma. The study measured the amount of time after treatment it took for the cancer to come back (“recurrence-free survival”) and overall survival. Forty-nine percent of participants taking Yervoy had their cancer return after an average of 26 months, compared to 62% of those receiving a placebo, whose cancer returned after an average of 17 months. The analysis of overall survival data has not yet occurred.

The most common side effects of Yervoy in this study were rash, diarrhea, fatigue, itching, headache, weight loss, and nausea. Yervoy can also cause autoimmune disease in the digestive system, liver, skin, nervous system (which would each require treatment with corticosteroids), as well as in the hormone-producing glands (which requires life-long hormone replacement therapy). Women who are pregnant should not take Yervoy because it may cause harm to a developing fetus.

Because of the potential for fatal immune-mediated adverse reactions and unusual severe side effects with Yervoy, the label includes a Boxed Warning. A Medication Guide will also be provided to patients to inform them about the therapy's potential side effects.

Yervoy is manufactured by Bristol-Myers Squibb in Princeton, NJ.

US Food and Drug Administration. FDA approves Yervoy to reduce the risk of melanoma returning after surgery. Updated October 28, 2015.

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Last modified: February 19, 2019