When all else fails, melanoma patients look for life saving cancer drug treatment Yervoy (Ipilimumab) that is still not subsided in Australia

When all else fails, melanoma patients look for life saving cancer drug treatment Yervoy (Ipilimumab) that is still not subsided in Australia


Australia is listed as having the highest percentage of skin cancer patients worldwide but that fact hasn’t made melanoma drugs easily accessible to affected Australians. A skin cancer drug known as Yervoy, which is subsidised elsewhere in other countries is not yet available to Australians under any rebate.

On the contrary, applications for subsidising Yervoy on the Pharmaceuticals Benefits Advisory Committee has been revoked twice already making it extremely inaccessible to the 10,000 and counting individuals who are diagnosed with skin cancer every year in the country. Of these about 1200 die from their condition and the incidence of getting melanoma is at 48 in 100,000.

Yervoy, and American made drug works by using the body’s immune system to combat advanced skin cancer. Patients need just four treatments of the drug which are administered one month apart. The immunotherapy approach to activate the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer has seen some positive results by those who have used the drug. For one such patient, Melissa Sheldon, the results were lifesaving as her scans after treatment began showed that there were no active melanomas in the system.

According to her doctor, Grant McArthur, immunotherapy treatments designed to address cancer issues are a new frontier in the medical world. But despite their success rate, such drugs are slow to reach the many cancer stricken patients who cannot afford them due to cost barriers.

The drug is available to those Australians who can afford to pay a hefty $120,000 for each of the treatments. So far a patient access scheme had been running by the drug’s manufacturer, Bristol Myers Squibb, but it has now been stopped after the drug was knocked back for subsidy. The program did allow eligible patients to receive the treatment for free but will not cater that facility anymore.

Although Yervoy does not cure the condition and is given a 20% chance of working, it does help to ease symptoms and buy time for patients who have received treatment. According to a professor of melanoma biology at the University of Sydney, 30 % of patients with advanced melanoma who had received treatment using the drug saw their survival rate doubled. Those who had been on conventional chemotherapy treatment survived for 6-9 months while others who used Yervoy were expected to live for 18-19 months. Some lucky few were still alive five years after using the drug.

However, the drug does not work for everyone as it can have some serious side effects including death from toxicity or bowel perforations.

The concern affecting the PBAC’s decision to subsidise the drug is that it is hard to tell how many patients will respond positively to the drug’s use. For drugs to be subsidised, those that cost less than $50,000 to save a year of live receive immediate approval while those that are above that price become more difficult to approve. With Yervoy, the costs are way above that range.

As a result many Australians find themselves travelling to other locations to procure treatment for their condition.


1) Melissa Sheldon reveals how radical new drug Yervoy saved her from the brink of death: http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/health/melissa-sheldon-reveals-how-radical-new-drug-yervoy-saved-her-from-the-brink-of-death/story-fneuzlbd-1226907724740

2) Melanoma wonder drug Yervoy out of reach for most Australians: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/melanoma-wonder-drug-yervoy-out-of-reachfor-most-australians/story-e6frg6n6-1226511014476

3) Patients urge subsidy for cancer drugs: https://au.news.yahoo.com/a/17368239/patients-urge-subsidy-for-cancer-drugs/