Bristol-Myers Squibb is still testing the combination treatment.
Photograph by John Greim — LightRocket via Getty Images
By TIME and Fortune Editors
June 1, 2015

This article is published in partnership with Time.com. The original version can be found here.

By Alissa Greenberg @alissaleewrites

 

Two cancer drugs, when taken in concert, can shrink tumors in nearly 60% of people with advanced-stage melanoma, according to a new study.

The trial, which enrolled 945 patients at 137 sites worldwide, found that treating the cancer with medications ipilimumab and nivolumab stopped its advance for almost a year in more than half of cases, the BBC reports, citing a presentation by U.K. doctors this weekend at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual conference. The research was also published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Both drugs are designed to bring the body’s natural defenses in on the fight against the cancer. While the immune system is generally a potent agent in combatting disease, certain built-in “brakes” keep the body from attacking its own tissue — a loophole that cancers can use to continue growing unchecked. But both medications turn those “brakes” off.

Both drugs are developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb Inc. (BMY). Another drug, Pembrolizumab, developed by Merck & Co. Inc. (MRK) is reported to have similar qualitiese, according to the BBC.

In the study, 58% of patients taking both medicines saw their tumours shrink by at least a third over the course of almost a year. Still, perhaps the most important information — how long patients treated with the two medications live — is unknown, and will remain so for some time.

Skin cancer is among the most common cancers; according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), while melanoma accounts for less than 2% of skin cancers, it causes the majority of skin cancer deaths. The ACS predicts that nearly 10,000 Americans will die of skin cancer in 2015.

However, the upbeat news was overshadowed at the conference by a high-profile speech condemning the skyrocketing price, not just of BMS’s melanoma-focused drugs, but cancer treatments in general.

The Wall Street Journal reported Leonard Saltz, chief of gastrointestinal oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, as telling the conference in a speech that the cost of treating one patient with the two-drug combination would be around $295,000 over nearly one year, something he called unsustainable.

If all U.S. patients with metastatic cancer took drugs priced at $295,000 a year, it would cost $174 billion to treat them all for just one year, the WSJ reported Dr. Saltz as saying.

“The unsustainably high prices of cancer drugs is a big problem, and it’s our problem,” Dr. Saltz said.

Dr. Saltz called for an overhaul of the way drugs are priced in the U.S., saying that Medicare should be able to negotiate with pharma companies directly, something currently not allowed by law.

 

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