Yervoy - Bristol-Myers Squibb

Yervoy (ipilimumab)
Bristol-Myers Squibb
Launch Date: March 2011
First-Year Sales: $706 million (2012; partial 2011 at $360 million)
First-Half 2013 Sales: $462 million
Analyst Estimate for 2018: $1.54 billion (Bloomberg average)

It's not hard to see why Yervoy took off after its launch in March 2011. The drug, heralded as a scientific breakthrough, became the first new melanoma treatment to hit the market in years and the only drug ever to extend survival in patients with advanced forms of the cancer. Developers designed Yervoy, a monoclonal antibody, to block a protein that inhibits immune system cells. That process frees those cells up to boost the immune system's ability to fight tumors.

Patients paid for that innovation. While cancer drugs as a group have been growing pricier, Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) pushed the envelope with a $30,000-per-infusion sticker that brought the four-dose treatment total to $120,000. But analysts celebrated the high price, predicting Yervoy could hit the blockbuster mark by 2015.

Payers and health officials have not been quite as excited about doling out that much dough. Yervoy ran into reimbursement roadblocks in England, finally winning approval from the U.K.'s cost-effectiveness watchdogs late last year after Bristol-Myers offered a discount. And now Australia, which pays for the drug, plans to monitor patients treated with Yervoy to see if it's worth the cost. In that regard, new survival data from a long-term study, released earlier this week, should bolster Yervoy: Researchers found that nearly a quarter of patients could extend their lives by three years or more with the treatment, with some living nearly a decade.

For its part, BMS is doing what it can to get Yervoy to that blockbuster mark even sooner--perhaps even this year, if it continues down its current path. Last year, Yervoy brought in $706 million--a 96% increase over 2011's revenue total--and the drug racked up another $462 million in the first half of 2013. That's great news for the struggling company, which saw sales plummet when its blockbuster heart drugs Avapro and Plavix went off patent. 

Bristol-Myers has also tried to expand Yervoy's market, albeit with mixed results. In April, the company stopped a Phase I trial testing Yervoy with Roche's Zelboraf (vemurafenib) in melanoma patients because some patients showed signs of liver toxicity. On the other hand, Yervoy showed potential when coupled with a white cell booster from Sanofi ($SNY). That pairing kept more than two-thirds of melanoma patients alive after a year of treatment, compared with just half of those who took Yervoy on its own. Most recently, the drug flopped in a prostate cancer trial, failing to significantly extend patients' lives.

For more:
Australia to track Yervoy patients to see if it's worth the $110K price
Combo immunotherapies reduce risk of death for melanoma patients
Bristol-Myers' Yervoy hopes snag on flubbed prostate cancer trial
Yervoy-Zelboraf combo trial stopped on toxicity worries

-- Carly Helfand (email | Twitter)

Read More:
Yervoy - Bristol-Myers Squibb