The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and MedImmune, the global biologics research and development arm of AstraZeneca, will collaborate through MD Anderson's Moon Shots Program to develop therapies that unleash patients' immune systems to attack their cancers.
"Our collaboration with MedImmune, a leader in the field of immunotherapy, will draw on the strengths of both institutions to push ahead for more effective treatments for cancer patients," said Jim Allison, Ph.D., executive director of the moon shots immunotherapy platform and professor and chair of Immunology at MD Anderson.
MD Anderson's Moon Shots Program is an ambitious effort to dramatically reduce cancer deaths through six moon shots that target eight cancers. The moon shots are supported by several new research platforms that provide infrastructure, expertise and technology.
The three-year agreement with MedImmune covers translational and clinical research.
MedImmune is conducting clinical trials using a new therapeutic paradigm that targets immune cells to improve their tumor-fighting ability, rather than targeting the tumor cell itself. Through the collaboration, MD Anderson will evaluate several of MedImmune's immunotherapy molecules in a clinical setting in order to better understand how these molecules elicit immune response in patients.
It is hoped that data collected from these studies will shed light on treatment-related changes to tumors, with the ultimate aim of identifying optimal combination therapies and developing biomarkers to guide and assess the safety and efficacy of MedImmune's immunotherapy molecules.
"We are excited to work with MD Anderson in the Moon Shots program, pairing their unique immunotherapy platform with our innovative portfolio of immune-mediated cancer therapies," said Ed Bradley, M.D., Senior Vice President and Head of MedImmune's Oncology Innovative Medicines Unit. "Our partnership will provide MedImmune with an invaluable opportunity to evaluate the biological impact of our immune-mediated cancer agents, both as monotherapy and combination therapy."
"Our partnership with MedImmune will provide us with exciting agents to study in novel pre-surgical clinical trials aimed at identifying early clinical signals and mechanistic insights, which will drive future immunotherapy strategies for the benefit of patients," said platform Scientific Director Padmanee Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of Genitourinary Medical Oncology at MD Anderson.
The agreement is the third of a limited number of immunotherapy collaborations to be reached by MD Anderson with leading-edge industry partners.
"MedImmune has deep expertise in cancer immunotherapy reflected in its powerful drug pipeline," said Ferran Prat, Ph.D., J.D., MD Anderson vice president of strategic industry ventures. "This agreement opens up new possibilities for MD Anderson and MedImmune."
"We have a select group of immunotherapy partners and will soon stop accepting new agreements in order to ensure that we can fully deliver for our existing partners," Prat said.
Allison's basic science research on T cell biology led to an entirely new method of treating cancer called immune checkpoint blockade, which blocks receptors on the surface of T cells that tumors use to turn off immune attack.
Allison created an antibody to the checkpoint CTLA-4 and worked in its development as the drug ipilimumab (Yervoy-), the first drug of its kind and also the first to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for late-stage melanoma. More than 20 percent of melanoma patients given the drug develop long-lasting remissions for five years and longer.
Since immune checkpoint blockade treats the immune system, rather than the tumor directly, it will have application to other cancer types as well. "The era of immune system therapies for cancer is really just beginning," Allison said.
In December, the journal Science designated cancer immunotherapy as its 2013 Breakthrough of the Year, noting Allison's leadership in the field, The Economist named Allison winner of its 2013 Innovations Award for Biosciences and he received a $3 million 2013 Breakthrough Prize for Biosciences from the foundation of the same name launched last year by internet and social media entrepreneurs. He will also receive the 2014 Szent-Gy-rgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research from the National Foundation for Cancer Research.
Enhanced capabilities in immunotherapy
MD Anderson's immunotherapy platform has enhanced and increased the institution's capabilities in expertise, technology and techniques since Allison's arrival in November of 2012.
Patrick Hwu, M.D., chair of Melanoma Medical Oncology is co-director of the platform. MD Anderson has invested $40 million in the platform, including philanthropic funds and a $10 million Established Investigator grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas to recruit Allison from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Allison also is deputy director of the David H Koch Center for Applied Research of Genitourinary Cancers and holds the Vivian L. Smith Distinguished Chair in Immunology at MD Anderson.
Additional immune checkpoints and drugs to target some of them have been discovered and are in clinical trials. At MD Anderson, clinical trials of ipilimumab and other agents target melanoma, lymphoma, lung, breast, gastric, kidney and prostate cancers.
MD Anderson researchers also are working on a variety of ways to enhance T cell attacks on cancer cells. For example, one method involves harvesting a patient's own cancer-targeting T cells, expanding their number in the lab, and then reinfusing them in the patient.
Another involves customizing a patient's T cells via gene transfer to more efficiently attack tumors and then giving them back to patients. Both methods are in clinical trials. Therapeutic vaccine development also is under way for melanoma, lymphoma and breast cancer.