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AstraZeneca forges $500M cancer immunotherapy buyout for MedImmune

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AstraZeneca ($AZN) is rolling the dice on a $500 million deal--including $225 million upfront--to buy the early-stage cancer immunotherapy specialist Amplimmune for its U.S. biologics arm MedImmune. AstraZeneca is promising up to $275 million in development milestones.

Immunotherapies have emerged as one of the hottest fields in biotech, and Amplimmune has been plumbing some popular topics in the field. Its portfolio includes AMP-514, a preclinical PD-1 monoclonal antibody slated for an IND filing in the next few months. Other pipeline assets include several preclinical molecules targeting the B7 pathways.

This is the latest in a long lineup of deals executed in the last two years as AstraZeneca struggles to overcome one of the weakest pipelines in the pharma industry. Under Soriot AstraZeneca has been striking deals for every stage of the pipeline and across an array of indications, starting with a big early-stage pact with Moderna and moving on up to its acquisitions of Omthera Pharmaceuticals (in a $443 million deal) and Pearl Therapeutics ($1.15 billion) as well as the recently announced $815 million collaboration with FibroGen.

While deal-making overall in the biopharma industry had been relatively slow in the first six months, analysts expect an upturn in the second half. And today's Amplimmune buyout, the looming Actelion deal to buy Ceptaris along with the multibillion-dollar Onyx purchase by Amgen, will help make that projection a reality.

Amplimmune's claim to fame rests on its IMT-C platform, which AstraZeneca describes much like the clinical-stage PD-1 drugs that were at the center of ASCO's spotlight last summer. The technology revs up the immune system so it can overwhelm cancer cells' cloaking mechanism that keeps the cancer hidden from the immune system. The biotech is based in Gaithersburg, MD--like MedImmune--and has a Phase Ib under way for AMP-224, a lead cancer drug, as well as an autoimmune therapy partnered with Daiichi Sankyo earlier this year.

The deal should be a good cultural fit. Amplimmune CEO Michael Richman and CSO Sol Langermann both completed stints at MedImmune. Richman had been the business development chief while Langermann worked in research.

Under new CEO Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca designated MedImmune as its biologics development arm under the direction of Executive Vice President Bahija Jallal. This new deal--which builds on clinical-stage assets tremelimumab, anti-OX40 mAb and MEDI-4736 (an anti-PD-L1 mAb)--should give the group an inside track on creating combo IMT-C therapies as well as combinations with targeted small molecules.

"MedImmune's focus on harnessing the power of the patient's own immune system to fight cancer will be complemented by Amplimmune's innovative work in this area. It will allow us to strengthen our arsenal of potential cancer therapies," said Jallal. "We are excited to be working with the Amplimmune team to help find new treatments to address areas of unmet medical need."

- here's the release

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