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Can AstraZeneca catch up with the leaders in cancer immunotherapy?

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Gaithersburg, MD-based MedImmune proved to be an enormous disappointment to former AstraZeneca ($AZN) CEO David Brennan after he bought out the company. But the biologics unit is playing a big role in the new CEO's comeback plan. And it's starting to earn some kudos from key analysts following one particularly promising effort to put the pharma company into the center ring of companies competing in the cancer immunotherapy arena.

"Early response rates, lack of antibody dependent cellular toxicity or grade 3/4 toxicities confirm MEDI4736's membership within the PD1/PDL1 class," notes Leerink's Seamus Fernandez today. "AZN's plans to rapidly expand MEDI4736 to additional solid tumors along with near-term initiation of combination trials with Iressa & tremelimumab (anti-CTLA4) warrant attention. Taken together with the blockbuster potential of AZD-929, where a "significant add of patients" over ESMO data will be revealed at IASLC, we ask: Is this giant finally waking up?"

AstraZeneca has been flagging MEDI4736 as one of its most promising biologics, but legacy setbacks on old programs have continued to dominate the headlines for the pharma giant. AstraZeneca is making a serious bid to get into an exclusive club, with Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY), Merck ($MRK) and Roche ($RHHBY) all hustling for the lead in what promises to be a megablockbuster market for new therapies that could significantly extend the survival of cancer patients.

With a little luck and a lot of sheer aggression, AstraZeneca may be able to play catch-up with the leaders. Early-stage data on MK-3475, nivolumab and MPDL3280A has transfixed the oncology R&D industry. The question now is whether AstraZeneca and MedImmune--helmed by Bahija Jallal--can catch up as the leaders race ahead to potential near-term approvals. The answer may lie in its ability to combine programs.

"In an immuno-oncology (IO) market where AZN's anti-PDL1 falls squarely behind BMY, MRK, and Roche, the widely acknowledged area for differentiation will be combinations, both with other IO mAbs (anti-CTLA4 tremelimumab, anti-PD1 AMP-514,OX40 agonist MEDI6469) and with targeted therapies (Iressa – NSCLC). Consistent with AZN's commentary, MEDACorp (key opinion leaders) note that AZN is gearing up for combination trials with Iressa & tremelimumab. We also note that AZN's purchase of Amplimmune gained it access to other IO targets beyond PD1, likely including another attractive checkpoint antibody to B7-H4."

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