Immuno-oncology partnering-palooza continues with Genentech, AstraZeneca deals

AstraZeneca's headquarters in London--Courtesy of AstraZeneca

Demonstrating yet again that AstraZeneca ($AZN) sees a big future for itself in the hot immuno-oncology field, the pharma giant today unveiled another collaboration on a combo for MEDI-4736, its anti-PD-L1 therapy looking to suit up for some blockbuster competition in treating cancer. Japan's Kyowa Hakko Kirin is matching its anti-CCR4 antibody, mogamulizumab, with AstraZeneca's MEDI-4736 to gauge its efficacy and safety in an exploratory Phase I/Ib study. And AstraZeneca will also match its anti-CTLA-4 antibody tremelimumab with Kyowa's drug in a separate combination.

Just hours after AstraZeneca and Kyowa made their IO announcement, Roche's big Genentech subsidiary said it will marry up with Incyte--matching Roche's big program for the anti-PD-L1 drug MPDL3280A with the biotech's closely-watched IDO1 inhibitor, INCB24360--now partnered with three of the top players in immuno-oncology.

The combination deals in IO are coming fast and furious now. Just days ago AstraZeneca signed a partnership with Advaxis ($ADXS) on the biotech's lead cancer vaccine in patients with HPV-related cancers. That followed a deal between AstraZeneca's biologics subsidiary MedImmune with Incyte on INCB24360, which is also already partnered with Merck's pembrolizumab.

AstraZeneca has managed to be included in the pioneering group of players working on immune checkpoint inhibitors, which prominently features competing teams from Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMS) (nivolumab), Merck ($MRK) (pembrolizumab) and Roche ($RHHBY) (the rival PD-L1 drug MPDL3280A.) Merck has been the leader in the partnering arena, executing a long lineup of collaborations. But all the players see combo treatments as the big second wave in R&D, with immuno-oncology treatments dismantling the protective screen cancer cells use to hide from the immune system and other drugs spurring an attack.

The partnership between Genentech and Incyte, though, is somewhat unusual, as Roche has preferred to keep most of its IO combination programs in-house up to now. Incyte will remain in charge of the combination study.

Kyowa's anti-CCR4 antibody has proved highly toxic to leukemia cells, though investigators have also noticed some severe adverse events when they ratchet up the dose.

AstraZeneca licensed in tremelimumab--which also dismantles an inhibitory mechanism that prevents cell destruction--from Pfizer back in 2011. Ironically, it factored into Pfizer's controversial buyout proposal recently, as analysts spotlighted AstraZeneca's emerging oncology pipeline and its top prospects as a major draw for Pfizer. Pfizer outlicensed the therapy as it started a major global revamp of its R&D operations, also giving up most of the rights to Puma's new drug neratinib, which just successfully completed its Phase III.

After giving away much of the store at a deep discount, Pfizer finds itself with a weak pipeline in need of buying an experimental drug pipeline at a premium. In Big Pharma, history often repeats itself.

- here's the release on AstraZeneca
- here's the release on the Incyte/Genentech matchup