MedImmune's top cancer researcher jumps ship to small biotech

MedImmune’s vice president of research and head of oncology R&D Ronald Herbst, Ph.D., has followed a series of other AstraZeneca and its biologics arm staffers out the door.

No, not to Immunocore, but to little-known and very early-stage Boston-based biotech Pyxis Oncology, coming on board as its chief scientific officer.

The company, which is working on developing a new family of antibody-based immunotherapies based on the tumor microenvironment, is preclinical, hoping to plug the gap made by current immuno-oncology therapies and move I-O forward.

This comes amid a host of changes at Herbst’s old company and its parent in cancer research and R&D more generally: AZ earlier this year made a new bet on oncology, putting down nearly $7 billion on an antibody-drug conjugate (ADC) out of Japanese pharma Daiichi Sankyo's pipeline as it looks beyond its also-ran checkpoint inhibitor Imfinzi.

Daiichi got a pretty major $1.35 billion upfront, although this is still heavily backloaded with a $5.5 billion biobucks promise should everything go to plan, with $1.75 billion of this coming from potential sales.

What’s this huge chunk of change going into? Daiichi’s lead ADC, [fam-] trastuzumab deruxtecan (DS-8201), which is in tests for HER2-expressing cancers including breast and gastric cancers as well as non-small cell lung and colorectal cancers.

It's also been changing up its R&D executive suite: After an exodus of executives over the past year or so, the British-based pharma hired controversial scientist José Baselga to run its newly formed cancer-focused unit, where the new ADC development will sit.

At the same time, Mene Pangalos, who was previously responsible for the company’s Innovative Medicines and Early Development Biotech unit, took the helm at another new unit, the Research and Development unit for BioPharmaceuticals, which focuses on research for cardiovascular, renal and metabolism and respiratory—i.e., most of its work outside cancer.

MedImmune has also seen an exodus: Bahija Jallal, David Berman, Koustubh Ranade and, most recently, Mohammed Dar all, a little strangely, ended up at U.K. biotech Immunocore.

Dar had been MedImmune’s vice president of clinical development oncology R&D while Jallal, a former 12-year veteran at MedImmune, became Immunocore's CEO at the start of the year and was swiftly followed by Berman, the ex-head of the I-O franchise at AstraZeneca; they join Ranade, its head of translational medicine, formerly the VP of translational medicine at MedImmune for all therapeutic areas (and who also worked on Imfinzi).

Now, you can add Herbst to that list (although he bucked the trend by not going to Immunocore).

“Dr. Herbst brings a remarkable record of achievement to the role of Chief Scientific Officer at Pyxis Oncology, including most recently delivering 10 novel targets to the clinic in the areas of immunotherapy and antibody drug conjugates,” said David Steinberg, CEO, co-founder and director of Pyxis Oncology.

“With over 20 years of research leadership at MedImmune, Schering-Plough Biopharma and DNAX, Ronald also brings a deeply strategic approach to cancer research. His focus on developing immunotherapies will help accelerate our antibody development programs aimed at newly discovered immuno-oncology targets. On behalf of all us at Pyxis, I welcome Dr. Herbst to our team of innovators.”

“Pyxis is taking an entirely new approach to immuno-oncology based on over two decades of research by Dr. Tom Gajewski on the role of T cells in the body’s defense against cancer,” said Herbst.

“I believe this approach has the potential to fundamentally change our understanding of how to restore activity to dysfunctional T cells. I look forward to applying this insight to develop a pipeline of antibodies that can hopefully improve cancer treatment, particularly for those patients with limited therapeutic options.”