AstraZeneca builds cancer R&D dream house with $150M Definiens buyout, J&J deal

Bahija Jallal, MedImmune EVP

Looking to build an oncology powerhouse, AstraZeneca ($AZN) has scooped up the diagnostics player Definiens with a down payment of $150 million while executing another drug development partnership with Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) and Pharmacyclics ($PCYC) to add to its growing portfolio of immuno-oncology deals. In the development deal AstraZeneca will match its closely-watched PD-L1 checkpoint inhibitor MEDI4736 with Imbruvica (ibrutinib) for hematological cancers.

The Definiens deal is designed to give AstraZeneca new technology that can be used to develop better biomarkers for cancer. Just last summer the German diagnostics company raised $20 million in venture backing to support further development of Tissue Phenomics, the brainchild of Nobel laureate Gerd Binnig, which creates tissue-based diagnostic tests that can be used to identify which patients are responding to a drug and where the best outcomes are likely to be found.

In addition to the $150 million down payment, AstraZeneca committed to a slate of milestones, which are being kept under wraps, to complete the Definiens deal.

AstraZeneca believes that this new technology can be used to identify well-defined groups of cancer patients for their new drugs, particularly a new generation of combination therapies now in the making, cutting the time and cost of new drug development. The buyout, though, raises the question of whether a developing personalized medicine platform technology like this can best be improved on by a multinational like AstraZeneca--which is undergoing a massive, years-long R&D makeover.

Briggs Morrison, AstraZeneca EVP, global medicines development and chief medical officer

AstraZeneca execs would say they are.

"MedImmune has a comprehensive programme in immuno-oncology and the identification of patients who are most likely to respond to particular therapies is critical to our ability to successfully develop new medicines," said Dr. Bahija Jallal, the executive vice president of MedImmune. "Definiens' technology will complement our immuno-oncology approach and allow us to accelerate further our clinical programmes through its highly precise predictive and prognostic biomarker testing."

The Imbruvica tie-up, meanwhile, will start out looking for the right dose of the combination with plans to immediately follow up with an initial assessment of the safety and efficacy of the combination in a Phase IIa trial. Traditional dividing lines between stages of development have been blurring in drug development as investigators try on new adaptive trial models that can speed up their work. And right now checkpoint inhibitors, which can spur an immune system attack while a combination treatment zeroes in on particular cancer cells, are being pushed as fast as possible.

None of the financial details were disclosed on this deal, which joins a full pipeline of combinations joined by Merck ($MRK), Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and Roche ($RHHBY).

"We are committed to progressing our strong immuno-oncology pipeline as rapidly as possible," noted AstraZeneca's Briggs Morrison. "Our partnership with Pharmacyclics and Janssen supports our exploration of the potential of anti-PD-L1 in haematological cancers--an area of significant unmet need as many lymphoma patients still progress despite treatment. It is also further evidence of our belief that combination therapies have the potential to be one of the most effective ways of treating cancer."

- here's the release on the buyout
- and the release on the combination pact

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