AstraZeneca adds Advaxis to a growing roster of immuno-oncology partners

Advaxis CEO Daniel J. O'Connor

AstraZeneca ($AZN) has partnered up with Princeton, NJ-based Advaxis on a program that pairs the pharma giant's closely watched immuno-oncology drug MEDI4736 with the biotech's therapeutic cancer vaccine for HPV-related cancers.

Advaxis has been touting some midstage survival data for ADXS-HPV this year, with 22% of 109 women with recurrent cervical cancer making it past the 18-month milestone in a single-arm study. The biotech uses benign bacteria as a delivery vehicle, looking to kick-start an immune response to the cancer. Now the biotech will fund a combination study to see how patients respond to an immuno-oncology duo, with AstraZeneca's candidate taking down the defense system employed by cancer cells while ADXS-HPV marshals an attack.

Shares of Advaxis ($ADXS) surged 8% Tuesday morning.

Like Merck ($MRK), Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and Roche ($RHHBY)--which are leading the IO field with AstraZeneca--the Big Pharma company knows that the second wave of cancer therapies will be in combination assaults like this one. AstraZeneca already signed on to pair the anti-PD-L1 drug MEDI4736. being developed by its biologics subsidiary MedImmune, with Incyte's oral indoleamine dioxygenase-1 (IDO1) inhibitor, INCB24360. Merck has executed a long series of pacts while Bristol-Myers has been busy partnering and Roche links up with a string of in-house therapies.

Therapeutic cancer vaccines are a likely partner for the top IO companies. They employ complementary approaches to treating cancer and the vaccine crowd has been dogged by often lackluster performance in the clinic. The immunotherapeutic vaccines could use a boost and pharma needs all the biotech partners it can find to develop new products with some of the most impressive technology to come along in years. The attention AstraZeneca has won for MEDI4736 has gone a long way to convincing investors that the company has a big future in cancer drugs, which helped it stave off an unwanted takeover attempt from Pfizer ($PFE).

Merck recently executed a lineup of collaborations for pembrolizumab (MK-34-75), the star immuno-oncology program at the pharma giant which has stirred immense excitement as it barrels toward its first decision from the FDA. In that slate of partnerships Merck included INCB24360. Bristol-Myers, meanwhile, isn't being left out of the frenzied partnering now going on in the field. Celldex says it's pairing its CD27-targeting antibody varlilumab with nivolumab in a Phase I/II study. And Bristol-Myers is paying $5 million for the privilege, with the two companies splitting the trial costs.

"This is the first time a PD-L1 checkpoint inhibitor will be used with a new class of immunotherapies," says Advaxis CEO Daniel J. O'Connor in a statement. "As multiple companies vie for a competitive advantage in the future PD-L1 market, the ability of our immunotherapy platform to attack multiple tumour targets makes it an attractive combination therapy."

- here's the release