AstraZeneca adds Lilly to its stable of immuno-oncology collaborators

AstraZeneca's Robert Iannone

AstraZeneca ($AZN) believes the brightest future for its top oncology prospect will come through collaboration, recruiting Eli Lilly ($LLY) to its growing ranks of partners with eyes on kicking off a combination cancer trial.

The company's treatment, MEDI4736, is an antibody designed to block a protein called PD-L1 and thereby cut the brakes on the immune system and allow the body's natural defenses to attack tumors. Under a new agreement, AstraZeneca is loaning the antibody out to Lilly for a Phase I trial in tandem with that company's Cyramza, a VEGF blocker approved to treat gastric, lung and colorectal cancers.

The pair isn't disclosing financial details, saying only that Lilly will pay for the trial and recruit patients with advanced solid tumors. And if things go well, the companies have the option of extending their research into expansion cohorts of patients with various tumor types.

"We believe that combination therapy in immuno-oncology has the potential to transform the way cancer is treated," AstraZeneca immuno-oncology head Robert Iannone said in a statement. "... Our collaboration with Lilly is a great addition to our program and provides the opportunity to explore another exciting, novel combination that could deliver important clinical benefit to cancer patients."

Like its rivals Merck ($MRK) and Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY), AstraZeneca is committed to the idea that matching PD-1 and PD-L1 therapies with other marketed or in-development treatments is the best way forward in immuno-oncology, and the company has been steadily widening its stable of partners in hopes of eventually getting MEDI4736 approved for a host of cancers.

AstraZeneca just kicked off a combination trial pairing MEDI4736 with Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) and AbbVie's ($ABBV) Imbruvica, an oral drug for hematological cancers, and the drugmaker has partnered up with Juno Therapeutics ($JUNO) to test that company's pioneering CAR-T technology with MEDI4736. Separately, Celgene ($CELG) paid AstraZeneca $450 million up front for the right to develop MEDI4736 in certain liquid tumors, a deal the U.K. company said will get the industry's best minds focused on pushing its top prospect forward.

Analysts figure the whole class of PD-1 and PD-L1 blockers could top out at about $35 billion a year, and AstraZeneca has said MEDI4736 could eventually bring in $6.5 billion on its own in peak annual sales.

- read the statement

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