AstraZeneca teams with one of the hottest biotechs working on immunotherapies

Immunocore CEO James Noble

Immunocore's list of collaborators is beginning to look like a Who's Who in Big Pharma. Today the biotech--which is developing T cell immunotherapy technology originally spun out of Oxford--added a deal-hungry AstraZeneca ($AZN) and its biologics team at MedImmune as its latest partner, which will now join Genentech and GlaxoSmithKline in exploring whether the biotech has really found a powerful new approach to engineering an immune system attack on cancer cells.

AstraZeneca is playing catch-up in the immunotherapy arena, and appears to have paid a somewhat richer price than Immunocore's original partners to make the inner circle. The biotech--a 2013 Fierce 15 company--is getting $20 million upfront per program and up to $300 million in milestones on each in a deal that is likely to end up focusing on a select group of cancer targets.

What's the big attraction? Over the past decade the Immunocore team has been working at engineering T cell receptor technology, which links the receptors with anti-CD3 antibody fragments to create bispecific immunotherapies--called ImmTACs--designed to hunt down and kill cancer cells otherwise invisible to the human immune system and traditional antibodies. The T cell receptors can flag cancer cells that currently have too few peptides on the surface needed for identification--allowing them to escape the destructive attention of the immune system--while the antibody fragments marshal killer T cells for an attack. And by avoiding healthy tissue the therapy should dial down the side effects common among many of today's harsh cancer treatments.

AstraZeneca was a likely partner all along. The pharma giant is restlessly combing the world in search of the most promising new drug technologies as it tries to shed an era of failure. Cancer has emerged as one of its top focuses, and immunotherapies are all the rage in the industry these days.

This is AstraZeneca's third deal in 5 days. Just yesterday AstraZeneca unveiled a deal with Horizon Discovery, which will employ its siRNA tech platform to hunt down potential new cancer cell killers, screening genotypes for "synthetic lethality." And late last week the pharma giant paid an undisclosed sum to buy a CDK9 program from Probiodrug, which includes a lead molecule and some backups. AstraZeneca says the portfolio has potential both for cancer as well as inflammatory diseases. Cyclin-dependent kinases regulate cell cycle progression.

"I guess were getting better at negotiating," quips Immunocore CEO James Noble about the terms of the new deal with AstraZeneca.

While Immunocore has completed its quest to sign three big pacts, the talks aren't over yet. Noble says he has a series of meetings set up at J.P. Morgan in San Francisco next week, which will include some U.S. pharma giants. He tells FierceBiotech that he would be surprised if the company didn't sign another deal in 2014, noting that Immunocore has 20 validated targets "in the cupboard" for its partners to choose from, with about 10 more being added every year.

The sudden influx of marquee players has made Immunocore one of the brightest stars in the U.K. biotech scene. Noble says the company has doubled its workforce in 6 months, with the staff swelling to about 100. And more hires are being planned as well. The company has several years of cash in the bank, he adds, leaving them plenty of opportunities for clinical achievements. And at least one of the partnerships is already delivering milestone cash.

This new deal has the "potential to further enhance our immune-mediated cancer therapy portfolio for patients with a range of cancer types," said Dr. Bahija Jallal, who runs MedImmune, in a statement. "Immunocore has a strong track record with its innovative ImmTAC technology, and presents a significant opportunity for us to achieve treatment breakthroughs in the area of immune-mediated cancer therapies."

- here's the release