Novartis backs UPenn's pioneering cancer immunotherapies

Novartis ($NVS) is pumping $20 million into a new research center at the University of Pennsylvania as part of a joint effort to develop bioengineered immune system attacks on cancer. The Swiss drug giant has gained an exclusive deal to commercialize the therapies from the university, which has already shown impressive results in treating patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

The UPenn researchers join an expanding list of top-notch academics that have tied up with Novartis and other large drugmakers on commercializing the discoveries from their labs, which offer pharma early access to hot technologies and the challenge of translating risky science into approved drugs. Yet drugmakers eager to restock their pipelines with potential breakthrough treatments and overcome generics competition have shown a willingness to make such gambles.

In this latest deal, Novartis provides funding for research of modified T cell treatments from the lab of Dr. Carl June, a professor of pathology at UPenn, whose experimental treatments have put his CLL patients' cancers in remission without requiring risky bone marrow transplants. As The New York Times reports, the treatments involve extracting a patient's immune cells and using deactivated HIV-1 to deliver cancer-fighting genes into the cells, which are later infused in the patient's system to wipe out cancer.

"I never thought this would happen, that the pharma industry would get into ultra-personalized therapy," June told Bloomberg. "We had lots of venture capital interest, but it's hard to be a new company and it takes time to get set up. The fastest route to widespread availability is to use an existing company."

June's research made waves after his findings from an early trial came to light in an August 2011 issue of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, in which he and colleagues explained that two patients' CLL was in remission more than a year after treatment. Three companies haggled with the university to gain access to the technology, the news service reported, but Novartis emerged as the winner and has committed an undisclosed amount of research and development funding to advance the treatments.

Breakthrough benefits for patients have a way of translating into rapid development programs and regulatory reviews--just what Novartis and their Big Pharma counterparts need to put their businesses on track. For now, the UPenn group is studying its T cell therapies in CLL as well as in trials for other forms of leukemia, lymphoma, mesothelioma, myeloma and neuroblastoma.

- here's the release
- read the NYT article
- and Bloomberg's report

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