UPDATED: AstraZeneca buys a new immuno-oncology weapon in $510M Heptares deal

AstraZeneca ($AZN) has just wrapped its second immuno-oncology deal in as many days, turning to Heptares to in-license an experimental drug that promises to improve the punch of its checkpoint inhibitor durvalumab (MEDI4736). The pharma giant will hand over a $10 million upfront payment for the collaboration, with up to $500 million in development and commercialization milestones--on top of a royalty stream from any approved products.

In exchange, AstraZeneca is getting its hands on global rights to HTL-107, an A2A receptor-blocking compound, along with similar therapies that could be generated inside Heptares.

Checkpoint inhibitors like durvalumab work by unscrambling the interaction between cancer cells and T cells, spurring a direct immune response to cancer--in AstraZeneca's case by focusing on cancer cells' PD-L1 receptor. But HTL-107 is going after a different target: adenosine. Investigators determined years ago that solid tumors use adenosine to interfere with a T-cell attack, acting on the A2A receptor found on the surface of T cells. And Heptares believes it has found a solution.

The deal today marks just the latest step in an industry-wide march toward a revolution in cancer therapy, with Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and Merck ($MRK) leading the way and AstraZeneca, Roche ($RHHBY) and an army of rivals looking to catch up with combinations and new treatments of their own. And while AstraZeneca is slated to be a late arrival at the immunotherapy party, CEO Pascal Soriot has been pouring time and money into the field in a global effort aimed at inspiring some added confidence in a future that has been darkened by an onslaught of generic drug competition. Just yesterday AstraZeneca inked a collaboration with San Diego-based Mirati Therapeutics to add its HDAC inhibitor mocetinostat with durvalumab in a study focused on non-small cell lung cancer.

The deal also marks an advance in Heptares' work on G-protein-coupled receptors, a big field that covers a variety of ailments. While there are similar adenosine drugs in the clinic, including late-stage work on tozadenant at Biotie, many of the rivals in the field are targeted to Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other CNS conditions. There have been a few such programs in the clinic. Vernalis and Biogen had a program in the clinic for Parkinson's, but had to scuttle vipadenant in 2010 based on signs of preclinical toxicity. Now Vernalis is pursuing a new program dubbed V81444. Paleobiopharma has a drug called PBF-509 in Phase II for lung cancer, while Domain Therapeutics set up Kaldi Pharma to pursue work on their program, which pairs an adenosine drug with a PD-1 drug.

MVM Life Science Partners got the U.K.-based Heptares started and then continued to offer financing with a syndicate that included Clarus Ventures, Novartis Venture Fund, Takeda Ventures and the Stanley Family Foundation. Then Japan's Sosei stepped in to buy the company early this year in a pact worth up to $400 million, attracted by a string of development deals with AstraZeneca, MedImmune, Cubist (bought by Merck), Takeda, MorphoSys and Novartis ($NVS).

FierceBiotech named Heptares a Fierce 15 company in 2009.

AstraZeneca's Susan Galbraith

"By combining the pioneering A2A receptor program with the strength of AstraZeneca's oncology portfolio, we hope to develop novel treatments with the potential to transform the lives of patients," noted Susan Galbraith, the vice president, head of oncology in AstraZeneca's Innovative Medicines and Early Development Unit, in a statement.

- here's the release

Special Report: FierceBiotech's 2009 Fierce 15 - Heptares Therapeutics