UPDATED: AstraZeneca offers $727M package to partner with Inovio on immuno-oncology

AstraZeneca's business development team is on a tear on the cancer front. The pharma giant's big MedImmune subsidiary has nailed down its third pact in 5 days, inking a collaboration with Plymouth Meeting, PA-based Inovio Pharmaceuticals ($INO) on a cancer vaccine designed to generate a tumor-specific T cell response. MedImmune is handing over a $27.5 million upfront and up to $700 million in milestones for the deal while agreeing to also cover the research tab.

In return, AstraZeneca ($AZN) is getting a souped-up version of Inovio's somewhat controversial lead cancer vaccine: INO-3112. The cancer vaccine is a mix of Inovio's lead therapy INO-3100 and an immune activator coded for IL-12 that is intended to help amp up the efficacy. Inovio has been pushing INO-3100 ahead for HPV types 16 and 18, with the 3112 program recently demonstrating some biomarker activity among a small set of four patients.

Inovio's shares immediately shot up 23% on news of the move.

Inovio, which occasionally finds itself in a biotech back alley brawl with TheStreet's Adam Feuerstein, was recently forced to defend its decision to post "per protocol" efficacy data on 3100, limiting the efficacy results to the patients who finished treatment rather than the intent-to-treat analysis most biotechs prefer. The move caused Feuerstein to question the validity of the data, while also raising questions about historically relevant placebo responses seen in other studies.

None of that, though, appeared to make much difference for AstraZeneca, which has been stepping up on the collaborative front as it advances a new PD-L1 checkpoint inhibitor--durvalumab (MEDI4736)--designed to unleash an immune system attack on cancer cells. Like several of its rivals, AstraZeneca sees the next big wave of cancer R&D focused on combinations between the checkpoint inhibitors and other therapies that can double or triple the force of an attack on specific cancer targets.

As a result, AstraZeneca just struck back-to-back deals with Heptares for the adenosine-targeting drug HTL-107 (a package worth up to $510 million) and Mirati for a combo approach using the biotech's HDAC inhibitor mocetinostat with durvalumab in a study focused on non-small cell lung cancer. But while rivals hustle up some blockbuster deals among the major players in the field, AstraZeneca's most recent round of deals required relatively little upfront to partner with lesser-known biotechs in the field. That strategy may come into question later as AstraZeneca plays catch-up with some major league competition.

Medimmune SVP David Berman

"Today's collaboration with Inovio leverages our deep internal expertise in the use of vaccines to drive antigen-specific T-cell responses," David Berman, senior vice president and head of the oncology innovative medicines unit at MedImmune. "The unique combination of our broad immuno-oncology portfolio with Inovio's T-cell-activating INO-3112, which enhances cancer specific killer T-cells, has the potential to deliver real clinical benefits for patients." 

- here's the release