UPDATED: Genentech eyes 'breakthrough' cancer immunotherapies in pact with U.K. biotech

With unleashing the immune system on cancers all the rage in pharma research, Genentech has sealed a deal with the U.K. drug developer Immunocore to tap its T cell receptor technology for attacking tumors. Genentech, a Roche ($RHHBY) subsidiary, has agreed to pay $10 million to $20 million per cancer target and more than $300 million in development and commercial milestones for each of the programs.

Just weeks ago, Basel, Switzerland-based Roche highlighted data at the major ASCO meeting from clinical studies of an immunotherapy called RG7446 for a range of cancers. Analysts expect powerful new immunotherapies like Roche's PD-L1 antibody and other experimental therapies from Merck ($MRK), Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and others to drive an eventual $35 billion market. Roche, which is the world's top provider of cancer drugs with products such as Herceptin and Avastin, expands its foothold in the immunotherapy field with the Immunocore deal.  

"We believe Immunocore is the leading company in T cell receptor biology and drug development and an excellent partner for Genentech in this area," James Sabry, Genentech's senior vice president of partnering, stated. "We are delighted to have initiated this significant partnership with them. We hope this collaboration will lead to breakthrough therapies for cancer patients with unmet medical needs."

Abingdon, U.K.-based Immunocore formed in 2008 through a spinoff from the German biotech MediGene to focus on advancing the T cell receptor technology. T cell receptors identify misfit molecules such as cancer cells, triggering immune attacks on disease molecules. Immunocore's special sauce is its technology for linking engineered T cell receptors to anti-CD3 antibody fragments, forming bispecific antibody compounds called ImmTACs. 

Normally, there are too few cancer-identifying peptides on the surfaces of tumor cells for soldier T cells to recognize them as diseased, enabling the cancer cells to operate below the radar of the immune system, Immunocore CEO James Noble told FierceBiotech in an interview. To overcome this escape mechanism of cancer cells, the company engineers T cell receptors to home in on as few as 10 of the peptides on the surface of cancer cells, and the anti-CD3 fragment serves as a recruiter of natural T cells to attack the tumors.

"What we're trying to do is close the window of escape where it's just below the radar of the T cell system but above the radar of the natural kiler system," Noble said.

It's taken more than a decade and some serious feats of bio-engineering for Noble and Immunocore co-founder and chief scientist Dr. Bent Jakobsen to reach this point. They originally embarked on developing the technology through an Oxford University spinoff company called Avidex in 1999. Avidex ran short on capital in 2006 and was sold to MediGene. Noble spun off the T cell tech again, this time from the German owner, in 2008 with the formation of Immunocore and had raised about $40 million for the new company prior to the Genentech deal, the CEO said.

Immunocore, which has 55 employees, has advanced its lead drug candidate IMCgp100 into Phase I clinical development for patients with melanoma. The deadly skin cancer has been one of the prime targets for many of the immunotherapies in development from Roche and the other major players. That program isn't included in the Genentech pact, which is the startup's first pharma deal.

- here's the release