AstraZeneca signs up for MD Anderson's 'moon-shot' immuno-oncology project

MD Anderson's popular "moon-shot" immuno-oncology research project has won over another big industry player looking to play catch-up in the hottest race in cancer drug R&D. AstraZeneca's ($AZN) biologics arm, MedImmune, has become the latest Big Pharma player to join a team that has already attracted Pfizer ($PFE) and Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ).

MD Anderson scored a coup when it recruited Jim Allison--a lead investigator in the development of Bristol-Myer's Yervoy--and built a $40 million program that is planning 6 "moon shots"; new ways to unleash an immune system attack on 8 cancers. The Houston-based group announced early on that it will be very selective in partnering with Big Pharma on immuno-oncology, and that has proven to be the case so far.

All the players are keeping the dollars at stake under lock and key for now, but the group is dominated by Big Pharmas that would like to rival Merck ($MRK), Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and Roche ($RHHBY), which have the lead therapies in the blockbuster race to use PD-1 and PD-L1 targets to marshal an attack on cancer. Maybe a "moon shot" will help them do just that.

MedImmune in particular has been bullish about its prospects in the field. MedImmune execs recently told The Washington Post that the MD Anderson program could help them identify patient groups most likely to benefit from their four experimental immunotherapies in the pipeline.

"You can see what's going on with that individual patient that's being treated with your drug," Ed Bradley, head of MedImmune's oncology innovative medicines unit, told the Post. "You can see if they're getting the response that you hope they have."

A number of analysts who have tired of waiting to see if MedImmune will ever pay off for AstraZeneca, though, say that AstraZeneca/MedImmune likely won't make it to the market with anything before 2017, leaving it far behind the leaders. AstraZeneca has been reorganizing its R&D operations for years now, most recently pointing to a restructuring that will move its HQ and a large portion of its research ops to Cambridge, U.K.

- here's the release