MedImmune chief taps top prospects, hunts new biologics deals

Last year AstraZeneca's ($AZN) MedImmune did about 20 biologics deals, not counting the academic pacts it assembled. This year, MedImmune R&D chief Bahija Jallal tells me, there will be no letup in talent scouting. "If we do as little or more than last year," says Jallal, "I would be happy."

Echoing late-stage R&D chief Briggs Morrison--who spoke with me at BIO last week--Jallal singled out cardiovascular/metabolics, respiratory and cancer as key fields for new deals. She noted particular interest in brown fat, a focus for weight-loss fans, and immunotherapeutics, which has emerged as one of the hottest sectors in oncology R&D.

Jallal is now one of three executive vice presidents for R&D at AstraZeneca, a troika that includes Morrison and Mene Pangalos, who's taking on early- and mid-stage small molecules. After proving a major disappointment to AstraZeneca after ex-CEO David Brennan engineered a $15 billion buyout, MedImmune has reorganized and emerged as the pharma giant's large-molecule hub. Jallal is responsible for early- and mid-stage biologics research, putting her in the driver's seat of a big operation with 2,200 staffers at a time AstraZeneca has been scouring the biotech community for new drugs.

The unit currently has 120 programs, 35 of which are in the clinic, making up half of AstraZeneca's total pipeline. Three of its drugs were singled out as top prospects by Jallal--a crucial factor if you consider that AstraZeneca clearly expects to find internal programs that can be put into late-stage development. AstraZeneca has had one of the weakest late-stage pipelines in the industry and MedImmune will play a big role in determining if the company can shake off the missteps and repeated failures that left them in this position. 

Among MedImmune's top prospects are:

  • Brodalumab (AMG-827), one of the five programs that AstraZeneca and Amgen partnered on a year ago. This IL-17 targeting therapy has been in several mid-stage studies for psoriasis and asthma, and Jallal has high hopes for its success in Phase III. Vontobel analysis Andrew Weiss has also been bullish about this drug's prospects after looking at mid-stage psoriasis data. Jallal was enthusiastic about the Amgen collaboration in general, noting that it's the kind of opportunity that MedImmune has been happy to grab. Another partnership Jallal struck with Wuxi AppTec to develop MEDI5117 for China also rates high.
  • Moxetumomab (CAT-8015), an anti-CD22 drug for hairy cell leukemia. "That one was really not on the radar," says Jallal. "It was in Phase I, but there was such important data, we are accelerating from Phase I to Phase III." The regulatory talks are wrapped and "we should be able to start soon. In Phase I we saw almost a 90% response rate and 56% with a complete response. Some cases were durable. The NCI prompted us to accelerate the program."
  • Benralizumab, an IL-5 drug being studied for eosinophilic asthma. An elevation in a type of white blood cells is linked to severity of the disease in up to 60% of patients who find it hard to control asthma with inhaled corticosteroids, making this a big target with a population that can be identified with the right diagnostic tool. "We believe that we have a good molecule and a good approach."

Those last two drugs haven't been in the spotlight. And even brodalumab hasn't sparked a considerable amount of conversation. If AstraZeneca's new CEO Pascal Soriot expects a near-term turnaround at AstraZeneca, that is one dialogue that needs to begin in earnest by the end of this year. -- John Carroll, Editor-in-Chief. Follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.