UPDATED: GlaxoSmithKline taps MD Anderson for cancer immune therapy in potential $335M deal

GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) has gained rights to a preclinical program from the renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center, in a pact focused on antibodies that trigger immune attacks against cancer. The deal delivers up to $335 million in payments in addition to royalties to the University of Texas's cancer center from GSK, which is among a pack of large drugmakers seeking juicy assets in oncology from leading academic hubs.

MD Anderson has grabbed an undisclosed upfront sum from GSK and funding to continue research of immune therapies for cancer. It's the first major pharma deal for the center's Institute for Applied Cancer Sciences, which was set up last year to operate as a translational research unit that is akin to "a biotech embedded" in an academic setting, a spokesman for the center said in an email. The prized antibodies in the deal act on OX40 receptors on T cells, helping the ninjas of the immune system recognize tumor cells as enemies in need of an ass kicking. Like all preclinical programs, the merits of the therapies must pass some initial tests before they advance to human clinical studies.

Amid angst about NIH funding in academia, some university scientists have turned to Big Pharma to support their research and pay for rights to develop and commercialize new therapies from their labs. MD Anderson's immune-triggering antibodies emerged from the research of Dr. Yong-Jun Liu during his stint at the Houston cancer center. He's since moved on to become the chief scientist of the Baylor Research Institute in Dallas.

Over the summer Novartis ($NVS) struck a $20 million accord with the University of Pennsylvania to collaborate on cancer immunotherapies, after researchers reported some early success in patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. And Yale University last year landed an initial $40 million collaboration with Gilead Sciences ($GILD) to aid the HIV drug leader's early efforts in oncology research.

Cancer cells adapt to escape immune responses that eventually wear thin in patients and allow tumors to grow. By activating OX40, a secondary signal to alert attacker T cells of cancer, Liu's experimental antibodies aim to switch on the immune system to thwart elusive tumor cells.

"T cell recognition of a tumor antigen is not enough to activate the T cells against cancer cells; they need a secondary signal to tell them 'that antigen you have is a bad thing, you have to attack,'" Liu said in a statement.

- here's the MD Anderson release

Special Report: 20 Major Pharma-Academic Alliances in 2012