Immuno-oncology collaborations enliven 2015’s dog days


The rush to immuno-oncology is far from astonishing considering the soaring performance of Keytruda and Opdivo. But even against this frenzied backdrop this week has seen a glut of deals for this type of therapy, with Merck seeking novel drugs to combine with Keytruda and many other companies trying to get a toehold in the space.

The attempts are of course focused on manipulating the immune system to cause it to kill tumours, but the means by which they hope to achieve this goal vary considerably. Strategically, leaders like Merck and Roche are trying to build on the franchises they have already established, while the laggards simply want to make sure they do not miss out.


Yesterday Merck came to an arrangement with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center to look at combining Keytruda with chemotherapy, radiation or undisclosed therapies to treat gastroesophageal adenocarcinoma, pancreatic adenocarcinoma and hepatocellular carcinoma. The collaboration will last three years and the first trial should start soon, but financial details were not released.

A similar combination approach will be taken by Immune Design, which has been courted by both Merck & Co and Roche to test its agents in conjunction with the two pharma giants’ checkpoint inhibitors. Again Merck is to add to Keytruda, this time with Immune Design’s G100 and LV305. The former responds to antigens released by tumour cell death and the latter seeks to activate cancer-killing T cells against tissue expressing the NY-ESO-1 antigen.

Two days after that announcement, Immune Design disclosed it had signed a deal with Roche to test atezolizumab with CMB305, a prime-boost combination of LV305 with another project, G305, which uses a similar approach to G100.

Alligator pair

Johnson & Johnson’s subsidiary Janssen Biotech snapped up an exclusive worldwide license to Alligator Bioscience’s ADC-1013, which targets CD40 and is thereby intended to spur T cells to attack tumour cells. ADC-1013 is currently in a phase I dose-escalation trial in patients with advanced solid tumours which Alligator will complete, after which Janssen will take over entirely, becoming responsible for R&D, manufacturing, approval and commercialisation.

The signing fee was again kept under wraps, but Alligator said that if all the predetermined development, regulatory and commercial milestones are met it stands to rake in a total of $700m.

This could put it in the same class as the pact announced between AstraZeneca and Inovio Pharmaceuticals on Monday. The milestone payments associated with that deal could also be worth $700m; the upfront fee clocked in at nearly $30m (Vaccines lead charge in cervical cancer, August 10, 2015).

The Alligator deal was Janssen’s second in two days, having licensed its Centyrin molecular binding technology out to private biotech Poseida Therapeutics on August 11. The worldwide agreement allows Poseida, a spin-out from Transposagen Biopharmaceuticals, to use the tech to develop autologous T cells or natural killer cells that express a Centyrin molecule or Centyrin Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) molecule, enabling them to bind to cancer cell antigens.

Poseida will be able to develop three different therapies, including one that it is already working on in house as part of an autologous CAR-T therapy to treat multiple myeloma.


A slightly different angle – focusing on diagnostics – was taken by Sorrento Therapeutics, its subsidiary TNK Therapeutics and the sister biotechs CytoLumina Technologies and FetoLumina Technologies. Sorreto and TNK are to use their partners’ assay, NanoVelcro, to identify circulating tumour cells in peripheral blood of cancer patients as a way of monitoring the disease’s progression and hence the effectiveness of its treatment. This is similar to the liquid biopsy approach that has been the subject of a great deal of excitement owing to its potential to save healthcare systems money. Again, financial terms remain opaque.

Sanofi has found itself well out of the oncology game since it launched Jevtana in 2010 but is making a stab at re-entering in something more advanced than chemotherapy. The French group announced earlier this week it had partnered with Evotec and Apeiron Biologics to develop small molecule immunotherapy agents.

For Evotec and Sanofi, it appears to be an extension of a deal agreed earlier this year in which the German biotech assumed control of the French pharma giant’s plant in Toulouse, while offering its drug discovery services and combining small-molecule libraries. Austria-based Apeiron adds immunology expertise – the group has advanced an anti-GD2 ganglioside antibody into phase III in neuroblastoma – to the partnership, which will see Sanofi funding the project for two years and the other partners eligible for up to €200m ($223m) in milestones.

In many cases the signing and milestone payments for these deals have been kept dark, but when figures do emerge they include sizeable deal terms, even for early-stage assets. There is money to be made in immuno-oncology and the big names are trying to get a slice of the pie in any way they can. There certainly seems to be enough pie to go round. 

To contact the writer of this story email Elizabeth Cairns in London at or follow @LizEPVantage on Twitter

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