The University of TexasMD Anderson Cancer Center and MedImmune, the global biologics R&D arm of AstraZeneca, will collaborate through MD Anderson's Moon Shots Program to develop therapies that unleash patients' immune systems to attack their cancers.
"Our collaboration with MedImmune will draw on the strengths of both institutions to push ahead for more effective treatments for cancer patients," said Jim Allison, Ph.D., executive director of the moon shots immunotherapy platform and professor and chair of immunology at MD Anderson.
MD Anderson's Moon Shots Program is an effort to dramatically reduce cancer deaths through six moon shots that target eight cancers. The moon shots are supported by several new research platforms that provide infrastructure, experience and technology.
The three-year agreement with MedImmune covers translational and clinical research.
MedImmune is conducting clinical trials using a new therapeutic paradigm that targets immune cells to improve their tumor-fighting ability, rather than targeting the tumor cell itself. MD Anderson will evaluate several of MedImmune's immunotherapy molecules in a clinical setting to better understand how these molecules elicit immune response in patients.
It is hoped that data collected from these studies will shed light on treatment-related changes to tumors, with the ultimate aim of identifying optimal combination therapies and developing biomarkers to guide and assess the safety and efficacy of MedImmune's immunotherapy molecules.
"Our partnership will provide MedImmune with an invaluable opportunity to evaluate the biological impact of our immune-mediated cancer agents, both as monotherapy and combination therapy," said Ed Bradley, M.D., senior vice president and head of MedImmune's oncology innovative medicines unit.
"Our partnership with MedImmune will provide us with agents to study in novel pre-surgical clinical trials aimed at identifying early clinical signals and mechanistic insights, which will drive future immunotherapy strategies for the benefit of patients," said Padmanee Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., platform scientific director, associate professor of Genitourinary Medical Oncology at MD Anderson.
Allison's basic science research on T cell biology led to an entirely new method of treating cancer called immune checkpoint blockade, which blocks receptors on the surface of T cells that tumors use to turn off immune attack.
Allison created an antibody to the checkpoint CTLA-4 and worked in its development as the drug ipilimumab (Yervoy), the first drug of its kind and also the first to be approved by the FDA for late-stage melanoma. More than 20% of melanoma patients given the drug develop long-lasting remissions for five years and longer.
Since immune checkpoint blockade treats the immune system, rather than the tumor directly, it will have application to other cancer types as well. "The era of immune system therapies for cancer is really just beginning," Allison said.
Patrick Hwu, M.D., chair of Melanoma Medical Oncology, is co-director of the platform. MD Anderson has invested $40 million in the platform, including philanthropic funds and a $10 million Established Investigator grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas to recruit Allison from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
Additional immune checkpoints and drugs to target some of them have been discovered and are in clinical trials. At MD Anderson, clinical trials of ipilimumab and other agents target melanoma, lymphoma, lung, breast, gastric, kidney and prostate cancers.
MD Anderson researchers also are working on a variety of ways to enhance T cell attacks on cancer cells. For example, one method involves harvesting a patient's own cancer-targeting T cells, expanding their number in the lab and then reinfusing them in the patient.
Another involves customizing a patient's T cells via gene transfer to more efficiently attack tumors and then giving them back to patients. Both methods are in clinical trials. Therapeutic vaccine development also is under way for melanoma, lymphoma and breast cancer.