ddn Cancer Research News Exclusive: When giants take the stage
by Kelsey Kaustinen  |  Email the author


HOUSTON—The field of immunology is getting another boost with the signing of a new research collaboration and license agreement between the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). The two organizations will be working to develop therapeutic antibodies that can engender an immune system response against cancer.  
Per the agreement, MD Anderson will grant GSK exclusive worldwide rights to develop and commercialize the antibodies, which were discovered by Yong-Jun Liu, M.D., Ph.D., and colleagues when he was professor and chair of MD Anderson's Department of Immunology. Through its Institute for Applied Cancer Sciences (ICAS), MD Anderson will collaborate with GSK to conduct the preclinical research on the antibodies. MD Anderson will receive an upfront license payment as well as funding for IACS research collaboration activities, and will be eligible for development, regulatory and commercial milestone payments as well as royalties from commercial sales of any products that result from the agreement. The deal has a potential total deal value of more than $335 million.  
"This agreement is not only a tribute to the ability of MD Anderson scientists to discover new targets and potential therapies against those targets for cancer patients, it's also a testament to the vision shared by GSK and MD Anderson that successful clinical development of oncology drugs requires seamless integration of drug development expertise and deep biological knowledge," IACS Director Giulio Draetta, M.D., Ph.D., said in a press release. "The IACS was formed to enable precisely such integration to expedite the accurate translation of great science into drugs."  
Draetta says that when they started looking at projects within MD Anderson's annals that would be worth moving toward commercialization and started looking at industry partnerships, the OX40 partnership emerged as one that was very interesting and also one that attracted interest within the industry. Finding a partner that they could work well with and being able to fully utilize the knowledge they had developed surrounding OX40 was an important component in their search, he says.  
"We really wanted to capitalize on that and make sure that this is a true partnership," says Draetta, "and that's when I think we found with GSK that the new leadership in immunology—the complete agreement on how important it is to work together. You want to work with people that have the same passion."  
T cells, a type of white blood cell or lymphocyte produced by the thymus, are one of the most important parts of the immune system, responsible for targeting sick or infected cells. The antibodies that MD Anderson and GSK will seek to develop will work by activating OX40 on the surface of T cells. OX40 is a secondary or co-stimulatory receptor protein, and in a recent study by researchers at the Ludwig Center for Cancer Immunotherapy at Memorial Sloan- Kettering Cancer Center, the molecule was found to cause CD4+ T cells, which coordinate the immune system's attack, to heighten their immune attack on cancerous cells. The protein, once activated, also blocks suppressors of immune response.
"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,'" said Liu, chief scientific officer and vice president of the Baylor Research Institute of the Baylor Health Care System in Dallas, in a statement.
Liu and colleagues generated and screened hundreds of antibodies in their search for any that could activate OX40 by mimicking OX40L, its natural activator, and came up with a handful of agonists which they tested in mice and then altered for human use. If preclinical drug development under the agreement is successful, the antibodies will move on to clinical trials.
Draetta says they expect to see the targeting of OX40 be effective in multiple cancer types, adding that he does not expect OX40 to be "a one-off, I think that there's going to be other potential products coming from our team."  
Eric Devroe, Ph.D., executive director of strategic alliances at MD Anderson, says he expects the market for cancer immunotherapy to continue to grow.  
"I think there's a tremendous interest across the board, be it in clinicians getting access to some of the agents under development, big pharma, as you've seen with this GSK deal…as well as venture capitalists interested in putting forth new companies around these themes of thinking in a very big way," says Devroe.
Code: E01141300

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