AstraZeneca has signed a collaboration with UK-based Orca Pharmaceuticals to develop drugs against a wide range of autoimmune diseases for which there is currently no safe, effective oral treatment.

The three-year pact will centre around inhibitors of retinoic acid–related orphan nuclear receptor gamma (ROR_). Specifically, AstraZeneca notes that RORy helps to convert a population of immune cells (CD4+ T cells) into T-helper 17 cells which produce cytokines that drive the immune response. However, excessive activity of TH17 cells and other ROR_+ immune cells is linked to conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and psoriasis; Orca’s lead programme is targeting the latter.

Under the terms of the agreement, AstraZeneca will gain access to ROR_ inhibitors developed by Orca and will integrate those into its in-house programme. The drugs major has the option to acquire the Orca compounds at the end of the collaboration, which could be worth as much as $122.5 million to the Oxford-based group.

Hot area of immunology

Maarten Kraan, head of respiratory, inflammation and autoimmune diseases at AstraZeneca, said the latter represent a main therapeutic area for the firm. He added that “we delighted to be partnering with Orca in this hot area of immunology science to help us create potentially best-in-class candidate drugs for patients who currently do not have any oral medicines available to treat their chronic conditions”.

The deal comes a week after Sanofi signed a ROR gamma pact with Lead Pharma of the Netherlands.