AstraZeneca has further singled out immuno-oncology as a central vein of its future business with three separate deals seeking to develop new therapies in the field.

The drugs giant said that, with its research and development arm MedImmune, it has formed an exclusive pact with Celgene to develop and commercialise MEDI4736 across a range of blood cancers including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, myelodysplastic syndromes and multiple myeloma.

MEDI4736 is an investigational immune checkpoint inhibitor, directed against programmed cell death ligand 1 (PD-L1), which helps tumours avoid detection by the body’s natural defences, and its potential will be studied both as monotherapy and in combination with other investigational and existing cancer medicines in both firm’s pipelines.

As per the deal, Celgene will make an upfront payment of $450 million to AZ, will lead clinical development and fund all R&D costs until the end of 2016, after which it will take on 75% of these costs, and is responsible for global commercialisation. AZ will continue to manufacture and book all sales of MEDI4736 and will pay a royalty to Celgene on worldwide sales in haematological indications, starting at 70% and then dropping to around half of sales over a period of four years.

Innate deal

The second deal sees AZ/MedImmune working with Innate Pharma to accelerate and broaden the development of the latter’s proprietary anti-NKG2A antibody, IPH2201, including in combination with MEDI4736.

Currently in Phase II development, IPH2201 is a potential first-in-class humanised IgG4 antibody. NKG2A is a checkpoint receptor that inhibits the anti-cancer functions of Natural Killer (NK) and cytotoxic T-cells.

Under the terms, AZ will make an initial payment to Innate of $250 million, and a further $100 million will be paid prior to initiation of Phase III development, as well as additional regulatory and sales-related milestones. 

AZ will book all sales and will pay Innate double-digit royalties on net sales, and Innate has the right to co-promote in Europe for a 50% profit share in the territory.

AZ/MedImmune have also formed a collaboration with Juno Therapeutics to carry out combination clinical trials with one of Juno's investigational CD19-directed chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell candidates and

MEDI4736, initially as a potential therapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

MedImmune and Juno will jointly co-fund the initial Phase Ib study, which is expected to begin later in 2015. Other financial details were not released.

Generics and currency effects drag on Q1

News of the deals came as the drugmaker booked a 6% drop in first-quarter revenues to $6.01 billion as generic erosion continued to bite, though at constant exchange rates growth was 1%. Core operating profit came in at $1.81 billion, slipping 8% from the year-ago quarter (-4% at CER).

Sales were buoyed by heart drug Brilinta/Brilique (ticagrelor), which grew 45% (CER) to $131 million, and long-acting diabetes drug Bydureon (exenatide extended-release), up 58% to $123 million, as well as strong growth of 18% across emerging markets during the period. On the downside, antiulcerant Nexium (esomeprazole) continued to decline, slipping 25% to $644 million, while sales of cholesterol-buster Crestor (rosuvastatin) were 7% lower at $1.17 billion.

Commenting on the results, Mick Cooper, analyst at Edison Investment Research, said that the firm “delivered solid results in Q1, given the significant impact of currency movements and generic erosion of various legacy products. But the company's value is increasingly in its immuno-oncology pipeline, and this was enhanced further today by the deals with Innate Pharma and Celgene.”