AstraZeneca’s biologics arm, MedImmune, is joining forces with two cancer organisations in a bid to advance the research of immunotherapy in cancer.

The collaboration with the Cancer Research Institute and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research will focus on clinical trials to test novel combinations of immunotherapies, including three investigational monoclonal antibodies from MedImmune’s pipeline.

The move reflects the rising focus on the role the patient’s immune system can play in fighting off cancer, and follows a number of approved treatments that fall under the immunotherapy umbrella. The idea behind an immunotherapy approach is to develop combinations that could attack cancer on multiple fronts and decrease the chances of an immune escape.  

“We are just beginning to scratch the surface of the immune system’s potential as a new tool in cancer treatment,” said Jonathan Skipper, executive director of technology development at the Ludwig Institute. “By identifying and evaluating new combinations of treatments, we aim to facilitate the development of a more powerful generation of smarter immunotherapy drugs to manage cancer patients’ disease over the long term.”

Under the terms of the agreement, the Ludwig Institute and CRI will conduct clinical trials of cancer immunotherapy combinations using three of MedImmune’s investigational monoclonal antibodies that increase the body’s immune response to cancer: CTLA-4 blocking antibody tremelimumab, an OX40 receptor agonist antibody, and a B7-H1 (or PD-L1) blocking antibody. The trials will be co-ordinated through the Institutes’ global Cancer Vaccine Collaborative network of clinical immunologists and oncologists.

In addition to the combination trials, MedImmune will continue the pre-clinical and clinical studies of the agents as part of its original development plan.


“This collaboration is an innovative way to advance immunologic therapies and uncover optimal treatments for patients with cancer,” said Edward Bradley, MD, senior vice president and head of MedImmune’s Oncology Innovative Medicines Unit.

On the immunology trail

One of the most notable cancer immunotherapies available is Dendreon’s prostate cancer drug Provenge (sipuleucel-T), which was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2010. The autologous cellular immunotherapy works by manufacturing each dose after obtaining a patient’s immune cells, exposing them to a protein found in most prostate cancers and then returning the cells to the patient to treat the cancer.

Novartis and Bristol-Myers Squibb are two other companies that have also made moves into cancer immunotherapy.

Meanwhile, UCB has announced a third research collaboration with Harvard University to focus on the human microbiome to develop new therapeutic applications in immunology. UCB is putting forward up to $4.5 million over three years to fund the project that will study the human microbiome in the intestine, which will be used to identify new drugs for immunological diseases.