Novartis has teamed up with the University of Pennsylvania to develop treatments that can activate a patient's own immune system to fight cancerous tumours.

The collaboration is based around targeted chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) immunotherapies for the treatment of cancers. In the latter, immune cells (T cells) are drawn from a patient's blood, then, using CAR technology, the T cells are re-coded to identify and seek out cells that express proteins present on cancerous tumours.

Novartis noted that when the T cells are re-introduced into the patient's blood, they bind to the targeted cancer cells and destroy them. The Swiss major has also acquired exclusive rights to CART-19, which is currently being studied by Penn in a pilot clinical trial and targets a protein - CD19 - that is associated with a number of B-cell malignancies such as chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.

Financial details were not disclosed but Novartis will make an upfront payment and pay milestones and royalties. The partners will also build the Center for Advanced Cellular Therapies on the Penn campus in Philadelphia, described as "a first-of-its-kind R&D centre established specifically to develop and manufacture adoptive T-cell immunotherapies".

Herve Hoppenot, president of Novartis Oncology, said that by "combining Penn's expertise on this pioneering technology" with his firm's "strength in bringing innovative therapies to patients, we have the potential to transform the future of cancer treatment". Mark Fishman, president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, added that "immunotherapy is one of the exciting frontiers in cancer research and the CAR technology developed by the team at Penn has shown early promise as a new way for treating cancer".

Larry Jameson, dean of the Perelman School of the Medicine at Penn, said the university's "intellectual resources combined with a pharmaceutical industry leader like Novartis offers a powerful symbiotic relationship". A Phase II trial with CART-19 is scheduled to start during the fourth quarter this year.