AstraZeneca PLC's Booming Immuno-Onco Pipeline Validates Rebuffing Pfizer

AstraZeneca's Booming Immuno-Onco Pipeline Validates Rebuffing Pfizer
June 4, 2015
By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

Immuno-oncology, programming or stimulating the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells, is a technology that appears to be starting to move into the mainstream. At the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting in Chicago this week, AstraZeneca PLC and MedImmune , AstraZeneca PLC’s global biologics research and development unit, provided an update on its pipeline in this area—and it looks promising.

The companies reported on a number of pipeline products, including MEDI4736, an anti-PD-L1 monoclonal antibody for the treatment of patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), which seems to being showing an overall improved response rate. In addition to a trial in NSCLC, the two companies are planning further programs across multiple tumor types and stages of disease.

It is also being tested in combination with other compounds, including with tremelimumab, an anti-CTLA-4 monoclonal antibody. This combination is also being tested in nine immuno-oncology clinical trials, either underway or being planned, in NSCLC. It is also being considered for trials in squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN) and gastric, pancreatic and bladder cancer.

John Ficenec, writing for The Telegraph, suggests that these results are proof that AstraZeneca’s refusal to a Pfizer Inc. takeover last year was a good idea. For instance, he cites, AstraZeneca presented data at ASCO for AZD9291 that cut the size of lung tumors in 40 percent of patients treated, which is significant in oncology treatment.

An unidentified broker from Jefferies said, “We see AstraZeneca as a front-runner in the race to address one of the largest Immuno-Oncology market opportunities.”

“Immuno-oncology has continued to take center stage at ASCO this year,” said Pascal Soriot, chief executive officer of AstraZeneca in a statement, “as we see more evidence of the significance of this approach for patients. At AstraZeneca we have been clear in our belief that combinations hold the key to transforming clinical practice for the patients not benefiting from the currently-available immunotherapies. The data presented on the combination of MEDI4736 and tremelimumab are truly exciting.”

Back in May 2014, Pfizer attempted to buy AstraZeneca for $119 billion, but was rebuffed by the British pharmaceutical company. Part of the deal was Pfizer’s interest in shifting its tax domicile to the U.K. in order to decrease its corporate tax load. The laws regarding those tax inversion types of deals in the U.S. changed since then.

In February of this year, Pfizer announced it had acquired Lake Forest, Ill.-based Hospira, Inc. for about $17 billion. That deal didn’t do much to decrease Pfizer Inc.’s tax burden, but it bolstered the company’s injectable drugs and infusion technologies, and perhaps more importantly, Hospira is a world leader in biosimilars, which is considered to be a hot area as patents expire for brand name drugs. Because they are made within living cells, biosimilars are not exact replicas of a drug, like generics, but instead similar genetically to drugs that provide the same therapies.

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca has been counting on its extensive pipeline of cancer drugs. Results presented at ASCO would suggest that it’s a gamble that may very well pay off. The company has indicated that by 2020 it expected half of its new drugs would be tied into genetic testing to better identify which treatments are most suitable for patients. This area, called pharmacogenetics or pharmacogenomics, also shows promise for drugs that can only be marketed for a smaller group of patients, being more targeted. It also sometimes gives new life to drugs that failed overall clinical trials, but showed promise in a specific proportion of the trial’s participants.

In January of this year, AstraZeneca announced that Robert Iannone would head its immuno-oncology development programs. This and the heavy emphasis on these types of drugs suggest AstraZeneca is ready to go charging into this market.

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