Houston’s MD Anderson Partners With Pfizer on Cancer Immunotherapies

Xconomy Texas — 

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has a new partnership with Pfizer that moves forward a key component of the hospital’s year-old “Moon Shots” program aimed at dramatically improving survival of cancer patients.

The hospital announced Monday it will work with the New York City-based pharmaceutical giant to develop immunotherapies, an approach that stimulates the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer. At the helm will be Jim Allison, renowned for the development of an immunotherapy drug that targets melanoma, and who, in 2012, was recruited away from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York to head the Houston hospital’s department of immunology.

Allison says this partnership will accelerate work that each institution is doing individually, enabling them to more quickly and efficiently investigate what sort of reactions cancer patients could have to therapies and which combination of treatments are best. “We hope to gain a more detailed understanding so we could help them more rapidly develop these drugs to get them to patients in a more timely manner,” he adds.

The three-year agreement with Pfizer (NASDAQ: PFE) is designed to accelerate the delivery of immune-based treatments to cancer patients, the development of new combination therapies, and the identification of useful biomarkers for guiding and monitoring treatment. Pfizer has invested an undisclosed amount in the project. Ferran Prat, MD Anderson’s vice president of strategic industry ventures, says that the investment will enable MD Anderson to spur development of drugs under investigation in Pfizer’s Rinat biotech unit, but he declined to provide details about the financial or licensing arrangements with Pfizer.

“The biggest advantage of this partnership is that everything is provided for in the beginning,” such as regulatory and budgetary approvals, he says. “We can be extremely agile in going from project to project,” he added. “It allows for much faster development.”

Prat added that the hospital is speaking to other pharmaceutical companies to forge similar agreements, with a second announcement possible today.

Ronald DePinho, the hospital’s president and CEO, unveiled the Moon Shots program a year after his 2011 arrival in Houston. I spoke with DePinho, an Xconomist, in November about the program, the hospital’s goals, and Allison’s work, which he said had yielded “the most exciting advances in medicine in the last 60 years.”

The Moon Shots program is an effort to dramatically reduce cancer deaths through six ambitious projects that target eight cancers—acute myeloid leukemia, myelodysplastic syndrome, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, melanoma, lung cancer, prostate cancer, so-called triple-negative breast cancer, and ovarian cancer. MD Anderson says it has invested $40 million to help fund moon shots efforts, including a $10-million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which helped bring Allison to Texas.

Allison brought with him his research on ipilimumab, a drug that takes the brakes off of immune T cells and frees them to combat cancer. In 2011 the drug, now marketed by Bristol-Myers Squibb as Yervoy, became the first-ever approved for late-stage melanoma, MD Anderson says.

Since that milestone, the hospital says that other so-called immune checkpoint blockades have been discovered and are advancing in clinical trials. MD Anderson is running clinical trials of ipilimumab and other agents that target melanoma, lymphoma, lung, breast, gastric, and prostate cancers, the hospital says.

For Jacqueline Northcut, president and CEO of BioHouston, the partnership plugs a gap in life sciences commercialization in Texas. “We can’t get drugs to market without industry partners, which Houston and Texas are sorely lacking,” she says. “So this is a home run for MD Anderson, Houston, and most importantly, cancer patients.”