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Novartis gives university $20 million for cancer vaccine

Drug giant Novartis is making a multimillion dollar bet that a patient’s immune system can be cancer’s worst enemy. It is teaming up with scientists at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in Philadelphia to develop and manufacture cancer immunotherapies.

Last August, UPenn scientists announced the dramatic results of a tiny clinical trial of their immunotherapy approach, describing long-lasting remissions in leukaemia patients for whom standard therapies had stopped working. Trials are also underway for other leukaemias and for lymphoma, mesothelioma, myeloma and neuroblastoma, according to the university. In the US$20-million collaboration, announced today, Novartis, which is based in Basel, Switzerland, will get exclusive worldwide rights to these technologies.

The deal comes just a week after Dendreon, a biotechnology company based in Seattle, Washington, that developed the first cancer vaccine on the market, laid off 600 workers because of weak sales. Its drug, Provenge (sipuleucel-T), had been criticized for its modest efficacy and complex, expensive manufacturing process, which requires collecting and re-infusing a patient’s own immune cells.

The therapy being developed by UPenn’s Carl June is even more complicated. Vaccines prompt a patient’s immune system to attack dangerous cells, but this approach, called chimeric-antigen-receptor immunotherapy, genetically redesigns immune cells for a more powerful attack.

First, blood is collected from leukaemia patients and exposed to substances that activate T cells, powerful cells that launch and coordinate immune attacks. Next, the T cells are genetically modified to recognize and attack leukaemia cells. Finally, the altered cells are returned to the patient, where they are expected to proliferate until the cancer cells are gone.

The collaboration shows that drug companies are willing to put aside standard business practices to pursue drugs that are much harder to make and deliver to patients, says Hyam Levitsky, who heads cancer immunology programs at drug giant Roche, also based in Basel.  “I think it’s an incredible vote of confidence for the potential of this.”  And he expects more will come. “Cancer immunotherapies are really in their golden era right now.”

Nonetheless, he warns, immunotherapies can be tricky, particularly those that involve living cells. Unanticipated off-target effects have the potential to be lethal. And not all anticipated effects are desirable. For example, the leukaemia therapy tested kills both cancerous and healthy B cells, the type of immune cell that secretes antibodies.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that several other drug companies had approached June about partnering before the Novartis deal was announced, and June told Bloomberg that going with an established drug company was the quickest way to patients. “I never thought this would happen, that the pharma industry would get into ultra-personalized therapy. We had lots of venture-capital interest, but it’s hard to be a new company and it takes time to get set up. The fastest route to widespread availability is to use an existing company.”

In addition to developing the leukaemia therapy, the collaboration will also establish a new Center for Advanced Cellular Therapies, to be built on the UPenn campus.

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    ruth stavric said:

    This is a huge step. I only hope Novartis allow Professor June to continue with the highly individualised [and thus expensive] strategy rather than try to structure something more mass marketable and cheaper to make. I also hope Professor June continues to try to adapt his chimeric-antigen-receptor strategy for solid tumours. A paradigm shift is needed in cancer research, away from drug based research and towards immunotherapy strategies like Professor June’s. Research is advancing too slowly because of the conservative approach of cancer funding agencies [and drug companies].

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