The new pharma collaborations driving transformative research in oncology

The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most scientifically innovative and competitive industries, particularly in oncology. As of 2018, there were over 1,100 cancer therapies in development, and as of 2020, 362 of them were cell and gene therapies. As a result, there is a need for continued innovation and increased efficiency in terms of drug development to manage cost, complexity and speed to provide potentially transformative therapies for cancer patients.

Within the last two decades, large pharmaceutical corporations have established themselves firmly in oncology by prioritising internal R&D efforts, as well as developing and accessing novel science and technology through collaborations and alliances with biotech companies and academic institutions.

Dramatic advances in the understanding of basic molecular mechanisms of underlying disease has continued to shift R&D focus toward precision medicine – choosing the right therapy for a patient based on molecular understanding of their disease – and less on traditional cancer therapies such as cytotoxic chemotherapies and broad-cell cycle inhibitors.

As a result of this shift in drug development, a highly concentrated overlay in product modalities and mechanisms of action has crowded the oncology pipeline across a very broad range of hematological and solid tumour indications.

The industry is asking itself how to stay innovative, how to develop and bring to market higher quality therapies to patients – and how to do this faster and more efficiently.

A diversity of collaboration types

There is broad recognition that given the breadth and complexity of emerging science driving innovation in oncology, collaborations are essential in order that relevant expertise, know-how and capabilities can be combined in the right way to address patient needs.

Such collaborations take on many forms, ranging from early, multi-party alliances and consortia – which are often pre-competitive in nature – driving the development and shared learnings from technologies that may be enabling the field as a whole, through to more bespoke collaborations between entities.

“Cell therapy research has been built on collaborations amongst scientists and entrepreneurs, providing early proof of concept for modalities thought to be too difficult to commercialise but with a strong potential for patient benefit”

These may be more focused on collaborative research and development of novel products, to secure the necessary data for regulatory approvals to make such products available widely to the patients who can benefit from them.

Pre-competitive collaborations, often in basic and preclinical research, can reduce the barrier of competition and drive benefits for all stakeholders, most notably, the patient. As summarised by The National Institutes of Health, this includes reducing the number of redundant clinical trials, enhancing the statistical strength of studies, reducing overall costs and risks, and improving study participant recruitment, all while triggering creativity and innovation between collaborators.

These benefits strengthen capabilities and accelerate product development, ultimately producing higher quality and more effective therapies.

One powerful example is The National Institutes of Health’s Partnership for Accelerating Cancer Therapies (PACT), which brought together 11 pharmaceutical companies to accelerate the development of new cancer immunotherapies.

Aligning with the focus of the Cancer Moonshot Research Initiative, PACT aimed to “retrospectively analyse patient data” from past clinical trials with the goal of “predicting future patient outcomes.”

This type of approach supports the ability to compare data across all trials and facilitates information sharing between partners, undoubtedly accelerating the pathway to effective therapies.

A second example is the establishment of The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, to enable leading academic researchers and companies to come together in a pre-competitive setting, to enable rapid shared understanding and development of immunotherapeutic approaches, including the study of combination regimens.

Such combination trials, particularly those encompassing investigational products, have historically been challenging to undertake given the need for bespoke company-to-company and other 1:1 collaborative agreements. Bringing together multiple academic and industry participants under an open innovation model provides a basis to significantly accelerate the generation of scientific and clinical data that may substantially inform the field of cancer immunotherapy as a whole.

Oncology cell therapy research has been built on foundational academic collaborations amongst scientists and entrepreneurs, providing early proof of concept for modalities thought to be too difficult to commercialise but with a strong potential for patient benefit.

Examples include Kite Pharma, formed from the foundational work at the National Cancer Institute, Juno from the collaboration between the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (all working on the first CAR T-cell candidates), or Adaptimmune working with University of Penn to first show efficacy of optimised TCR T-cells.

For collaborations that are more geared to development of novel therapies, aiming for regulatory approval and commercial availability, bespoke collaborations between biotech and pharma companies are commonplace, whereby the respective expertise and capabilities of each partner are combined in order to optimise and accelerate development, and to enable subsequent, larger scale manufacture and distribution. There are many examples of such collaborations, for which the structure can vary widely depending on the expertise of each partner, and the collaborative ways of working.

For example, under a traditional pharma/biotech collaboration and licensing model, a biotech partner may have primary responsibility for significant elements of research and early product development, and the pharma partner may lead the majority of later stage development, as well as post-approval commercial manufacture and supply. This logically aligns with organisational expertise and scale, and this type of collaboration structure has historically proven to work well. Many novel therapies have been successfully developed through such partnerships.

The rapid emergence of cell and gene therapy has required the industry to establish new and distinct capabilities, such as optimal process development and manufacture of autologous, patient specific cell therapies, whilst minimising the vein-to-vein time (the elapsed time between apheresis treatment for a patient, and reinfusing the final autologous manufactured product).

There are a growing number of biotech and pharma companies that have established or are establishing such end-to-end cell therapy capabilities, which can also play into how collaborations are structured in the field.

Case Study: From Technology Agreement to co-development and co-commercialisation partnership

In 2015, Adaptimmune and Universal Cells signed an agreement to drive the development of technologies leveraging  gene-edited Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell (iPSC) lines, towards the development of allogeneic, or ‘off-the-shelf’, T-cell therapies. Universal Cells brought leading gene editing capability to make targeted gene edits to modify the characteristics of selected iPSC cell lines, and Adaptimmune the technology to differentiate iPSCs into T-cells.

Back then the science for this collaboration was early and under-developed with both parties embarking on a long-term effort and making significant at-risk investments to determine if edited, functional T-cells could be produced.

Today, Universal Cells (now an Astellas company) and Adaptimmune have established capabilities and expertise to progress novel cell therapies into clinical development, as well as with manufacturing and supply chain.

Based on this progress, in January 2020, Adaptimmune and Astellas signed a product-focused agreement to co-develop and co-commercialise up to three new stem-cell derived allogeneic T-cell therapies for people with cancer.

Given the scientific synergy between Universal Cells and Adaptimmune, and that each company is developing capabilities that may effectively address later stage product development and post-approval commercial supply, the 2020 partnership was structured as a co-development and co-commercialisation agreement. It enables the companies to work closely together, throughout the continuum of research, development and commercialisation.

Astellas and Adaptimmune will collaborate through to the end of phase 1, with Universal Cells leading gene editing activities and Adaptimmune leading iPSC to T-cell differentiation, early product characterisation and development. Beyond that, Astellas and Adaptimmune will decide whether to develop and commercialise a product candidate together under a co-development and co-commercialisation cost and profit-sharing arrangement, or for one company to take it forward alone.

This partnership is an example of how companies can harness their individual science and bring together highly complementary skills and expertise. It will enable the development of new, off-the-shelf T-cell therapies for people with cancer, which could potentially offer significant advantages such as broader access, reduced vein-to-vein time, and lower cost. The co-development and co-commercialisation nature of the agreement allows both companies to collaborate closely and on a long term basis, whilst leveraging end-to-end capabilities established by each company, maximising the velocity of product development, and ultimately delivering novel therapies to patients.

This type of agreement exemplifies how early speculative scientific collaboration can benefit all parties, most importantly the patient. It is one example from many in oncology, that underlines the value of long-term partnership within a field that is evolving rapidly across many scientific, operational and commercial frontiers.

Bringing together both teams of passionate and forward-thinking scientists may contribute to unlocking the current opportunities and challenges of off-the-shelf T-cell therapy development more effectively and efficiently for patients.

Similarly to what we are seeing as the world comes together to fight COVID-19, we as leaders in oncology owe it to patients to constantly look for ways to bring our innovative ideas as quickly as possible to the market. Working together might make that happen faster.

About the author

Helen Tayton-Martin is chief business officer at Adaptimmune.