It may not be the catchiest of names, but AstraZeneca drug MEDI4736 was revealed on Wednesday night as a "new great white hope" in the fight against cancer as it took centre stage in the British company's battle against Pfizer's planned £63bn takeover.
It is this drug, developed in Cambridge and Maryland, that AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot was referring to when he warned MPs that an aggressive cost-cutting transaction could delay development and cost lives.
Doctors and scientists are so excited about the potential of MEDI4736 that it has been fast-tracked to phase III hospital trials before the results of the first clinical results have even be published.
AstraZeneca's head drug developer Briggs Morrison believes the drug, which has initially been trialled on lung cancer but could be extended to a whole range of tumours, could "hold the potential to shape the future of cancer treatment" and rake in annual sales of up to £3.9bn.
The results of phase-I trials were released on Wednesday night ahead of a full presentation at the American Society of Clinical Oncology conference later this month.
The development of MEDI4736, or in scientific terms a human monoclonal antibody, is so important to AstraZeneca that Soriot will fly to the ASCO conference in Chicago to oversees its presentation.
MEDI4736 works by stripping cancer cells of their "stealth cloak" so that the patient's immune system can detect and kill tumours, and could replace chemotherapy in some cases. AstraZeneca last week began testing the drug on 702 patients that are suffering from non-small-cell lung carcinoma at more than 100 hospitals across the world. The tests have begun more than six months ahead of schedule as AstraZeneca rushes to get the drug to market ahead of rivals.
"MEDI4736 is an important molecule in our immuno-oncology portfolio and its entry into phase III clinical trials is further evidence of our commitment to invest in distinctive science in our core therapy areas, and to rapidly progress our immuno-oncology pipeline," Morrison said. "Lung cancer is still the leading cancer killer, there is a clear need for more treatment options to provide patients with a better chance of beating the disease."
The excitement surrounding the drug was further underpinned on Wednesday when the company announced plans for a separate trial of MEDI4736 in conjunction with another drug to create "an enhanced anti-tumour immune response".
Savvas Neophytou, analyst at Panmure Gordon, said the investment and scientific communities were buzzing with excitement about the "great white hope [of] MEDI4736".
He said combining MEDI4736 with US biotech company Incyte's NCB24360 molecule was the equivalent of "removing the stealth from cancer and hitting the target with much higher ballistics at the same time".
"MEDI4736 blocks the signals that help tumours avoid detection by the immune system, countering the tumour's immune-evading tactics, while INCB24360 enhances the ability of immune cells to combat the tumour," he said.
Colin White, lead analyst and head of oncology at Datamonitor Healthcare, said MEDI4736 had "a tremendous amount of commercial potential".
"It looks like it's going to be an effective treatment against a wide range of different tumours, so there is potential for high commercial returns.
"This drug could be worth multi-billions of dollars, but here there are lots of competitors out there and there's a chance they could get beat AstraZeneca to market and steal a huge commercial advantage."
Roche, Merck and Bristol-Myers are also developing similar immunotherapy treatments.
Despite AstraZeneca's criticism of the benefits of big pharmaceutical acquisitions in the wake of Pfizer's interest, it picked up MEDI4736 when it bought Maryland research firm MedImmune for $15.6bn (£9.3bn) in 2007. The company has produced several of AstraZeneca's most promising pipeline drugs including other cancer immunology drugs Tremelimumab, MEDI0680 and MEDI6469.
If MEDI4736 proves as successful as hoped it could be worth about £35bn if it was spun out on its own, according to analysts.
Soriot warned on Tuesday that a Pfizer takeover and the struggle to reconcile "saving tax and saving lives" could jeopardise the progress of drugs. "Any distraction on work we are doing now could run the risk of delaying our drugs pipeline," he said, alluding to Pfizer's desire to save US tax payments through taking over AstraZeneca and domiciling the combined company in the UK. He added: "From the lab to the patient takes many years."
There are fears that future of MedImmune, in Gaithersburg, Maryland, could be particularly at risk because Pfizer has committed to basing at least 20% of research and development staff in the UK and the US company already has a 25-acre world-leading oncology research park in San Diego, California.
John LaMattina, Pfizer's head of research from 2004-2007, said he would be worried if he worked at MedImmune and pointed out that the company consolidated three oncology research sites into its La Jolla campus while he was in charge.
US politicians have written to Read to implore him to maintain MedIummune's research in Gaithersburg if the deal goes ahead.
Maryland congressman John Delaney said Read's promises to maintain one fifth of the combined company's research in the UK made him worry that it would "put more pressure on decisions they make in the US".
Soriot has accused Pfizer of trying to snap up AstraZeneca on the cheap before the true value of its future drugs are reflected in its share price.
"A year and a half ago, we didn't have much of a portfolio," he said. "Now we have one of the best in the industry."
Roy Herbst, chief of medical oncology at the Yale Cancer Center, said: "Every company is realising that immune therapy is going to be part of armamentarium [doctor's arsenal against] almost every cancer."
He said buying AstraZeneca would give Pfizer "all the immune therapy they don't have. They definitely need to partner."
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