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Immunocore and GlaxoSmithKline team to work on immunotherapies

Immunocore’s list of collaborators is beginning to look like a Who’s Who in Big Pharma. Today the biotech–which is developing T cell immunotherapy technology originally spun out of Oxford–added a deal-hungry AstraZeneca ($AZN) and its biologics team at MedImmune as its latest partner, which will now join Genentech and GlaxoSmithKline in exploring whether the biotech has really found a powerful new approach to engineering an immune system attack on cancer cells.

AstraZeneca is playing catch-up in the immunotherapy arena, and appears to have paid a somewhat richer price than Immunocore’s original partners to make the inner circle. The biotech–a 2013 Fierce 15 company–is getting $20 million upfront per program and up to $300 million in milestones on each in a deal that is likely to end up focusing on a select group of cancer targets.

What’s the big attraction? Over the past decade the Immunocore team has been working at engineering T cell receptor technology, which links the receptors with anti-CD3 antibody fragments to create bispecific immunotherapies–called ImmTACs–designed to hunt down and kill cancer cells otherwise invisible to the human immune system and traditional antibodies. The T cell receptors can flag cancer cells that currently have too few peptides on the surface needed for identification–allowing them to escape the destructive attention of the immune system–while the antibody fragments marshal killer T cells for an attack. And by avoiding healthy tissue the therapy should dial down the side effects common among many of today’s harsh cancer treatments.