In early January, Johnson & Johnson made a major announcement highlighting several bold, new drug research and development initiatives underway globally. One of these new initiatives involves a considerable investment of resources into the MD Anderson-led research and development for breakthrough cancer immunotherapies, led by Dr. James Allison. Now, MD Anderson has issued a new press release, outlining how their new partnership with Johnson & Johnson will bring together Allison’s research and leadership of the Moon Shots program with the pharmaceutical company’s major influence and resources.
The new translational research agreement between the two organizations will last for three years, and will also involve Janssen Biotech, Inc. All of the efforts for the partnership will be channeled through the ambitious Moon Shots program, which seeks to dramatically reduce cancer deaths, starting with six moon shots that target eight cancers and are backed by several platforms – infrastructure, technology or expertise – that support research efforts. To date, the Moon Shots program has garnered considerable attention and funding, such as from Texas billionaire biotech philanthropist Lyda Hill, who gave a substantial $50 million dollar grant to the initiative last year. Together with Johnson & Johnson, Moon Shots has the ingredients to potentially usher in a new chapter in cancer treatment, pivoting away from traditional treatment options to the next-generation of effective cancer immunotherapies.
“The strengths of both organizations in the rapidly growing field of cancer immunotherapy can exploit opportunities to develop more effective treatments for cancer patients,” said Dr. Allison, Ph.D., who is chair of Immunology and executive director of the immunotherapy platform and heads the Moon Shots program. “We look forward to collaborating with Johnson & Johnson Innovation.”
Dr. Allison’s basic science research has been at the center of MD Anderson’s advancements into immunotherapy, which was ranked as Science magazine’s 2013 Breakthrough of the Year, citing Allison’s research as pivotal to its rapid advancement. In addition, The Economist named Allison winner of its 2013 Innovations Award for Biosciences, and he also received a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences from the foundation of the same name launched last year by internet and social media entrepreneurs. The crux of his research has been on T cell biology, which in turn led to complete new way to treat cancer called immune checkpoint blockade, which blocks receptors on the surface of T cells that tumors use to turn off immune attack. According to a recent MD Anderson press release, as a result of these revelations, “Allison was able to create an antibody to one such checkpoint, called CTLA-4, and worked in its development as the drug ipilimumab (Yervoy), the first drug of its kind and also the first to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for late-stage melanoma. More than 20 percent of melanoma patients given the drug develop long-lasting remissions for five years and longer.”
Ipilimumab was approved by the FDA in 2011, and since that time, several more immune checkpoint receptors and targeting drugs have also been discovered at MD Anderson and are currently being tested in clinical trials. Ipilimumab and other agents are being tested as treatments against melanoma, lymphoma, lung, breast, gastric and prostate cancers, with more planned.
To date, MD Anderson has invested $40 million in the platform, which includes both philanthropic funds and a $10 million Established Investigator grant from CPRIT. It is worth noting that the CPRIT grant was integral in recruiting Dr. Allison from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.