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patients that take the drugs they’re making,” Wolchok says. “It’s important for us to understand why some people respond and others don’t. And they may gain some insights into what we learn.”
Wolchok expects the academic institutions will become much more deeply involved in the clinical trials for the immuno-oncology drugs in Bristol-Myers’ pipeline than they have been in the past. “We have a seat at the proverbial table in helping to design the trials and execute them,” he says. “We’re part of the process from the beginning.”
Bristol-Myers will also provide funding to the academic sites for specific research projects carried out within II-ON. The details weren’t disclosed, but Wolchok says the money does matter. “The investment Bristol is making in our institutions is significant in an era when research dollars are scarce,” he says.
II-ON is the latest in a string of new partnerships being formed between academia and Big Pharma. Last summer, for example, Merck (NYSE: MRK) formed HIV research partnerships with the University of California at San Francisco and the University of North Carolina. Both initiatives are funded by the Martin Delaney Collaboratory, an academic consortium that receives support from the National Institutes of Health.
The success of Bristol-Myers’ melanoma drug has fueled a boom in immuno-oncology research. And the company now has a pipeline full of experimental compounds designed to boost the immune system’s ability to fight cancer in several different ways. Its researchers are developing methods of enhancing “innate immunity,” the mechanism by which naturally occurring cells are able to kill tumor cells. They are also learning how tumor cells evade the immune system, and developing drugs to prevent that escape.
Wolchok says the members of II-ON have met face-to-face and held several teleconferences to work out the logistics of the network. “We’re all experts in this area of using the immune system to treat cancer,” he says. “This is certainly a great opportunity for us.”