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Bristol-Myers Wrangles Top Academics to Study Immunity in Cancer

On May 29, New York-based drug giant Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) announced a major international cancer-research initiative—news that got a bit overshadowed by the biggest cancer conference of the year, which started in Chicago just a few days later. But the new group that the company unveiled that day, called the International Immuno-Oncology Network, is worth a second look, as it’s part of a growing trend in the pharmaceutical industry to tap into the expertise of academic scientists, and use it to speed the translation of scientific discoveries into usable drugs.

The network, called II-ON for short, consists of Bristol-Myers and ten academic institutions in the U.S., Spain, France, Italy, the U.K., and the Netherlands. Among the participants are Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore. All of the projects undertaken by II-ON will center around immuno-oncology, which which focuses on mobilizing the immune system’s intrinsic ability to fight cancer.

The field of immuno-oncology is of great interest to Bristol-Myers, which sells one of the leading drugs in the class, ipilumumab (Yervoy) for melanoma. The product, which was approved last March, works by blocking the activity of an immune-suppressing molecule. It brought in $154 million in sales in the first quarter of this year, making it one of the company’s best sellers.

Bristol-Myers intends to tap into the new group to develop research projects in immuno-oncology. “Information will be exchanged at multiple levels—between BMS and its partner institutions and between the institutions,” says a spokeswoman for the company in an e-mail.

Memorial Sloan-Kettering physician Jedd Wolchok—who is a specialist in immuno-oncology and one of the participants in Bristol-Myers’ new network—says he believes the initiative will be valuable both for the company and the academics. “We will be studying samples from 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.”