“The world is changing,” says Barbara Slusher, a drug discovery expert who worked for a pharmaceutical company before coming to Johns Hopkins. “Academic centers are taking on a larger role in drug discovery. We’ve always been on the front end of discovering targets and on the back end with clinical trials. It’s the middle piece of going from a target to a drug that is new for us.” This is another area where the Kimmel Cancer Center is blazing uncharted territory, forming unique collaborations with pharmaceutical partners to fund and advance promising new cancer drugs.
Bristol-Myers Squibb Partnership
A new, five-year collaboration between Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Bloomberg~ Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy will advance research aimed at uncovering ways that cancer cells hide from the immune system and new immunotherapy- based approaches for killing cancer cells. “We’re at an inflection point of under- standing the root causes of response and resistance to immunotherapy, and this collaboration will help propel the research needed to identify ways to expand immunotherapy effectiveness to more patients,” says Drew Pardoll, Director of the Bloomberg~Kimmel Institute. It is a natural partnership, as Kimmel Cancer Center experts are on the forefront of immune checkpoint research, uncovering the ways cancer cells hide from the immune system, and Bristol-Myers Squibb has developed several drugs that block these checkpoints and make cancer cells visible to the immune system. “Our priorities aligned,” says Brian Lamon, the global lead for clinical oncology and immuno-oncology in Bristol-Myers Squibb’s business development group.
“The Kimmel Cancer Center and Bloomberg~Kimmel Institute are huge intellectual powerhouses. We know they understand what our medicines can do and how they work, but this partnership isn’t just about drug development. We are committed to the science. Getting new medicines into patients is the endgame for all of us, but we want to make sure we follow the science. That’s where the strength of the Kimmel Cancer Center makes a difference. There is pretty broad expertise to do a lot of different things, and the ability to put it all together. These are complex, dynamic systems, and Hopkins has the expertise to take it on.” The collaboration will include laboratory research and clinical trials to decipher why immunotherapy works in some patients and not others. Combined immunotherapies and their use as first-line treatments are among the approaches being studied.
The Kimmel Cancer Center was one of four National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers selected to participate in a unique cancer consortium aimed at speeding up the process of cancer drug discovery. The collaborative nature of the consortium should expand access to expertise, eliminate duplication of effort and increase the payoff—to the private sector, the cancer centers involved and, most importantly, to patients worldwide. The cancer centers at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University Medical Center and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai are the other consortium members. Through team science, the participating institutions will have access to financial resources from Celgene Corporation and will share in revenue generated from discovery.
Together, the participating institutions initially received $50 million—$12.5 million to each—but Celgene is making $300 million to $1.5 billion available to the consortium to advance research. All consortium member institutions will share in any revenue generated from discoveries, with the cancer center or centers responsible for discoveries receiving the largest return. The Kimmel Cancer Center was selected for the consortium for its long history and pioneering roles in new drug discovery and clinical research. Kimmel Cancer Center Director William Nelson and Cancer Chemical and Structural Biology Program leaders James Berger and Jun Liu will direct efforts and serve as liaisons to the consortium. Nelson sees opportunities for private philanthropy to further accelerate discoveries made through the consortium.
Last December, AbbVie, a global bio- pharmaceutical company, signed a five- year collaboration agreement with Johns Hopkins, with the goal of advancing cancer drug discovery at both organizations. The agreement focuses primarily on lung, colorectal, breast, prostate and hematological cancers.
The partnership is a bit of a reunion, as AbbVie’s cancer division is managed by Gary Gordon, a former Johns Hopkins researcher. “As an alumnus and a former faculty member of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, I know from my own experience that we will be able to combine AbbVie’s expertise in oncology with some of the most talented academic researchers in the field of medicine today,” says Gordon, vice president of oncology clinical development. The agreement gives Kimmel Cancer Center physicians and scientists access to explore new therapies developed by AbbVie for use in preclinical research funded by the collaboration.
In addition, the relationship includes opportunities for research and development teams from both organizations to work closely to promote scientific knowledge exchange. AbbVie also gains an option for an exclusive license to certain Johns Hopkins Medicine discoveries made under the agreement. “The importance of cancer research is critical to developing new therapies that could have life-changing implications,” says Kimmel Cancer Center Director William Nelson. “Opportunities to advance science and further research help move us in a direction to yield positive outcomes.” As part of the collaborative agreement, a joint steering committee consisting of representatives from each organization will determine the research projects that the collaboration will undertake. Michael Carducci, Jonathan Powell and Vasan Yegnasubramanian are representing the Kimmel Cancer Center. Researchers from Johns Hopkins and AbbVie will also participate in an annual symposium to discuss their joint research and evaluate potential new projects.