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AstraZeneca and charity spin-off collaborate on colorectal cancer research

Published on 04/09/06 at 01:15pm

AstraZeneca is to work with a spin-off company set up by Cancer Research UK to research and develop new treatments for colorectal cancer.

Cancer Research Technology (CRT) is the development and commercialisation company wholly owned by Cancer Research UK, which is the largest independent funder of cancer research in the world.

The Cancer and Immunogenetics Laboratory led by Sir Walter Bodmer at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford will undertake work on behalf of CRT.

Sir Bodmer's team will characterise the expression of key genes involved in colorectal cancer and provide critical reagents and data to AstraZeneca, who will then undertake the research programme, with the findings shared by both sides.

The data generated will be used to advance AstraZeneca's own colorectal cancer programmes by increasing understanding of the link between molecular pathology of disease and efficacy of new targeted drugs for the disease. The results will help identify novel drug targets and the development of medicines to treat chemo-resistant tumours.

Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cause of death from cancer worldwide. Each year, an estimated one million people are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, accounting for 8% of deaths from cancer. Current treatments for advanced disease are primarily palliative and the five-year survival rate for patients with advanced colorectal cancer is less than 10%.

Sir Walter Bodmer said: "We are very excited by the opportunities offered by this collaboration between our laboratory in Oxford, CRT and AstraZeneca. The information collected will greatly enhance our ability to relate and target drug responses to the molecular pathology of colorectal cancers."

Dr Les Hughes, Head of Cancer and Infection Research at AstraZeneca, added, "This is a promising collaboration which builds on the strengths of both institutions. By combining our expertise, I am confident that this partnership will result in findings which will ultimately benefit cancer patients."

AstraZeneca developing rival to Avastin

AstraZeneca has been a pioneer in many fields of cancer (in particular breast cancer) but has so far failed to produce a next-generation cancer treatment to rival first-in-class biotech drugs such as Roche's Avastin or Merck KgaA's Erbitux.

One AstraZeneca drug, Iressa, with potential to treat the condition, failed in its primary indication for non-small cell lung cancer, and research into its use in colorectal cancer has been dropped.

The company's most promising potential colorectal cancer treatment currently in its pipeline is AZD2171.

Now in phase II/III, the drug is a VEGF-signalling inhibitor, using a similar mechanism to Avastin. AstraZeneca says the drug has the potential to outperform Avastin, targeting a broader range of the VEGF molecules which promote growth in tumours, meaning it ultimately treats the cancer more effectively.  

The drug will be available in a once daily pill formulation, making it potentially more convenient than fortnightly infusions of Avastin. AstraZeneca plans to conduct phase III trials putting its drug head-to-head with Avastin; a bold strategy which it believes could pay off, but it will take until 2010 before definitive results emerge.

One existing AstraZeneca treatment is Tomudex (raltitrexed), an injectable cytotoxic agent for advanced colorectal cancer. The drug is the product of another collaboration with two non-profit organisations, the Institute for Cancer Research in the UK and the British Technology Group.

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