AstraZeneca has signed an agreement with French biotech company Transgene to develop cancer drug candidates using genetically engineered vaccinia viruses.

The partners will leverage Transgene’s Invir.IO platform to design the oncolytic immunotherapies. The company will provide expertise in areas such as viral design and engineering, while its vaccinia virus double-deleted backbone will support in-vitro pre-clinical development.

AstraZeneca will be responsible for selecting the transgenes that will be encoded within the virus and conducting in-vivo pre-clinical development. The company will be responsible for the clinical testing and commercialisation of any oncolytic immunotherapies resulting from the collaboration.

“Oncolytic viruses have the potential to be transformational in oncology by directly causing tumour cell death.”

AstraZeneca research and development (R&D) oncology senior vice-president Jean-Charles Soria said: “Oncolytic viruses have the potential to be transformational in oncology by directly causing tumour cell death, and also by delivering a potent payload in a targeted fashion that increases innate and adaptive immune system stimulation.

“Transgene has been a leader in the development of vaccinia viruses for many years, and this collaboration will allow us to leverage their platform in the development of novel immunotherapies.”

AstraZeneca will provide an upfront payment of $10m to Transgene, along with up to $3m when the drug candidates meet pre-clinical milestones.

Transgene will be eligible to receive an option exercise payment for each product, if AstraZeneca decides to exercise its licence option. The company will receive development and commercial milestones, as well as royalties.

Transgene chairman and CEO Philippe Archinard said: “We are looking forward to a productive collaboration with AstraZeneca as we believe the resulting armed oncolytic virus immunotherapies will provide cancer patients with better treatment options.”

In March this year, AstraZeneca signed a $6.9bn oncology deal with Japan-based Daiichi Sankyo.