* MedImmune unit in drug development deal with UK biotech
* Immunocore gets $20 mln upfront per programme
* May get further $300 mln per programme, plus royalties
By Ben Hirschler
LONDON, Jan 8 (Reuters) - AstraZeneca has raised its bet on new treatments that harness the body's immune system to fight cancer by striking a drug development deal with private British biotech company Immunocore.
Bristol-Myers Squibb, Roche and Merck & Co lead the field with such immunotherapies, which analysts believe may extend patients' lives significantly and generate tens of billions of dollars in annual sales.
But AstraZeneca, which has a long history in cancer medicine, believes its broad portfolio of experimental drugs, ranging from traditional pills to injectable biotech products, puts it in a strong position to develop combination therapies.
Such drug "cocktails" are expected to be crucial as oncologists seek to block cancer on multiple fronts.
AstraZeneca Chief Executive Pascal Soriot is targetting oncology as he seeks to rebuild the group's depleted pipeline of new medicines.
Cancer is a hot area for research at many pharmaceutical companies, thanks to recent advances in science, but some analysts are starting to voice concerns about overcrowding.
The deal with Immunocore, announced by AstraZeneca's MedImmune unit on Wednesday, adds a technology known as Immune Mobilising Monoclonal T-Cell Receptor Against Cancer, or ImmTAC.
Bahija Jallal, head of MedImmune, said the potential of ImmTAC-based drugs to exploit the power of the body's immune system to find and kill diseased cells meant they had promise in a range of cancer types.
MedImmune will pay Immunocore $20 million upfront for each programme it takes on and the biotech firm will then be eligible for up to $300 million in development and commercial milestone payments for each target programme, plus royalties on any eventual sales.
The deal is a further vindication of the technology developed by Oxford-based Immunocore, which has already signed research and licencing agreements with Roche and GlaxoSmithKline .
For AstraZeneca, the new agreement is the latest in a string of early-stage tie-ups with biotech companies in the cancer field.
Already this month it has struck deals to take over Probiodrug of Germany's cyclin-dependent kinase 9 development programme and reached a new deal with Horizon Discovery to find novel cancer drug targets.