It has been a long time coming but now research at Oxford University is finally starting to reap dividends. Immunocore, based at Milton Park, has landed a licensing agreement with biotech giant Genentech which will see it earn hundreds of millions of pounds over the coming years for its series of drugs called ImmTACs to treat cancer and viral disease.

Under the terms of the deal, the firm will receive up to £13m for each treatment programme but will receive up to £200m in development and commercial payments along with royalties.

Genentech is the world’s first biotechnology company. Now owned by Swiss global healthcare giant F Hoffmann-La Roche, the company still follows a research-lead approach to finding new therapies, particularly to cancer.

Announcing the deal, Genentech acknowledged Immunocore’s leading position as experts in exploiting T-cell receptors (TCRs), an element of the body’s immune defence system, to fight different cancers.

TCRs are found on the surface of T-cells, a type of white blood cell, and are responsible for searching out whole or partial proteins — peptides — produced uniquely by cancerous cells.

The TCR locks the T-cell onto the diseased cell, acting as a rallying point to recruit other types of white blood cells that move in and kill the targeted cancer.

The Immunocore story has not been straightforward. The core technology was spun out of Oxford University 14 years ago by Dr Bent Jakobsen into Avidex.By 2006, with the initial investments running out, Avidex was acquired by German company MediGene AG.

Immunocore chief executivbe James Noble explained: “After a couple of years, we could see MediGene was not exploiting certain applications of the TCR technology, so we bought those back and formed Immunocore.

“Unlike other companies developing immunotherapeutics at that time such as BioVex, Oxxon Therapeutics and PowerMed — all now sold to major pharmaceutical companies – we managed to weather the funding storms because we didn’t have major venture capital funding.

“Most of our funding came from local investors who have wanted to stay in and have been loyal supporters of the company. Having investors who take the long term view has been fantastically helpful.”

Over the last few years, Immunocore has demonstrated the reproducibility and robustness of the technology by generating more than 20 TCR-based constructs — ImmTACs — against a variety of cancer targets.

With real concerns for patient safety following another company’s disastrous clinical trial of an immune modulator during which volunteers suffered life-threatening side effects, it was important Immunocore demonstrated a lack of adverse response to their product.

Thankfully, their lead in-house development programme, IMCgp100, for treating late stage malignant melanoma has performed well in preliminary clinical studies in the UK and USA.

Antibody-based cancer drugs are worth billions of dollars every year. However, they suffer from two major drawbacks — they only recognise whole proteins and the targets are restricted to those on the surface of a cell.

ImmTACs overcome both these hurdles and this is particularly significant scientifically and commercially as the majority of diseased cells do not present whole proteins.

But what does the deal mean for Oxfordshire?

Mr said: “High-technology is the future. The area must take advantage of its knowledge base. We also desperately need role models like Immunocore, now expanding to take on another 25 people and a second building on Milton Park, to show the route to growth for other Oxfordshire companies.”

Mr Noble recognises the part played by Oxford University in Immunocore’s success. “The university has gone out of its way to introduce us to potential collaborators, scientists and technology. In addition, the lead investigator in our promising, IMCgp100 early stage clinical trials is based at the Churchill Hospital in Headington.”

The Oxford connection has been “the most useful tool for attracting high-quality employees.”

Recently advertised positions brought more then 1,500 applicants, many from overseas, and most at or above PhD level. They are attracted as much by the location as by the science.

“Working with professors in Oxford, we were also able to attract several, very able post-doctoral scientists who were losing academic funding,” said Mr Noble.

“It is often forgotten key staff will be married, and that their partners — likely to have similar technical backgrounds —will be looking for job opportunities. That is why clusters work so well.”

So what is next for Immunocore?

Mr Noble said: “A deal with Genentech is high-level validation of our core technology. We can now look forward to building partnerships with other companies around our technology and a growing pipeline of validated cancer and virus targets.”