Novartis AG will fund a $20 million research center at the University of Pennsylvania in a deal in which the drugmaker gains technology that uses manipulated immune system cells to fight cancer.

Under the pact, the Philadelphia school will receive money up front, research funds and payments for reaching clinical, regulatory, and commercial milestones, said Eric Althoff, a spokeswoman for Basel, Switzerland-based Novartis. He wouldn’t disclose further financial details.

[Novartis operates a research and development office as well as a huge vaccine manufacturing plant in Holly Springs, N.C.]

The university’s scientists, led by Carl June, used genetic engineering to manipulate white blood cells extracted from three leukemia patients. They then reinjected them in an experiment reported in August 2011 in the New England Journal of Medicine. The tweaked T-cells destroyed the disease, according to the report, and June said the patients remain in remission.

“I never thought this would happen, that the pharma industry would get into ultra-personalized therapy,” June said in a telephone interview. “We had lots of venture capital interest, but it’s hard to be a new company and it takes time to get set up. The fastest route to widespread availability is to use an existing company.”

Novartis was one of three companies to negotiate with the university, according to June, who declined to name the other two. Novartis was selected in part because of its experience with Gleevec, a drug used to treat chronic myeloid leukemia.

Targeting Disease

The therapy pioneered by June reprogrammed the immune system’s T-cells to first target the leukemia, and then divide in its presence. The method also stimulates so-called memory T- cells, which may help protect patients against the cancer’s return, the studies said.

The treatment may point researchers to a new way to cure chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a malignancy diagnosed in about 15,000 people a year, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The only method used now for achieving remission in the disease is a bone marrow transplant, which carries a 20 percent death risk and offers a cure half the time, June, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the school’s Abramson Cancer Center, said last year.
June’s group is now treating 1 patient a week, he said. The Novartis collaboration will help more people get treatment, said June, who is a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University’s Abramson Cancer Center.

In addition to further trials in leukemia, the UPenn group has also engineered trials for lymphoma, mesothelioma, myeloma, and neuroblastoma.