A Delaware drug-discovery company teams with Penn for new cancer treatments

Vice President Biden listens to Penn president Amy Gutmann at the Abramson Cancer Center. Looking on are doctors Bruce L. Levine (center, left) and Carl H. June.

Incyte Corp., a biopharmaceutical firm in Wilmington, announced Thursday a research collaboration with the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania to come up with new immuno-oncology drugs to treat cancers.

Incyte, founded by former employees of DuPont Pharmaceuticals in 2002, will fund the research. Financial terms were not disclosed.

Immuno-oncology drugs harness the patient's immune system to fight the cancer. Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Roche have immuno-oncology treatments approved by the Food and Drug Administration for melanoma and lung cancer.

"This is a really interesting and exciting area of cancer research right now," said Peggy Scherle, vice president of preclinical pharmacology at Incyte, which has 1,000 employees and 18 investigational immuno-oncology compounds.

In addition to funding the research, Incyte will provide its molecules and antibodies to Penn researchers to study and "help us further understand the biology and look for additional targets that could become drugs at some point," Scherle said.

The collaboration will be for several years and will begin right away, said Jim Bowen, executive director for corporate alliances at the Penn Center for Innovation. John Swartley, the innovation center's managing director, said he signed the agreement for the program.

Incyte, which had revenue of $1.1 billion last year, sells two products: Jakafi, the first FDA-approved medicine to treat two rare blood cancers in the United States, and the leukemia treatment Iclusig, sold in Europe.

In its pipeline, Incyte's experimental drug Baricitinib is licensed to Eli Lilly & Co. and is being reviewed by the FDA to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Lilly plans to begin a late-stage trial in patients with psoriatic arthritis this year.

In January, Incyte announced that its immuno-oncology drug Epacadostat will be evaluated with Merck's Keytruda in four Phase 3 patient studies to treat non-small-cell lung cancer, and  renal, bladder, and head and neck cancers. Epacadostat is in an ongoing patient study with Keytruda to treat melanoma and in other patient trials with Bristol-Myers Squibb, AstraZeneca, and Roche.

Incyte's market value has soared to $23 billion from $2 billion at the end of 2010. In the five years ended Jan. 31, Incyte's stock had an average annual return of 47 percent, compared with a 19 percent return for the Nasdaq Biotechnology Index. Shares closed at $121.36 on Wednesday.