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A ‘win, win, win’ for public-private partners
January 2012
by Lori Lesko  |  Email the author


LONDON—In a landmark private-public partnership, global biopharmaceutical business AstraZeneca PLC has agreed to make 22 discontinued drug compounds available for free to medical researchers on projects funded by the United Kingdom's Medical Research Council (MRC).  
The collaboration between pharma and academia acknowledges the complex and costly process of drug development by giving U.K. researchers access to compounds and funds to explore new treatment opportunities through better understanding of disease mechanisms. AstraZeneca and MRC Technology, the commercial arm of the MRC, are screening up to 150,000 compounds—made up of 100,000 from AstraZeneca's collection and about 50,000 from the MRC library—against selected biological targets. The initial screening will be in the areas of cancer, cardiovascular, neuroscience and infection. Both entities will retain ownership of their respective compounds, and a joint committee will review the results and decide how to go ahead with any compounds that show promise as potential drug candidates.  
The proposals reviewed by MRC will focus on new, previously unexplored areas of clinical research that lie outside the scope of current, core AstraZeneca development plans, and do not replicate previous or existing studies. Clive Morris, vice president and head of new opportunities at AstraZeneca's iMed innovation units, said although all the compounds are still owned by AstraZeneca, any new intellectual property "would belong to the academic institution." He noted that if the drugmaker "wanted to move these compounds forward, we would negotiate. We'll provide compounds, data and expertise. We see this as true collaboration, rather than as a hand-off approach."
The MRC is inviting proposals from the U.K. academic community to use the drugs in new disease areas, with $15.7 million to be made available to fund between 10 and 20 research projects across a range of human diseases.
New research produced by the collaboration will also be made available to the broader scientific community.  
The broad scope and scale of the collaboration, together with a lack of restrictions on the areas to be investigated, provides a key differentiation from other industry-academia collaborations both within the U.K. and globally, AstraZeneca has stated.
"I don't think [the compounds] have necessarily had all the value flogged out of them," Sir John Savill, MRC's CEO, stated in a Dec. 5 news release. "This is a win-win-win for the academic community, AstraZeneca which connects itself to academics and patients."  
Nearly all of the agents remain patent-protected and offer potential as therapies for diseases including Alzheimer's and cardiovascular conditions, according to AstraZeneca. Some of the drugs have been tested in humans and others only in animals, while one, called saracatanib, has been studied in late-stage trials for the treatment of solid tumors. The company halted development on some of the compounds either because the forecasted commercial market was too small or the treatments fell outside of its strategic focus.
"This is currently a unique initiative with the MRC in terms of breadth and scope," says Laura Woodin, an AstraZeneca spokeswoman. "We're not aware of collaborations of similar scope between other companies and academic groups/institutions."
From the start, MRC was thought to be the best partner for the endeavor, Woodin adds. The MRC, which has fostered 29 Nobel Prize winners, has supported high-quality science for 100 years and is active in several disease areas.
"To have the best chance of making progress toward delivering novel treatments to patients, we need to partner with the best and brightest minds in science from biotech, academia, governments, non-profits and others who share our passion for discovering and developing new medicines that make a difference," Woodin tells ddn. "Our exclusive focus on prescription medicines enables us to apply a long-term strategy to seeking innovation in the future of healthcare. Our success to date has been based on developing medicines derived from both internal and external sources, and we recognize the value that we gain through our partnerships."
Dr. Chris Watkins, head of translational research, says the MRC "has a successful track record of working with industry, but this agreement is the first of its kind in terms of giving academic researchers unprecedented access to late-stage compounds, some of which have already been through Phase I clinical trials."  
In 2009 and 2010, the MRC spent approximately $985 million to support and advance medical research in three main ways: "through our own research facilities, by funding research centers in partnership with universities and by providing research grants and career awards to scientists in U.K. universities and hospitals, " Watkins says.
The partnership "grants our academic institutions access to an exquisite list of compounds, and access to funding to do the research—invaluable for understanding the underlying mechanisms of human disease," Watkins tells ddn. "The distinguishing feature of the initiative is the combination of compounds and funding. Researchers might have been able to access the compounds by going directly to AstraZeneca, but may not have been able to do the research due to a lack of funding."  
Simon Denegri, chairman of INVOLVE, the U.K.'s national advisory group on public involvement, stated: "This collaboration is exciting news, not just for scientists, but for patients as well. Although it may take some time to unearth their true potential, these compounds could hold the key to a better understanding of a whole range of diseases including rarer conditions, and may lay the foundations for the treatments of tomorrow. I hope we'll look back on this day as a landmark moment, which set the tone for industry and academia collaborations of the future and a huge step towards medical discoveries that will improve the lives of millions of people," he says.

AstraZeneca acquires Chinese generics company  
CONGHUA CITY, China—AstraZeneca PLC also announced last month an agreement to acquire Guangdong BeiKang Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., a privately owned generics manufacturing company based in the Guangdong province.
The transaction is expected to close in the first quarter of 2012. Financial terms were not disclosed.  
AstraZeneca said the deal gives it access to a portfolio of injectable medicines used to treat infections that the pharma will make available to patients in China.  
Following completion of the acquisition, AstraZeneca will be responsible for the manufacture and commercialization of these medicines. Effectiveness of the agreement is contingent on the approval of certain regulatory authorities, including the approval of the Ministry of Commerce in China.  
Since first establishing a presence in China in 1993, AstraZeneca has invested around $500 million in the country.
Code: E011206



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