Astra Zeneca focuses on brain disease treatmentsJulia KolleweGuardian
AstraZeneca is pinning its hopes on developing new treatments for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases as it tries to refill its threadbare pipeline of medicines.
Britain's second-largest drugmaker has acquired a portfolio of experimental compounds from private US biotech Link Medicine for an undisclosed sum in a deal announced on Thursday which it hopes will help it come up with groundbreaking treatments for brain diseases - an area that other pharmaceutical companies have pulled out of. AstraZeneca also agreed a collaboration with American academic groups to study a major risk factor for Alzheimer's, the apolipoprotein E4 genotype.
The company has given itself three years to make its new 40-strong neuroscience division work, largely relying on external collaborations and partnerships. Based in the academic hubs of Cambridge, US, and Cambridge, UK, but away from AstraZeneca's other campuses, the aim is to keep neuroscience free from internal bureaucracy.
Up to 900 neuroscientists have been laid off and half the brain disease products in development scrapped to make way for the new "virtual" approach.
Menelas Pangalos, who heads Innovative Medicines at AstraZeneca, described the brain research unit as a "biotech that doesn't have to sell its asset when it gets to Phase III", referring to the crucial last test phase for medicines.
But the company will not apply this approach to other disease areas. "There are things we will learn from this that will inform other areas as well, but we won't go virtual with others," said Pangalos. "The reason we're doing it with neuroscience is it's exceptionally high risk. If you were to do this with infectious diseases, you'd struggle. Our infection group research is better than what the academic community are doing."
Pangalos also praised Britain for "punching above its weight scientifically", giving researchers access to the NHS and hospitals, but said ethical approvals and regulatory hurdles in Britain slowed down clinical trials compared to other countries.
AstraZeneca hopes to come up with 8 to 11 new drugs in late-stage (Phase III) clinical trials over the next three years - in areas ranging from breast cancer to asthma - after reorganising its research operations into smaller, nimbler units. Like rivals, the group has ditched its focus on quantity over quality.