Company hopes to develop drugs for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases after striking US deal
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. Without giving more figures, it said that 80% of the research budget was now being allocated on a flexible, meritocratic basis. About 60% of its research leaders were hired in the last couple of years.
Like rivals, the group has ditched its focus on quantity over quality. “In the past, if you developed 30 drugs you’d hope to get 3 products out of it,” said Pangalos. In addition, there has to be a strategy for future reimbursement by health authorities for every medicine that is going into Phase III trials.
AstraZeneca has also set up a New Opportunities division, to find new uses for molecules that have been discarded elsewhere in the organisation. A collaboration with the UK’s Medical Research Council signed last October yielded 106 proposals for 22 compounds, which were whittled down to 25 that will receive funding.
There are major challenges for the industry as a whole, with 95% of compounds going into clinical trials never making it to market. In late-stage clinical trials, which cost millions of pounds to conduct, half of all drugs fail, while a decade ago the industry was enjoying a success rate of 70% to 80%.
A $7bn joint deal to acquire diabetes drug developer Amylin with AstraZeneca’s US partner Bristol-Myers Squibb last week boosted the standing of Simon Lowth, AstraZeneca’s interim chief executive, who took over after David Brennan was ousted by a shareholder revolt.
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