* Partners creating new centre for early drug discovery
* MRC scientists to work within company's new R&D centre
* AstraZeneca moving global HQ and R&D to Cambridge by 2016
By Ben Hirschler
CAMBRIDGE, England, March 31 AstraZeneca
, which will complete its move to Cambridge by 2016, is
already putting down roots in the ecosystem of the university
city as it seeks to revitalise its drug research.
Britain's second-biggest pharmaceuticals group said on
Monday it had struck an unique deal with the state-funded
Medical Research Council (MRC) under which academic scientists
will work alongside its staff at its new Cambridge site.
Transplanting AstraZeneca to the university city in the east
of England forms the centrepiece of a $2.5 billion restructuring
plan by Chief Executive Pascal Soriot, who hopes closer links
with academia will spark ideas and innovation.
AstraZeneca has suffered a dry period in drug discovery in
recent years and badly needs to find new medicines to replace
blockbusters like Nexium for heartburn and Crestor for high
cholesterol that will lose patent protection in a few years.
The initial five-year MRC collaboration, which was welcomed
by British science minister David Willetts, may provide part of
the answer by finding early leads for new drugs.
Within the AstraZeneca MRC UK Centre for Lead Discovery, the
academics will get access to more than 2 million compounds in
AstraZeneca's library and have the use of high-tech screening
equipment to study diseases and possible treatments.
Their research proposals will be assessed by the MRC, which
will fund up to 15 projects a year and AstraZeneca will have the
first option to license any resulting drug discovery programmes.
Mike Snowden, head of discovery sciences at AstraZeneca,
said the MRC agreement was a "flagship" deal but the firm would
also strike other academic tie-ups from its new home base.
"The strategy is to share science," he said. "Cambridge is a
hotspot for bioscience. That's why we're moving there and it
certainly makes it easier to work with people like the MRC, who
have their Laboratory of Molecular Biology next to where we
AstraZeneca's $500-million corporate headquarters and R&D
centre in Cambridge will put some 2,000 staff within walking
distance of university scientists and academic labs when it is
completed in two years time.
In July, AstraZeneca agreed another deal with the university
and Cancer Research UK specifically to seek out new
Other large drugmakers have built research outposts in life
science centres like Cambridge, Boston and San Francisco - but
none have undertaken such a wholesale move of operations.
The strategy is not without risks, especially if the
upheaval disrupts current research projects or results in key
staff leaving the company. A smooth transition is seen as a key
test for CEO Soriot as he tries to change the culture at
AstraZeneca to put science at the centre of its activities.
AstraZeneca currently has a limited research presence in
Cambridge via its biotech unit, MedImmune. Most R&D has been
carried out at a site in Alderley Park, near Manchester, which
AstraZeneca is now selling.
($1 = 0.6019 British Pounds)
(Editing by Sophie Walker)