AstraZeneca, known as a global leader in innovative collaborations, is honing its focus to three priority areas of research. It’s also interested at partnering at earlier stages to increase its influence over developmental programs and markets.
To develop a collaboration with AstraZeneca, therefore, potential partners must ensure their projects are closely aligned with its priority interests of oncology; cardiovascular, metabolic and renal disease; and respiratory, inflammation and autoimmunity (RIA).
The company’s larger peers are benefiting from this tighter focus, too. As non-strategic assets are identified, AstraZeneca is making many available to others for development.
In terms of prospective business development interests, “we’re much more disciplined today than we were even a few years ago,” said Shaun Grady, VP, business development operations. “The projects we’ve completed recently are firmly aligned with our core priorities.”
Shaun Grady, AstraZeneca
Those developments include AstraZeneca’s acquisition of Spirogen Ltd in 2013 for its antibody drug conjugate (ADC) technology to be used in oncology. Respiratory projects include the licensing deals with Synairgen plc and Almirall SA in 2014, and with Actavis plc in 2015.
This tighter focus on core research areas also led to the alliance with Eli Lilly in 2014 to jointly develop and commercialize AstraZeneca’s BACE inhibitor, currently in development as a potential Alzheimer’s treatment. “Exciting things are happening with infection and neuroscience, but our priorities are in other areas,” Grady explained. The Lilly collaboration thus enabled both companies to gain value from AstraZeneca’s work while allowing each of the companies to focus on their core strengths.
Selling the US rights for Entocort®, a Crohn’s disease therapeutic, to Perrigo Company plc is another example of divestiture to enforce the company’s strategic focus. “Entocort® was valuable to us, but more valuable to them. Perrigo will put more effort behind its development, and we can reinvest the proceeds into our three main therapeutic areas,” Grady said.
AstraZeneca also has increased its appetite for risk. “We’re increasingly willing to do deals earlier in the value chain, reflecting our strategic priorities and use of business development to increase revenues. The Almirall deal is a good example,” Grady said. By advancing combination respiratory drugs developed by Almirall, AstraZeneca retains its place in a crowded market while developing its in-house pipeline.
Simultaneously, the company is also reinforcing its scientific leadership in the industry. “That’s evidenced by our motivation to work with early stage companies. The collaboration with Moderna Therapeutics in 2013 to discover, develop and commercialize pioneering messenger RNA therapeutics is an example,” he said. “That signals our willingness to take risks and bet on disruptive technologies.”
Open innovation is important
That willingness to consider early-stage, potentially disruptive, projects is supported by AstraZeneca’s open innovation model. “It’s never too early for companies to discuss projects for possible collaboration,” he said. Even if a project isn’t ready for partnering, “we can provide guidance and feedback” in terms of what’s needed to interest AstraZeneca. “Hopefully, when it is ready for partnering we’ll be front of mind.”
That “open to possibility” mindset also extends to AstraZeneca’s dealings with it peers. In November, it exchanged 210,000 compounds with Sanofi—approximately 10 percent of its compound library—at no charge. It engaged in a smaller exchange with Bayer Schering Plough a few years ago.
As Grady pointed out, “big pharmas are becoming increasingly willing to work together.” This demonstrates a change in business development strategies that is rippling throughout the industry.
He predicts peer partnering will increase as companies critically assess their assets and design ways to maximize both their potential and their return on investment. Companies, therefore are evaluating unused intellectual property, compounds and technologies with an eye to out-licensing or asset swaps.
Such practices can speed innovation, helping therapeutics reach patients earlier. Scientists see the benefits of exchanging compounds that may not be relevant to their organizations’ goals with others interested in developing them.
AstraZeneca developed another early collaborative research program with the UK’s Medical Research Council (MRC). In it, the company requests research proposals aligned to its interests. The MRC evaluates the replies and funds up to 15 researchers to work alongside AstraZeneca’s high throughput screening group on the company’s soon-to-be-completed Centre for Lead Discovery on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. AstraZeneca gains the right of first refusal for any projects emerging from that arrangement.
Global expansion continues
AstraZeneca is active in more than 100 countries, and recently opened joint venture manufacturing facilities in Russia and Algeria. “Innovation is taking place everywhere,” Grady emphasized and AstraZeneca is working with researchers (and manufacturers) throughout the world. “We’re agnostic as to where innovation comes from.”
Nonetheless, a significant percentage of academic collaborations occur near its strategic science centers in Cambridge in the UK, Gothenburg in Sweden and Gaithersburg, in the US. For example, AstraZeneca has around 200 active collaborations with academic, research-funding and charitable organizations in the UK alone. Its Gothenburg center is also the site of AstraZeneca’s BioVentureHub. “We encourage startups to locate there, under a supportive financial arrangement,” Grady said. Researchers at BioVenture Hub have the same access to resources and facilities as AstraZeneca staff.
The company also has collaborative arrangements with researchers around the globe, including, for example, at the University of Singapore, Peking University and Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Australia. The company continues to be interested in leveraging growth markets, including Japan.
The global aspect of scientific development is increasingly important. When AstraZeneca partners, it expects to obtain global rights. “A while ago, we would have agreed to regional deals. Today, however, a company has to be able to leverage data and invest globally. If you have regional partners, such issues as pharmacovigilance and determining who has access to data gets extremely complicated very quickly.
Making AstraZeneca top of mind
“Our goal is to be among the top three or four phone calls a company with compatible assets makes when it’s interested in partnering,” Grady said.
Participating in Biotech Showcase™ 2016 is one of the strategies to make this happen. “Biotech Showcase is a good opportunity not just to network and meet new people, but also to to hear what young biotechs are doing, to gauge our peers’ interactions and to tell everyone about AstraZeneca’s recent deals and direction. It’s an opportunity to discuss challenges and where companies are heading, as well as the competitive landscape,” he said.
Regardless how the industry changes, “We’re firmly on record: AstraZeneca will pursue good science—including technology and products—wherever we find it,” Grady reiterated. “That won’t change.”