MedImmune in Cambridge UK is reaching out to academics and biotech companies in a bid to improve the industry’s poor neuroscience track record.Together with AstraZeneca in Boston, Massachusetts, MedImmune – the global biologics unit of AstraZeneca – is setting up a collaborative unit at its Granta Park HQ with the aim of producing drugs to treat neurodegenerative conditions, long term pain and neuropsychiatric conditions.
Iain Chessell, vice-president R & D Neuroscience said: “There have been no new approvals of completely novel mechanisms for treating pain for at least a decade – if not more – and current treatment only works in a third to half of patients.
“For neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s there are no approved disease modifying therapies. Earlier this year we took the brave decision to commit to a different way of working.”
This new approach is delivered through a collaborative model in which outside partners become part of the team. Chessell said: “Breaking science is coming from external parties such as academic labs, biotech companies and contract research organisations that we need desperately to access.
“So we have decided to create a much smaller organisation that has a completely external focus to allow us to access these innovations and be on the cutting edge of breaking science.”
MedImmune and AstraZeneca believe this new model will appeal to external partners because it aims to be "truly collaborative”.
Chessell said: “The way we are working is extremely appealing to external innovators. We have a small footprint, very little bureaucratic process, very quick decision making and we try to orientate ourselves to be the partners of choice by looking like a biotech, so when biotechnology companies come to us we can talk the same language.
“Everyone will benefit including the originators of the idea who can be very ownership orientated about what happens with their ideas. Everyone is working on the same side as part of a single team.”
Although the main driver of the new model is to get the right drug to the right patient at the right time the company also hopes it will lead to a speeding up of the process.
“Everything will be shared as and when it is generated,” said Chessell. “The model where everything comes into the hub is not the way we would choose to work, so it may well be that things will happen more rapidly than in previous models.”
Chessell says Cambridge was an obvious choice for one of the sites. “It gives us to access the platforms and technologies of MedImmune and also breadth and depth of neuroscience innovation that is happening in Cambridge and London within the university centres and to innovation that is happening in Europe.”
MedImmune’s site leader for Cambridge and vice-president of R & D, Jane Osborn said being in Cambridge was a distinct advantage. “The opportunities on our doorstep are phenomenal,” she said.
MedImmune is currently recruiting – taking on scientists that have an external view and are used to working across a collaborative framework. Between 30 and 40 per cent of the team will be based in Cambridge. The team will initially be around 35 staff across the two sites increasing to 40 or 50 in the long term.
The new model is already reaping benefits: “We’re already seeing a lot of academic labs and biotechnology companies actually coming to us because we have been relatively public about the work,” adds Chessell.
A deal has already been struck with Axerion, a private Connecticutt-based biotechn company, which has a novel approach to treating Alzheimer’s.
Chessell said: “They are part of the project team; we don’t have any legacy approach taking an asset in from an organisation and closing ranks around it. We are utilising their knowledge, their skills, their capabilities and they are utilising ours in a completely open way.
“The lines between MedImmune, AstraZeneca and the outside collaborator are invisible – we really are a single project team. We quickly became Axerion’s preferred partner because we came up with a way of working where they would be in a truly collaborative partnership.”
The company has no current plans to move this model to other drug areas. says Jane Osborn: “Although the door is open if we want to move into other disease areas, we have a lot more internal experience and knowledge in oncology and respiratory, inflammation and autoimmunity.
“We have a solid track record and are really confident in our Phase 11 portfolio that has been created over the course of the past 10 to 15 years. As far as neuroscience goes the industry as a whole is not delivering so something different needs to happen.
“Success will be based on a combination of the new way of working and the rich seam of opportunity presented by our capabilities and innovative technology platforms – such as our work with blood brain barriers – moving the drug from blood circulation to the brain.”