Astra’s new route in brain research

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AstraZeneca has clin-ched two new deals in neuroscience, underlining the drugmaker’s increasing reliance on external projects to refill a sparse pipeline as it tests a new low-cost approach to drug research.

Britain’s second-biggest pharmaceutical company said yesterday it had bought a portfolio of early-stage experimental compounds for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other brain diseases for an undisclosed sum from privately owned US biotech company Link Medicine.

It has also signed a deal with leading US academic scientists to study variations in a gene called apolipoprotein E4, or ApoE, that is known to increase Alzheimer’s risk.

The deals followed a decision by AstraZeneca in February to slash its inhouse neuroscience research staff to around 40 from more than 800, creating instead a ‘virtual’ research unit for brain disorders. The first deal with the new unit was signed with Axerion, another unlisted biotech firm, in May.

Faced with a dismal record on productivity as sales of older products decline, AstraZeneca has pruned its overall research and development (R&D) budget and changed the way it approaches the hunt for new medicines.

Discovery head Mene Pangalos said that mistakes had been made in the past by encouraging quantity over quality in early drug selection.

“If you looked at our output in terms of numbers of candidates entering the clinic, we were one of the most productive companies in the world, dollar for dollar. If you rated us by how many drugs we launched, we were one of the least successful,” he said.

That poor track record contributed to the early departure of former CEO David Brennan on June 1, even as the Anglo-Swedish group stepped up a programme of rationalisation. AstraZeneca has shed 23 per cent of its R&D jobs and the management team has also been overhauled.