AstraZeneca cozies up to MRC scientists amid an R&D rethink

AstraZeneca Executive Vice President Mene Pangalos

AstraZeneca ($AZN) isn't due to move into its new Cambridge, U.K., headquarters for another two years, but the British pharma giant is already laying the groundwork for open collaboration in the biomedical hub, signing a deep-seated deal with the government-run Medical Research Council to work on drug discovery.

Under the 5-year agreement, MRC scientists will work alongside AstraZeneca's early-stage research teams to identify targets and screen promising candidates. AstraZeneca will open up its roughly 2-million-molecule compound vault to MRC's experts and allow them to use its high-throughput screening technologies to pick the 15 best projects. If they come up with hits, AstraZeneca reserves the first right to negotiate a license deal, but if the drugmaker passes, MRC's scientists are free to take their discoveries elsewhere, the company said.

The partnership goes deeper than most pharma-academia tie-ups, as AstraZeneca is essentially inviting a third party to take a seat at its R&D table and help shape the future of its pipeline, not just collaborate on a discrete project. The overarching goal is to "push the boundaries of science," Executive Vice President Mene Pangalos said, dovetailing with the drugmaker's reasoning for abandoning the far-flung climes of its current R&D shop and setting sites on Cambridge.

"This major strategic alliance with the MRC is the first of its kind," Pangalos said in a statement. "It will further AstraZeneca's aim of creating a truly innovative and collaborative research environment at our new site in Cambridge, where our teams will work side by side with world-leading MRC scientists."

AstraZeneca's future home in Cambridge, U.K.--Courtesy of AstraZeneca

The commitment to teamwork is part AstraZeneca's sweeping effort to make its slow-footed R&D operation at once more productive and more efficient, a roughly $2.5 billion restructuring plan that will result in thousands of layoffs and consolidate much of the company's research footprint into a $500 million Cambridge hub. The move, spearheaded by second-year CEO Pascal Soriot, has seen AstraZeneca exit neglected disease development, shutter labs around the globe and strike up a spate of collaborations with academia and biotech.

Although AstraZeneca's new digs won't be ready until 2016, the company has been setting the stage for collaboration in the year since announcing its planned move. Last month, the drugmaker dispatched about 60 of its scientists to the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, and AstraZeneca has said it plans to deploy a total of 400 researchers this year to build relationships in a biomedical ecosystem that includes the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, Addenbrooke's Hospital and a bevy of drug developers.

Meanwhile, the Cambridge-bound company is in the process of selling off its old R&D headquarters in Alderley Park, U.K., and it has reportedly found a buyer for its U.S. research campus, located in Delaware.

- read the announcement