AstraZeneca's R&D chief vows to keep 'pedal to the metal'

Martin Mackay--image courtesy of AstraZeneca

AstraZeneca's decision to expand its diabetes partnership with Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) in the wake of the $5.3 billion Amylin buyout is the biggest new deal in a string of drug pacts completed this year. But don't expect the pharma giant to back away from the deal table anytime soon.

"When deals come up we want to be at the table," says Martin Mackay, who stepped in as R&D chief at AstraZeneca ($AZN) two years ago, in an interview with FierceBiotech. "We want to be players."

AstraZeneca's clinical problems have been well documented. Time after time critical programs Mackay had inherited from his predecessors flunked key endpoints. But in the first half of 2012 Mackay has helped execute the $1.26 billion buyout of Ardea, taking control of its gout drug program, as well as a $100 million pact with Rigel on an asthma therapy. And Mackay says there have been 10 other early-stage deals that were lower profile but key to the company's plans to completely revamp its pipeline in short order.

"I'll be disappointed if we don't announce further deals in the next 6 to 9 months," adds Mackay.

"We made a lot of changes," says the R&D chief. "Thirty-one of the top 50 leaders in R&D came from outside, from big companies, big biotech. We did change the operating model," with a fresh focus on personalized healthcare, new relationships with academic investigators and an eye to building momentum on the approvals it's been seeing in emerging markets and Japan. 

"My mind moves quickly to other things we've got on the goal," says Mackay, who says his focus now is "pedal to the metal, month by month." And while Mackay is staying focused on the company's 5 key strategic focuses, "I also like deals a little off the beaten path." 

There's a lot riding on Mackay's success in the picking the right deals. AstraZeneca is in the middle of a turbulent transition, and it has little time to convince investors that it has a winning strategy.

Some analysts are buzzing over Simon Lowth's growing chances of landing the top job at AstraZeneca. The BMS ($BMY) deal, which covers about half of the deal value for Amylin, certainly spotlights AstraZeneca's determination to keep wheeling and dealing even as it looks for a successor to David Brennan. 

- here's the Financial Times' story on Lowth