AstraZeneca works both sides of the Atlantic in forging new cancer drug deals

While AstraZeneca's busy business development team was fashioning a new discovery deal with Bind Therapeutics in Cambridge, MA, it was also polishing a pact in the other Cambridge. Looking to make a splash at BIO in Chicago this week, the pharma giant has pulled back the covers from a separate oncology deal with Horizon Discovery, which underscores its intense interest in the cancer field while demonstrating once again that it is willing to patiently remake its pipeline from the bottom up.

Chris Torrance--Courtesy of Horizon

AstraZeneca ($AZN) declined to say how much it paid Horizon Discovery upfront, but the company did reveal a commitment of up to $75 million in milestones as the two work with the biotech's kinase target program, HD-001, to track down new cancer therapies. The target is known to be mutated in a number of cancers, with a "key role" in K-Ras mutant tumors.

"Targeting cancer cells harboring mutant K-Ras has been a perennial issue for the drug discovery community, with few canonical pathway or 'gene-addiction' targets showing a clear benefit on this important cancer gene," says Chris Torrance, the CSO at Horizon. "We are excited to partner with AstraZeneca on the development of HD-001, as they have shown a firm commitment to the identification of novel K-Ras targets."

AstraZeneca's new CEO Pascal Soriot has been eager to steer the troubled company into the deep waters of early-stage R&D. And both pacts today spotlight a clear passion to get creative again with relatively low-cost programs that could put the company at the cutting edge of the industry--in several years. So far AstraZeneca has avoided making pricey late-stage gambles, though Soriot has made it clear that he's open to bolt-on deals to get the company growing again.

Behind the scenes, though, it's clear that some of the Big Pharma's biggest investors are still fretting over the near term financial fallout as AstraZeneca loses patent protection on blockbuster products.  

"AstraZeneca has tremendous operational challenges," one anonymous investor told The Telegraph a couple of days ago. But Soriot nevertheless gets lukewarm support for what he's done to date. "The company needed to recruit a high-quality CEO against the background of weak results, and Soriot has stamped his arrival reasonably well so far."

It's unlikely that these kinds of discovery deals will be enough to turn the company around anytime soon, leaving the CEO on increasingly thin ice as the top line dwindles.

- here's the release
- read the report from The Telegraph