Roche, AstraZeneca join forces on precompetitive R&D initiative

Early-stage drug development involves a considerable amount of tinkering with compounds; identifying chemical changes that could add significantly to the value of a drug--or destroy it. Now Roche ($RHHBY) and AstraZeneca ($AZN) have formed an unusual, precompetitive alliance designed to share vast stockpiles of compound data in order to improve their chances of success in early-stage R&D. And in a field noted for daunting levels of failure, some of their Big Pharma rivals are likely to accept an invitation to join the exclusive group.

Neither company is actually turning over all of their intellectual property on new drugs. Instead, they'll be contributing data on fragments of compounds and how their structure influence's a drug's efficacy and safety. A company called MedChemica, which specializes in the field, will act as a third-party curator of the data.

"It's a tool for the optimization of compounds in early discovery," Mike Snowden, head of discovery science at AstraZeneca, tells FierceBiotech.

Scientists at AstraZeneca have developed software that would allow them to find matched molecular pairs so they could compare them and see how small differences could have an effect on a number of biological readouts. A pair of AstraZeneca scientists left the company with the pharma giant's blessing to set up MedChemica, says Snowden. And they attracted the attention of Roche's R&D group, which quickly saw the venture's potential.  

Initially AstraZeneca plans to use the program to help focus on drug safety, says Snowden, who suspects other Big Pharma companies will see the possibilities here and jump in with their own datasets, creating an enormous cache of data to explore. But there are plenty of ways to use the information.

Just as an example, says Luca Santarelli, head of neuroscience and small-molecule research, particular elements in a compound will confer stability on a drug so that it's metabolized more slowly. "That's a good thing," he tells FierceBiotech. "Once we learn the particular constituent that confers that property, we can apply it to other compounds. We don't need to know the rest of the molecule."

Luca Santarelli

There's real value in sharing this kind of information precompetitively, says Santarelli. "It makes the drug discovery process more efficient. The benefit of doing that is well known."

The collaboration is the latest of several industry partnerships aimed at trying to make the R&D business more efficient. The big 10 pharma companies collectively spend around $70 billion a year on research. But over the past few years there's been a general recognition that most haven't had a very good return on their investment. As a result, the old standalone approach to R&D has been replaced by a more open environment, with more interaction between industry players--large and small--as well as academia. Efforts like TransCelerate have come along to try and make the clinical trial process more efficient, for example, standardizing various aspects of the process.

Collaborating on research is one way to benefit from all the money spent by everyone in the industry. And in this case AstraZeneca and Roche were also able to keep their most important IP secrets under lock and key, while helping each other out on their discovery work.  

The prospect of an early-stage, precompetitive alliance like this was enough to bolster AstraZeneca's shares by two percent, even though it's the kind of pact that's unlikely to bear new chemical entity fruit quickly for either company.

- here's the release