AstraZeneca boosts virtual neuroscience unit with asset buys and Alzheimer's pact

To feed a virtual effort in neuroscience R&D, AstraZeneca ($AZN) revealed a pair of developments yesterday, one about its purchase of early-stage assets in the brain science arena from biotech startup Link Medicine, and another to join forces with researchers from four institutions in North America on new targets for Alzheimer's drugs.

London-based AstraZeneca has wiped out most of its neuroscience R&D operations, deciding to rely on a skeleton crew to man its virtual Neuroscience Innovative Medicines unit. And research chief Martin Mackay has pledged to keep a footing in the brain science field through tie-ups with external groups and partners willing to share risk. In the deal with the Boston area's Link, AZ moved in on external assets with the purchase of Link's slate of small molecule candidates in clinical and preclinical development that home in on the farnesyltransferase enzyme and impact autophagy for potential treatments against neurodegenerative diseases.

In a separate deal, the drugmaker aims to work with top researchers from four institutions--Weill Cornell Medical College, Washington University in St. Louis, the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and the University of British Columbia--on research of a leading risk factor for Alzheimer's called apolipoprotein E4 genotype, or ApoE. The collaboration, known as the A5 alliance, plans to drill into the poorly understood biology of ApoE and uncover targets for treatment of the memory-stealing disease, which affects more than 5 million people in the U.S.

AstraZeneca's Mackay has promised to keep angling for creative deals to build up the company's pipeline, which has been tarred in the industry for lack of productivity. In neuroscience, for instance, the company and partner Targacept's ($TRGT) depression drug TC-5214 crashed and burned in Phase III earlier this year. The failure dashed hopes that the drug could help restock AZ's neuro-psych franchise, which took a hit with recent the expiration of a patent on the blockbuster antipsychotic drug Seroquel.

"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 the least successful," Mene Pangalos, AZ's discovery head, said, as quoted by Reuters.

- here's AstraZeneca's A5 release
- and the Link announcement
- read Reuters' article
- and InPharm's report