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AstraZeneca’s Experiment

Firm hopes a move to Europe’s largest biotech community, Cambridge, will boost its anemic drug pipeline

by Alex Scott
October 7, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 40

Computer graphic of planned buildings on Cambridge Biomedical Campus.
Credit: Liberty Trust & Countryside Properties
When building work at CBC is completed in 2016, it will feature narrow streets and quads, as this model shows, for researchers to meet in, similar to the ones Crick and Watson once enjoyed.

The bicycle-filled city of Cambridge, England, has been closely tied to biotechnology since 1953, when Francis H. C. Crick and James D. Watson discovered the structure of DNA in the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish building. Other luminaries that once studied at the university include Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Attracted by the university’s high caliber of academic research, today about 200 biotech companies make their own discoveries in and around Cambridge. Joining them in 2016 will be AstraZeneca.

The big British drug company will pluck about 2,000 researchers from Alderley Park, its R&D site in a remote part of northern England, and other locations, and set them down in Cambridge’s bustling biotech community. The firm hopes that embracing a new model of collaboration will enable it to reinvent itself as an innovative force.

“Our people will be able to rub shoulders with some of the world’s best scientists and clinicians,” said Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca’s chief executive officer, when he announced the move in June.

Success will come from developing new therapies through collaborations with Cambridge’s world-leading institutes and the university. But the move comes at a difficult time for AstraZeneca. With 2012 sales down 15% and a weak drug development pipeline, the firm is under pressure to ensure its relocation contributes strongly from the outset.

AstraZeneca will locate on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, the city’s largest science complex. It will spend about $530 million to build a new company headquarters and a separate R&D headquarters by 2016, taking up 11 acres of CBC’s 70-acre campus. The site will bring together the firm’s small-molecule and biologics R&D activities, opening opportunities to exploit the promise of small- and large-molecule combinations, it says.

AstraZeneca’s presence on the campus will include the company’s largest center for oncology research as well as scientists developing therapies for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases; respiratory, inflammation, and autoimmune diseases; and conditions of the central nervous system.

CBC boasts a stellar cast of potential biotech partners for AstraZeneca, such as the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology, the Wellcome Trust-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science, and the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. And Astra­Zeneca already has a couple of ongoing collaborations with CBC denizens.

The site also features Addenbrooke’s Hospital, a world-renowned teaching hospital. CBC is about to start building a series of facilities including a hotel and conference center that will open at the same time AstraZeneca takes up residence. CBC also has plans for a multitenancy research facility in the next few years that will accommodate more than 40 biotech firms. The site’s headcount of 7,000 is set to double during the next decade.

Although the design of the campus is contemporary, it will also feature narrow streets and quads—not unlike those that Crick and Watson once enjoyed 3 miles away in the old university—to encourage researchers to meet.

As AstraZeneca integrates into Cambridge, the firm could experience a few bumps. “Tensions may well erupt, triggered either by real issues such as restrictive consultancy agreements, or failure of AstraZeneca to be open and share data with an academic partner, or ideological positions, such as the notion that the presence of commercial research dilutes fundamental research,” cautions Gregory Winter, a pioneer of therapeutic monoclonal anti­bodies and former director of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

But “the real issues can be dealt with by simple practical steps, such as the use by AstraZeneca of reasonable consulting agreements and a determination within AstraZeneca to have as open a culture as is consistent with commercial goals,” says Winter, an influential figure who is also the Regius Professor of Physic at Cambridge University and the master of Trinity College.

The benefit to companies being on the same site as academics is that firms can become aware of fundamental research and its implications at an earlier stage than they might otherwise. “Properly handled, this can translate to a commercial advantage,” Winter says.

AstraZeneca could also educate the Cambridge community about industry. It could even fund some academic projects in anticipation of commercial development, Winter says. Other potential advantages include the ability to hire academics looking to move on or whose research contracts have expired and the sharing of expensive instruments and infrastructure.

This summer’s news that AstraZeneca will move to Cambridge has been warmly received, which is important for a company seeking partnerships. “The biotech community in Cambridge without exception has welcomed the news that AstraZeneca is coming to town,” says Jeanette Walker, project director for CBC. She manages real estate at CBC and acts as a matchmaker to ensure that the right clinicians, academics, and industry scientists connect.

AstraZeneca’s planned relocation follows moves by other pharma majors away from their own one-company research campuses into biotech communities. One example is Pfizer’s closure of its R&D site in Sandwich, England, and its relocation of some staff in the U.S. from its Groton, Conn., complex to the Boston area. Another is Sanofi’s exit from Bridgewater, N.J., also in favor of Boston.

Even before AstraZeneca arrives at CBC, Cambridge is ranked by many experts as the largest biotech cluster in Europe. It has about 25% of the U.K.’s 979 biotech companies. Cambridge continues to take the lead in monoclonal antibody technology, in particular, says Steve Bates, CEO of the Bio­Industry Association, a U.K. industry group.

Wider opportunities for collaborating with biotech firms and academia exist in London and Oxford, each about an hour from Cambridge. This area, the so-called golden biotech triangle, has attracted the enthusiasm of London’s charismatic mayor, Boris Johnson. He is seeking to develop Medical City, a cluster of biotech firms near research centers such as University College Hospital and the Wellcome Trust.

“It’s about finding and using what levers we can to attract that talent in promoting the golden triangle as the largest conglomeration of science on the planet,” says Kit Malthouse, chairman of the mayor’s promotional body, London & Partners.

Although the golden biotech triangle may offer certain opportunities, Astra­Zeneca’s focus seems squarely on Cambridge. The firm has been leveraging its biologics subsidiary, MedImmune, which has 500 staffers in Granta Park, a science park several miles south of Cambridge, to foster relationships with prospective partners in the town.

Scientists on Babraham Research Campus, the Babraham Institute’s facility at CBC, already have good relations with MedImmune staff and are looking forward to mixing with researchers from Astra­Zeneca, says Babraham CEO Derek Jones, who lunched with Soriot before AstraZeneca announced it was coming to town. Babraham Institute is an independent charitable organization involved in biomedical research.

AstraZeneca already has a number of projects with its prospective neighbors under way. One of them, with Cancer Research UK and Cambridge’s oncology department, is evaluating a new technology that can monitor the activity of a tumor without the need for multiple biopsies.

In another collaboration—with Babraham, Cancer Research UK, and Cambridge’s oncology department—Astra­Zeneca is evaluating new approaches to treating pancreatic cancer, a disease that has a poor outlook and few available treatments. The collaboration will focus on identifying the best drugs to combine with AstraZeneca’s investigational cancer treatment selumetinib.

The focus of AstraZeneca’s initial partnerships is on “delivering new medicines for cancer and developing the idea of personalized health care—helping understand the underlying mechanisms of disease so the right patient receives the right medicine or the medicine is tailored to an individual patient and an individual patient’s tumor,” says Robert Winter, managing director of Eastern Academic Health Science Network, an organization dedicated to converting research into new therapies, including personalized medicines.

“Clinicians and scientists at CBC are very excited about this type of collaboration,” he adds. “There is a huge difference between AstraZeneca being on site and them not being here. You have got industry, academia, and patients all on one site. It is unique.”

Sixty years ago when Crick and Watson made their famous discovery, they dashed across the street from the Cavendish labs to the Eagle pub and announced, “We have discovered the secret of life!” Astra­Zeneca’s Soriot is no doubt hoping that before too long his scientists, with their collaborative partners alongside them, will be rushing to a campus pub to announce discoveries of their own.


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