AstraZeneca and its global biologics R&D arm, MedImmune, have built a collaborative alliance with the University of Cambridge upon foundations developed over MedImmune’s 25-year presence in Cambridge.

From 2014, as AstraZeneca moved R&D expertise into Cambridge, broader opportunities were created, and in 2016, it relocated its global headquarters to the city. The partnership capitalises on the world-leading, cross-disciplinary scientific expertise in Cambridge, and combines it with AstraZeneca’s extensive drug discovery capabilities to deliver synergistic project based ideas and capabilities.

This close partnership with a world-leading university exemplifies AstraZeneca’s science-led approach. Direct engagement in early science by the IMED Biotech Unit at AstraZeneca and MedImmune underpins the company’s research-focused culture, and ultimately yields results by providing detailed insights into disease mechanisms. Nurturing the next generation of scientific talent demonstrates the company’s investment in the future of knowledge-led drug development, and support of the wider life-science ecosystem in the UK.

“Working alongside colleagues in academia has built an open, collaborative culture of knowledge and capability sharing in which science thrives, and enables our researchers to help solve unmet patient needs. These types of partnerships create wider interdisciplinary links, encouraging further basic science understanding for the benefit of society.” Mene Pangalos, IMED Biotech Unit Executive Vice President

The number of collaborations between the university and AstraZeneca has increased from 34 in 2015 to over 130 at present; these encompass areas from disease biology to biopharmaceutical process engineering. The Experimental Medicine Initiative for 2016–2022 is one example of such a project, and is designed to train scientists in early clinical trials using novel therapeutics. As part of the initiative, AstraZeneca cofunds 8 academic clinical lecturers and 4 PhD students; this investment is complemented by funding from the Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre and Cambridge University Hospital Foundation Trust.

Other initiatives include the Cambridge MedImmune Programme in Biomedical Research and the AZ and MedImmune PhD programmes, which currently fund 34 students. Further studentships will be created annually for 10 years across the departments of Chemistry, Pharmacology and Biochemistry. The programmes support research from structural biology to translational science, and objectives are jointly agreed to ensure cross-organisational mentoring.

Helena Rannikmae, a PhD student who is jointly funded by AstraZeneca and the university, said: “I work with world-class scientists, and am part of a vibrant academic community. Collaborating with a pharmaceutical company is extremely satisfying; my work will contribute to medical science and potentially change patients’ lives.”

AstraZeneca and the university also have resourceand expertise-sharing arrangements to increase access to equipment and compounds. For example, they are part of the cryo-electron Microscopy (Cryo- EM) Consortium, the MRC LMB and several other partners. CryoEM gained public attention in 2017, when consortium member Richard Henderson was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work in its development.

The consortium shares a state-of-the-art facility at the university – one of only 100 of its kind in the world – providing multi-user access to this specialised equipment. CryoEM can reveal subatomic structures of drug targets, guiding the development of new medicines. As a recent output, IMED Biotech Unit scientists together with Cambridge researchers published the structure of a prime drug target, ATM (a key trigger protein in the DNA damage response that can lead to cancer), in Science Advances.

This article first appeared in the 2018 State of the Relationship report, commissioned by Research England and compiled and published by NCUB.