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Why MRC-industry asset sharing is a win-win for me

Just how useful is it to get access to a pharmaceutical company compound? Back in 2012 Dr Richard Mead of the University of Sheffield was one of 15 academic project leaders funded by the MRC to research an alternative use for a compound no longer being developed by AstraZeneca. As we launch the next round of the MRC-Industry Asset Sharing Initiative he tells us how the collaboration has brought together the best of both worlds.

Copyright: Richard Mead

Copyright: Richard Mead

I’m no stranger to the pharmaceutical industry. I spent three years in drug development at Celltech in the early 2000s. But even with my experience, it’s still amazing to be reminded of the resources that pharmaceutical companies have at their fingertips. It sounds obvious, but their access to unique compounds, and their ability to make them, is impressive.

I’m now a neuroscientist at the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience and my post is funded by the family of Kenneth A Snowman and the Motor Neurone Disease Association to find new treatments for motor neurone disease (MND). An important part of what we do is to look at drugs that are already on the market, or in development, that may benefit MND patients or help us to understand mechanisms leading to motor neuron death in our models.

We’re really interested in cell signalling, so when I saw that a compound targeting a particular aspect of this was being made available through the MRC-Industry Asset Sharing Initiative, I decided to apply for funding. The drug we were funded to use had originally been developed for Alzheimer’s disease but was subsequently abandoned.

We wanted to use it to investigate a process in mice that we think is involved in MND. Interestingly, the compound probably works by a different mechanism in MND than was proposed in Alzheimer’s. We were initially interested because we wanted to study the basic biology but knowing that the drug had also been shown to be safe in humans was a big attraction.

We’d never have been able to buy or synthesise this compound to carry out this research, it would cost us way too much money, but the company had made huge amounts for clinical trials, so there was lots available for our compound-hungry animal studies.

But AstraZeneca didn’t just supply us with the compound: we’ve had access to all its background data and the expertise of the people who have worked with it to help with study design. It’s rare for us have so much data on the toxicity, pharmacokinetics (where the drug goes) and pharmacodynamics (what the drug actually does in the body) of the drug before embarking on an animal study. Having all this detailed data from the beginning put us on a much surer footing from the start.

And the collaboration hasn’t been a one-way street – AstraZeneca has benefitted too. We’re experts in our animal models of MND, we’ve developed them at the University over ten years. It’s not worth the while of most pharmaceutical companies to invest in deep knowledge of model animals for a disease like MND, so that’s one of the things that we’ve brought to the table. And if the results of the work look promising, the company also has the right to buy an exclusive licence to any intellectual property, that makes it less risky for them.

We have some potentially interesting results in one model of MND showing that the compound slows down motor neuron degeneration and delays the onset of disease. Next, we want to optimize the dose and test the drug in a completely different MND model. If this works, then we can start thinking about studies in patients. That simply wouldn’t have happened so soon without this collaboration.

Richard Mead

The next round of the MRC-Industry Asset Sharing Initiative is now open.

To find out more about how the MRC works with industry, read our feature: Industrial strength research. 

The initial MRC-AstraZeneca compound collaboration was announced in December 2011. The scheme expanded in 2014 to become the MRC-Industry Asset Sharing Initiative, a wider agreement involving the MRC and seven pharmaceutical companies.

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