Partnering around early-stage drug development technologies and digital health technologies is the mission for MedImmune, the biologicals R&D arm of AstraZeneca.
MedImmune collaborates or partners on projects from early discovery to Phase II clinical trials. One recent example is the collaboration with Ethris GmbH, a biotech company focused on development of mRNA therapeutics for respiratory diseases. “The collaboration will utilize Ethris’s proprietary SNIM®RNA technology, while leveraging MedImmune’s strong biologics expertise and AstraZeneca’s late stage clinical trials and commercialization capabilities to deliver the therapies of the future,” says Pavel Khrimian, MedImmune Partnering & Strategy.
MedImmune’s areas of therapeutic focus are the same as AstraZeneca’s: oncology, respiratory, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Within those areas, several subcategories stand out. Among them are immuno-oncology, oncolytic viruses, and antibody drug conjugates in oncology; asthma, COPD, and ideopulmonary fibrosis in respiratory disease; and type 2 diabetes, NASH and heart failure in metabolic and cardiovascular diseases.
“We’re a scientifically-driven organization. We look for innovative ideas that push the boundaries and provide better insights into patient selection and stratification strategies for clinical trials. We’re looking at platform technologies for drug development to in-license so that our pipeline can deliver innovative products to patients with unmet needs. Technologies that enhance or enable cell and gene therapies, drug and device delivery technologies are some examples,” Khrimian says.
Once the scientific connection is made, Khrimian and the broader Partnering & Strategy team collaborates with the potential partners to generate a business model for the relationship, whether that means partnering and co-development, or acquisition.
Digital health is a key priority
“Digital health is a key strategic priority,” he says. “That means anything that improves the patient experience in our clinical trials, and that makes the trials more productive or efficient.” Examples include digital biomarkers, connected and digital devices, and predictive analytics focused on advancing the mission to deliver personalized therapies.
MedImmune recently launched its digital strategy as the outgrowth of its investment in Silicon Valley. “There’s a strong ecosystem there for technology and science,” Khrimian says. “Hence we wondered how that ecosystem could help us leverage its assets to incorporate into our pipeline.” MedImmune’s goal was first to identify needs and challenges that exist in current processes, and then to determine whether emerging technologies could meet those needs.
The following areas of priority emerged from MedImmune’s assessment:
- Running more productive, efficient, and cost-effective clinical trials that are more patient-centric
- Accessing real-time patient data
- Investing in predictive analytics, including AI and machine learning
To address those needs (as well as to advance other platforms), MedImmune works with partners.
MedImmune thrives on collaborations
“We have a very flexible approach to partnerships,” Khrimian says. MedImmune and AstraZeneca are involved in about 600 collaborations, “and all are unique.” They include small and large companies as well as academic institutions. “The scientific connection or link between MedImmune and external partners is the catalyst for any relationship.”
Digital health invariably is a convergence of biotech and information technology, where much of the innovation occurs within small startups or academia. “A lot of the innovative ideas could be at the inception stage. In that case, we may fund further research or mentor the startups to achieve proof of concept data, and that’s where the relationship begins,” he says. To mitigate the ever-present risk, MedImmune may provide seed money to validate a product, followed by additional funding to interrogate the technology within MedImmune’s systems. “What’s important, for us and our partners, is to have an end goal in mind and to structure the relationship to align mutual interests.
The culture differences between the fast-paced IT industry and the heavily regulated life sciences industry can lead to frustrations among partners if those differences aren’t anticipated. The IT industry, for example, is known for rapid development and fixing bugs after commercialization, while life sciences have extremely long development cycles, with milestones that require regulatory engagement.
To overcome those differences, “we embrace this convergence and work hard to manage expectations throughout the relationship cycle,” Khrimian says. “Convergence between technology and drug development is here to stay. The companies that embrace it head-on will be ahead of the competition.”
To bridge the cultural gap, MedImmune leverages its strong leadership and operational excellence to deliver positive outcomes. They understand that human health is at stake and that quality and good science are always a primary metric. Therefore, they can build trials that meet patients’ expectations as well as those of the partners. “One of the goals is to transition to a ‘quick decision’ scenario—to pilot a product or technology to get to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision quickly.”
In the year 2000, MedImmune did pioneering work to extend the half-life of antibodies. That culture of innovation is still strong today.
The InVivo Express Biologics focus is a recent example. This initiative emphasizes MedImmune’s commitment to deliver life changing therapies, such as gene and cell therapies, which require partnerships.
The culture required to take different approaches to innovate starts at the top. “The head of MedImmune looks to push the boundaries of science. That trickles down to all level of research and development, as well as all support functions,” Khrimian says. “Innovation doesn’t happen overnight. You have to consistently emphasize and communicate it internally, and effectively challenge your main assets, which is our people. An entrepreneurial mindset encourages people to embrace challenges, and that’s has been at the core of MedImmune values from early days, and we bring that spirit to all our partnerships.
Supporting the local life sciences communities where MedImmune has presence is one of the ways it fosters industry innovation and collaboration. The BioHealth Capital Region Forum (originally called the Maryland Biotech Forum) and Translational Sciences Forum in California, of which MedImmune is a key supporter, are good examples. Taking a leadership role helps drive innovation toward common goals, making the entire industry more vibrant while focusing on science and patients.
Industry involvement is crucial for internal innovation, too, Khrimian says. “We try to attend the major conferences and shows, like Biotech Showcase and Digital Medicine & Medtech Showcase (January 8–10 in San Francisco). The companies there are breaking new ground, and I really want to know who those companies are and bring them into our organization.”