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AstraZeneca's most recent investments in biomarker research in Sweden: Staying true to its roots

13 October 2015 Maria McGee

As our team has been diving into the fast-moving area of molecular diagnostics in recent months - with the imminent launch of our study Pathways to Precision Medicine: Navigating Payer Needs and Healthcare Systems through Molecular Diagnostics -- I found it particularly interesting to learn about AstraZeneca´s most recent biomarker technology collaboration. Taking place in Sweden, this collaboration will see the company partner with Gothenburg University and Chalmers University of Technology for the research and development of the mass spectrometry instrument NanoSIMS.

The research is of particular interest to the industry as it is expected to characterise how pharmaceuticals and their by-products are actually distributed throughout the body. This would allow for a more specialised approach to personalised medicine - an area where AZ is a keen early adopter. The current collaboration is also unique in that it will use capabilities similar to the high image resolution technology which was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014, allowing researchers to study molecular mechanisms at a level which has not been possible to date.

While it is certainly true that AZ has withdrawn its main presence from Sweden, as my colleague Gustav Ando wrote in his analysis of Pfizer's bid for the company back in May 2014, does the present development signal a desire to maintain roots in its "motherland"? Some enthusiastic Nordic analysts, such as myself, might be keen to argue this is the case. Granted, this single initiative would not merit such a conclusion in and of itself. What can be said, however, is that the collaboration was reached in Sweden´s traditional collaborative spirit, where it engages industry and academia in partnership, and thus maximises the capabilities to maintain its world-class position in medical technology advancement. The collaboration comes as a natural extension of the company´s philosophy, with the Swedish-based CEO of AZ's BioVentureHub, Magnus Björsne, quoted as saying that an essential part of the organisation´s strategy relies on exactly that: academic partnership.

Interestingly, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, which invested SEK37 million (USD4.4 million) in the NanoSIMS technology, originally pledged a total of SEK620 million in funding geared toward molecular development in this South Western region in Sweden back in October 2014. Meanwhile the now UK-based firm has committed time and resources worth roughly SEK40 million. Gothenburg University and the Swedish regional authorities have respectively added SEK160 and SEK150 million to the pot. The investment primarily pertains to the therapeutic areas of obesity, diabetes and oncology, of which AZ historically has been active in the latter. And in fact, when glancing back even further, to January 2011, AZ was already on a dedicated path to enhancing its oncology portfolio via molecular diagnostics, when it secured a deal with Kinaxo (Germany) in the development of high-end mass spectrometry-based technologies.

AZ, and others firms in the pursuit of these advancements, are certainly on the "right" path, especially when considering that medical technology, and pathology testing to be more precise, plays a crucial part in about 70% of all medical decisions being made, and even more so in the diagnosis of cancer. These discoveries are, however, slowly but surely being applied in other indications - one being the area of diabetes, as shown by the above-mentioned investment in Sweden.

It is clear that the diagnostic technology space is exploding across the globe. The present collaboration in this Nordic market adds to the number of research initiatives already in place between AZ and Gothenburg University, such as the 2014 development of personalised medicine for the treatment of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Moreover, the Vice-Chancellor of Gothenburg University, Pam Fredman, has expressed his delight over a 2013 Mölndal specific investment, where this region is one out of three new strategic R&D centres that the company has decided to focus on.

Mr Fredman is not alone in his thinking that AZ´s investment will impact the development of the Life Sciences sector in this region, and one day nationally. One indicator supporting this viewpoint is the issuing of new job advertisements by the Mölndal Center as recently as April this year, suggesting it has already gained some traction. Adding to this, the South Western region is not the only manufacturing site in Sweden which has gained the firm's attention. Notably, in May this year, AZ supported its Södertälje facility with an additional USD285 million for the development of biologics, to commence in 2019, anticipating new jobs within the range of 150-250.

Rather than returning to the Swedish market, it might be more accurate to say that AZ never fully left this playing field, and that the recent investments that AZ has decided to make in Sweden indicate its ongoing enthusiasm for the Nordic region.

Interested in precision meds and how its market access is playing out in major markets? Download a sample of our new study.

Maria McGee is a life sciences analyst with IHS
Posted 13 October 2015


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