Tuesday, October 21, 2014

AstraZeneca is Cutting and Running!

For the past two years I have been warning that AstraZeneca would be giving up on antibiotic research and development.  Well, that day is arriving.  It looks like they will continue with their submission for market approval of ceftazidime-avibactam – but what comes after that is still unclear.  I have been able to confirm that AZ has told its antibiotics researchers that they should make efforts to find other jobs in the near future. Even though there has been no official announcement yet that the antibiotics research group will be disbanded, their scientists are starting to head for the hills.  As far as antibiotic discovery and development goes, this has to be the most disappointing news of the entire antibiotic era.  AZ has the strongest antibiotic pipeline in the industry and has an active and successful discovery effort. To jettison all this in spite of everything that has occurred in terms of regulatory reform and everything that is occurring and will occur in terms of improving the antibiotic marketplace, to me, is just the worst kind of hubris no matter what their other financial difficulties might be.

President Barak Obama has just issued a set of executive orders – OK - mostly without any sort of teeth and lacking any new funding – to improve both the regulatory and financial climate for new antibiotics.  David Cameron has ordered the establishment of an advisory panel on the economics of antibiotic development and marketing led by a renowned economist. If nothing else, this should show that the sun is rising on the antibiotic marketplace. But M. Soriot, the CEO of AZ, is not listening and

if he is, he apparently believes that all this will be too little too late for his antibiotic pipeline. To give him credit (not much), he did try and “partner” or sell or spin off his antibiotics unit over the last two years – apparently without success.  My guess is that he wanted more out of such a deal than anyone was willing to offer. So he, like Pfizer, Wyeth, Lilly, BMS, and many others before him, has decided that the solution to AZ’s ills is to jettison their antibiotic research altogether rather than accept something less than what he wanted. 

Given the importance of antibiotic research to society, one must ask where the heads of government are in all this. Did President Obama approach M. Soriot?  Did Prime Minister Cameron speak to Soriot?  I have it on good authority that the answer for the latter question is “no.” Should these government leaders share in the responsibility for the loss of AZ’s antibiotic research unit?  Absolutely!

At the same time and even more frustrating, is the fact that AZ is investing in a large research facility for Alzheimer’s disease and cancer in Cambridge, UK.  This facility will combine academic and industrial research like never before.  This is exactly the kind of endeavor that we need for antibiotic research but that no one is doing.  AZ could have incorporated antibiotic research in Boston into a Cambridge style arrangement – but they have chosen to jettison the whole thing instead.

Once again, we will have an exodus of competent researchers from the field.  I note that the head of the biology group at AZ’s antibiotics research center has already accepted a new job in the Boston area working on a company focusing on therapeutic bacteria of all things.  But he may be the exception.  Many of these folks will go on to other fields or they will retire and be lost to us as a resource for antibiotic discovery and development expertise.  This is a resource we cannot afford to lose. Sanofi, Roche – are you listening?  Hire these people!

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