Strategic partner: AstraZeneca

A winning

Scientists at AstraZeneca, one of the world’s most successful pharmaceutical companies, have been working with the University of Cambridge for more than two decades.

During that time, the combination of Cambridge’s blue-sky thinking with AstraZeneca’s drug development expertise has proved to be a winning formula. So much so, in fact, that in 2016 AstraZeneca moved its global headquarters to Cambridge to build on its partnership with the University and with the other research institutions, hospitals and businesses which make Cambridge the most successful life-sciences cluster in Europe.

Why is it such a successful collaboration? Perhaps because the driving force behind it is a shared commitment to developing new treatments that will make a real difference to patients’ lives. And the shared belief that that only happens by letting scientists follow their noses.

I have no doubt that partnerships like the one we have with the University will lead to new and unanticipated scientific and medical breakthroughs.
Menelas Pangalos, Executive Vice President, Global Head of Biopharmaceuticals R&D at AstraZeneca


100+ active research projects

Across 23 departments

70+ funded PhD students

Blue-skies research

Dr Emma Rawlins, University of Cambridge, Dr Lynne Murray, AstraZeneca, Dr Vishal Menon, University of Cambridge

Dr Emma Rawlins, University of Cambridge, Dr Lynne Murray, AstraZeneca, Dr Vishal Menon, University of Cambridge

A good example of the kind of discovery-led research funded by AstraZeneca is the work of Dr Emma Rawlins at the Gurdon Institute and Dr Joo-Hyeon Lee at the Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. They have been investigating the biology of lung cell development and working with AstraZeneca’s drug discovery scientists to understand how to speed that process up.

This is science at its very earliest stage and it is by no means certain that it will result in a therapeutic outcome. But the hope is that, as Emma Rawlins says, “one day we will be able to use the lessons learned from growing these cells in the lab to treat patients with chronic lung diseases.”

For AstraZeneca, being able to access this kind of cutting-edge research is what being in Cambridge is all about.

Lynne Murray, Head of Lung Regeneration in Early RIA (Respiratory, Inflammation, Autoimmunity), R&D Biopharmaceuticals at AstraZeneca, explained how the relationship developed: “Emma and Joo are the top researchers in this field and we knew we wanted to work with them. We started with a very loose agreement and bounced ideas about until we figured out what we were going to do together.”

Developing research talent

Supporting the work of talented young researchers is another important part of the relationship, with AstraZeneca currently funding more than 70 PhD students at Cambridge. One of these is Helena Rannikmae who is studying a particular gene to understand its role in bowel cancer.

As well as getting what she describes as “great support” from her industrial supervisor, Helena sees other benefits from being funded by AstraZeneca. It has put her in touch with different people both in the company and across the University and it’s that exposure to other perspectives that she found particularly valuable.

“I definitely think my PhD would have less impact without AstraZeneca’s input. They really pushed me both in terms of the underlying biology and in thinking about its long-term application.”
Helena Rannikmae, PhD student funded by AstraZeneca

Diagnosing disease

‘Following the science’ has also led to the development of a groundbreaking diagnostic for a hard-to-treat brain tumour.

Professor Richard Gilbertson and PhD student Lisa Ruff at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute have been researching ependymoma which is what Gilbertson describes as a “particularly nasty” and chemo-resistant type of brain tumour which particularly affects children.

About five years ago, the team discovered that a particular fusion protein – caused by two genes which are usually separate being stuck together – is found in around 70% of sufferers. Because those children with this type of abnormality do particularly badly, it is critical to their treatment to know if they have it.

Until now, finding that out involved complicated whole-genome sequencing – something which is simply not available to most clinicians.

Gilbertson’s team realised that if they could make an antibody against that protein, it would be possible to develop a simple, easy-to-use and affordable diagnostic. AstraZeneca’s expertise in making antibodies via the Cancer Research UK-AstraZeneca Antibody Alliance Lab made it the perfect research partner.

The fruit of their collaboration is, as Gilbertson explained: “now being tested on tumours in labs around the world. We have generated a routine diagnostic antibody which we think is the first one of its kind. That’s really exciting.”

Getting new drugs and therapies to patients more quickly

One of the challenges facing today’s pharmaceutical companies is that it is becoming more and more expensive to develop drugs. If a drug fails at the final stage of clinical trials, it costs the business around $200 million.

An obvious way to avoid this happening is to get better at determining at an earlier stage if a drug is likely to succeed. To do this, you need specialists to carry out Phase 1 trials in volunteers, the first step in developing drugs for patients. At the moment, there are very few people in the UK who are licensed to do this.

Which is where Cambridge’s Experimental Medicine and Immunotherapeutics (EMIT) Division comes in. Under the leadership of Professor Ian Wilkinson, it is working with AstraZeneca and other leading pharmaceutical companies to pioneer training which will give a new generation of doctors and clinical researchers the capabilities they need to run these kinds of clinical trials on patients.

Wilkinson is a passionate advocate for the programme, its importance to drug discovery and to the UK as a whole. “It’s vital if we are to capitalise on the huge advances made in science over the last ten years and bring innovative treatments to market.”

Professor Ian Wilkinson (left) and Dr Ben Challis, Honorary Consultant in Endocrinology at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge and Associate Director Physician in the Clinical Discovery Unit of Early Clinical Development, AstraZeneca

Professor Ian Wilkinson and Dr Ben Challis

Improving the way drugs are made

When AstraZeneca moved its headquarters to Cambridge it did so in the belief that proximity would lead to fruitful collaboration. And that’s exactly what happened one evening when Professor Nigel Slater, then Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, attended an MRC dinner and found himself sitting next to Paul Varley, then Vice-President of Biopharmaceutical Development at MedImmune (now part of AstraZeneca).

Slater recounts: “We got talking and discovered that they wanted to do more blue skies research and we wanted to do more with industry in a way that was about shared discovery. Project Beacon was born over a shepherd’s pie.”

It led to a five-year relationship in which new ideas were brainstormed and pursued. According to Slater: “Astonishing projects came out of it, with outcomes we didn’t dream of. For example, work by Professor Clemens Kaminski on high-throughput imaging of viruses resulted in a technique which is now being used on AstraZeneca’s production line as part of its quality control for flu vaccines.”

Being part of the Cambridge ecosystem

One of Cambridge’s more obvious attractions to a large pharmaceutical company is the vitality of its life sciences cluster. For AstraZeneca, Cambridge provides access to world-leading research, a huge professional talent pool, the opportunity to collaborate with other companies and, crucially, the chance to absorb some of its famous entrepreneurial spirit.

More than 80 AstraZeneca employees mentor fledging life sciences companies through the likes of the Cambridge Judge Business School’s Accelerate programme, passing their invaluable industry knowledge on to eager entrepreneurs.

“It’s very much a two-way street. These new ventures benefit from our insights and perspectives and we learn how to be more like them. We take their entrepreneurial spirit back to our day jobs.”
Hitesh Sanganee, AstraZeneca’s Head of Emerging Innovations in Discovery Science and one of the leads for the mentoring programme.

Dr Ben Shaw, CEO of Swift Molecular Diagnostics has been on the receiving end of AstraZeneca support. He started his business in 2015 – perfect timing with AstraZeneca moving to Cambridge the following year.

Enthusiastic about the help he has received, Shaw said: “We’ve had a whole host of mentors from AstraZeneca. If we had a question about anything, whether it’s how to create the right business model, how to pitch to investors, make the right IP decisions, understand the finance or get the marketing right, we could just book a session with an expert at AstraZeneca. They all went out of their way to help us with no apparent benefit to themselves.”

Cambridge and AstraZeneca: working together

Both Cambridge and AstraZeneca are huge organisations and much of the collaboration between them has been deliberately organic. But there is one area where the partnership takes a distinctly strategic approach and that is in pursuing a shared interest in creating and sustaining an environment that supports groundbreaking research.

According to Andy Williams, AstraZeneca’s Vice President of Cambridge Strategy, this joint agenda is ambitious in its scope. “At the national level we are talking to government about its investment in R&D. At the regional level we are working with the Greater Cambridgeshire Partnership on a range of infrastructure and transport projects designed to improve the lives of people across the region, whether it’s making Cambridge itself an easier place to live and work or providing new opportunities for people who don’t currently have access to the resources and investment that Cambridge attracts.”

For Professor Andy Neely, the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Business and Enterprise, the success of the partnership matters – locally, nationally and globally.

Our relationship with AstraZeneca is hugely important as we seek to solve some of the world’s most pressing healthcare challenges. But the partnership is about more than R&D, important though that is. It’s also about having a shared commitment to sustaining the ecosystem that nourishes extraordinary science and innovation.”
Professor Andy Neely, the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Business Relations and Enterprise

To find out more about how the University of Cambridge can work with your organisation, visit:

Or contact us at:

Cambridge lab. Credit: AstraZeneca
DNA image. Credit: AstraZeneca
Female patient. Credit: AstraZeneca. Photographer: Marco Betti
Pills. Credit: AstraZeneca
People at whiteboard. Credit: AstraZeneca
Aerial view Cambridge Biomedical Campus. Credit: AstraZeneca
Graphics: Modern Designers