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AstraZeneca R&D: Balancing Caution & Ambition

Executive Summary

Late-stage setbacks recently forced AstraZeneca to re-think its risk management in the development and regulatory stages, but the process has already started within discovery research. Head of discovery Jan Lundberg told the audience of Windhover's 13th audio-conference in December 2004 how the Big Pharma is adapting to a tougher market environment and attempting to balance caution with ambition.

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By and large, drug companies have sharply reduced their emphasis on novel targets and, they assume, pipeline risk. But detailed analysis shows that more important risk-reducers are the molecular approach (biologics targeting novel mechanisms fail less frequently than small molecules targeting precedented mechanisms) therapeutic approach (targeted is less risky than broad), therapeutic area, and stage of development.

CAT Gains from AZ Antibody Drive

AstraZeneca PLC's November 22 drug development alliance with Cambridge Antibody Technology Group PLC was the Big Pharma's second major commitment to large molecules within little more than a year. AZ's desire to embrace biologicals-- evident since its October 2003 cancer deal with Abgenix Inc. --reflects a growing movement among many hitherto small molecule-focused pharma firms to bolster their anemic pipelines with specialty products. And given its lack of experience in protein development, AZ was prepared to accept a deal structure that was unusually favorable to the biotech. Both this and the deal's timing are good news for CAT.

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Several of the most small molecule-minded of drug firms have recently made significant moves to increase their macromolecule activities. They now face the formidable task of quickly building the specialized capabilities needed to compete with the more well-entrenched large-molecule players. These relative newcomers vary in their levels of commitment and approaches--from those building or acquiring substantial in-house capabilities and looking to develop biomolecules across a wide range of therapeutic areas to others who favor dealmaking to acquire protein drugs.

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