The story of MedImmune, the Maryland startup that British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca bought for $15.6 billion in 2007, is an example for entrepreneurs striving for their own blockbuster deals. But MedImmune leaders say they want to go beyond leading by example.
The company, now responsible for half of AstraZeneca's pipeline of drug candidates, has signed a flurry of partnerships with federal and nonprofit labs in recent months, including deals to share resources and researchers with the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Joslin Diabetes Center at Harvard University. Through the partnerships, the company can tap the labs' brainpower and expensive equipment, and share its own resources.
The obvious goal of the collaborations is to discover AstraZeneca's next marquee drug. The drugmaker has sold billions of dollars worth of drugs created in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health, including Synagis, a treatment for a respiratory virus in children, and FluMist, an intranasal flu vaccine MedImmune acquired in 2002.
Bahija Jallal, an AstraZeneca executive vice president who leads MedImmune, said the relationships are also part of a 10-year plan to elevate the region's status as a biotechnology research and manufacturing hub. Sharing ideas and projects gives everyone the best chance of making valuable discoveries, she said.
"We believe we are part of one ecosystem here that we need to leverage even more," Jallal said. "We don't have this 'invented here' syndrome."
MedImmune's outreach comes as AstraZeneca is deepening its roots in Maryland. While it has cut thousands of jobs in Delaware in recent years, it has shifted hundreds of jobs to Montgomery County and Frederick, where it is investing $200 million to expand a manufacturing facility, officials said in November. Both trends are encouraging to local life science industry advocates.
"In order to build a strong cluster in any industry, you have to have committed anchor partners," said Richard Bendis, CEO of BioHealth Innovation, a Rockville-based nonprofit that helps train entrepreneurs and incubate startups.
MedImmune's string of recent partnerships began in January with a three-year deal to work with the NIH's cancer institute in Bethesda, a 20-minute drive south of the company's Gaithersburg headquarters. The collaboration will focus on four research projects, the organizations said — two that study the use of immunotherapy agents on mice and two that evaluate antibodies that attack tumor cells.
In February, the company formalized a five-year partnership with NIST in which it is paying for seven postdoctoral researchers at the institute who will help formulate measurement tools to be used in pharmaceutical research. The two organizations' labs are less than a mile apart.
Also last month, MedImmune became the first biotechnology company to join the NIH's Centers for Acceleration Innovations, a program launched in September 2013 to help turn scientific discoveries into commercial products more speedily. It joins 14 research institutions in Boston, Cleveland and California, and will help advise academic researchers on the commercial potential of research projects.
On Tuesday, MedImmune and the Joslin Diabetes Center announced a three-year collaboration focused on developing treatments for diabetes, obesity and metabolic disorders. MedImmune is providing research funding and expertise on drug development to the Boston center.
MedImmune also has aligned with researchers at the Johns Hopkins University and the University System of Maryland in recent years. The local focus is by design, said Jarrod Borkat, senior director of partnerships and collaborations at MedImmune.
The company has established a goal of making the Maryland-District of Columbia-Virginia cluster of biotechnology companies into one of the industry's three largest hubs in the country by 2023.
With that in mind, MedImmune is hosting an invitation-only event at the end of the month that is bringing together biotech company executives, leaders from university and federal labs, and industry advocates from Maryland, Washington and Virginia to discuss how to help the industry grow.
"We know we have the right elements here," Borkat said. The question is, he said, "What are better ways to put them together?"
Company officials and biotech industry advocates say encouraging interactions among MedImmune, the state's hundreds of life science-based startups, and federal and university labs add something that the region had been missing when compared with biotech hubs in such places as Boston and San Diego.
Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News ranks Maryland and the D.C. region as the country's fifth-largest biotech hub, behind Boston, San Francisco, New York-New Jersey and San Diego. Fierce Biotech ranks the D.C. region fourth for biotechnology investment, behind San Francisco, Boston and San Diego.
Jallal said the efforts also could help attract and retain an experienced workforce, creating more options for scientists to move around in their careers without leaving the region.
"They know they need to have strong relationships to continue to develop a pipeline of good science that will continue on many years into the future," Bendis said.
Partnerships like the one MedImmune formed with the National Cancer Institute have produced successful drugs, including FluMist; Havrix, a GlaxoSmithKline hepatitis A vaccine; and Taxol, a Bristol-Myers Squibb cancer treatment, according to NIH.
MedImmune's Synagis, which uses an antibody to treat Respiratory Syncytial Virus, is one of the three best-selling drugs that uses technology licensed from NIH. The others are Prezista, a protease inhibitor used to treat HIV, and Gardasil, a vaccine that protects against strains of human papillomavirus that can cause cervical cancer, according to NIH.
But government labs do not agree to work with companies such as MedImmune without getting something in return, said Benjamin H. Wu, deputy secretary and chief operating officer of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. The companies approach the labs with proposals for collaboration, and the deals are refined through a period of negotiation before they're formalized, he said.
Wu, a former deputy undersecretary of commerce for technology in former President George W. Bush's administration, said they are designed to be mutually beneficial.
"For MedImmune to try to conduct some of this research on its own could be costly, and it may not be as effective as being able to partner with NIH or NIST," he said.
At NIST, the partnership means access to equipment and materials that could help biotechnology companies across the country, because the agency is using the partnership to improve measurement tools and industry standards.
For example, the antibodies used in drugs such as Synagis are expected to soon account for most of the top-selling drugs in the world, but NIST doesn't have the ability to make them itself, said Mike Tarlov, coordinator of the agency's biomanufacturing program. Using some from MedImmune, the agency will be able to develop standards and reference points that companies developing antibody-based drugs need to ensure that methods are working properly, he said.
MedImmune "can help us identify the most challenging measurement problems that, if they don't have the expertise to solve, maybe we do," Tarlov said.
According to NIH, the partnerships seek to apply government facilities, intellectual property and expertise to developing marketable products. NIH officials would not provide details on the partnerships' financial arrangements or the negotiation process.
Company officials agreed that they cannot find their next big-name product on their own. While MedImmune acted independently in establishing its vision of growing the region into a major biotech hub, Jallal said achieving that goal will require broader collaboration and that it will have benefits beyond Gaithersburg.
"Our job first is just to say it is possible," Jallal said. "It's going to be good for everybody."