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Published on 05/12/11 at 11:36am

Created in 1999 from the merger of British Zeneca and Swedish Astra, the company's biggest successes since then have been ulcer drug Nexium, cholesterol treatment Crestor and antipsychotic Seroquel.

However, the last few years has seen the company bedevilled by a string of drugs which have failed in the late stages of development, or have suffered fatal setbacks once on the market.

Among the most recent of these was Zactima, which failed to gain approval in non-small cell lung cancer after an evaluation of updated results from clinical trials of the drug.

The drug gained FDA approval for the rare medullary thyroid cancer, but this is likely to be less lucrative than NSCLC.

The compound had been pitched as an important new drug candidate for AstraZeneca, which needs a new generation of products to overcome upcoming patent expiries in its portfolio on drug such as gastrointestinal Nexium (esomeprazole), Seroquel (quetiapine) for schizophrenia and cholesterol-lowerer Crestor (rosuvastatin).

There was good news in July 2011 when the FDA finally approved AstraZeneca’s blood thinner Brilinta after asking for more information on the drug. 

After twice delaying its decision on Brilinta while it waited for more data from AZ’s main phase III PLATO trial, the US regulator has now approved it for the prevention of heart attack and cardiovascular death in adult patients with acute coronary syndrome (ACS).

Brilinta (ticagrelor) has been shown as a more effective alternative than Sanofi’s standard treatment Plavix (clopidogrel) in reducing the rate of a combined endpoint of CV death or heart attack, but was not better in preventing stroke.

The drug is expected to reach blockbuster status, and recent forecasts predict peak annual sales of around $1.5 to $3 billion.

Ongylza, a new diabetes treatment co-marketed with BMS was launched in October 2009.

View AstraZeneca's pipeline

R&D Cuts

In early 2010, the company announced major job losses and restructuring in its R&D operations. Nearly 3,500 R&D jobs will be affected at AstraZeneca at it exits discovery research in 10 therapeutic categories and closes down sites in the UK, Sweden and the US.

AstraZeneca says it will continue to carry out development work in all its current therapeutic categories, but will no longer conduct early-stage research in schizophrenia, anxiety and depression, thrombosis, acid reflux, ovarian and bladder cancers, systemic scleroderma and hepatitis C.

It will also cut back all vaccine research with the exception of programmes in flu and respiratory syncytial virus.

The company had already announced its intention to make staff cuts in January 2010, saying that around 8,000 would be shed across the group including 1,800 in R&D. 

Top of the list of sites affected by the decision is the Charnwood R&D facility in Loughborough, UK, which will be closed with the loss of 1,200 jobs by the end of 2011.

The Charnwood unit focuses on respiratory and inflammatory disease research and is the main development centre for AstraZeneca's pressurised metered dose inhaler (pMDI) activities.  These activities will transfer to Moelndal in Sweden.

The company's R&D site at Alderley Park in Macclesfield will be net beneficiary of the revamp, inheriting some of this work and seeing its workforces expanded.

In the US, early-stage research will cease at its facility in Wilmington, Delaware, with the loss of around 550 jobs. Some of the employees from the unit, which specialises in psychiatric research, will transfer to AstraZeneca's Boston-based R&D operation.

In Sweden, AstraZeneca will close its R&D unit in Lund by the end of 2011. The site currently employs around 900 staff. Respiratory and inflammatory research will transfer to AstraZeneca's Moelndal site, which also focuses on gastrointestinal and cardiovascular R&D.

In May 2010, Martin Mackay took over as head of the company's research efforts.

Mackay had briefly been part of a twin track approach in Pfizer's R&D operations where he oversaw a small molecule pharmaceutical unit while Mikael Dolsten lead a separate biologics R&D unit.

AstraZeneca stats

The company focuses on six therapy areas: cancer, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, infection, neuroscience and respiratory & inflammation.

It employs over 65,000 people - 51% in Europe, 32% in the Americas and 17% in Asia, Africa and Australasia.

2008 sales:  $31.6 billion.

R&D investment 2008: over $5 billion.

Approx 12,000 people in R&D, and 17 principal R&D centres in eight countries.

26 manufacturing sites in 18 countries.


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