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AstraZeneca builds virtual neuroscience drug unit byte by byte

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Call it the bionic drug R&D group. Without scads of scientists on hand, AstraZeneca's virtual neuroscience unit relies heavily on information technologies to automate some of the heavy lifting of managing a pipeline of drugs for neurological and psychiatric disorders. In an interview with FierceBiotech IT, AZ research information head John Reynders described the tech platforms supporting the research group.

AstraZeneca's ($AZN) virtual Neuroscience Innovative Medicines Unit (iMed) was formed earlier as the London-based drug giant pulled the plug on R&D at its sites in Södertälje, Sweden, and Montreal, while revealing the elimination of 1,800 research jobs. Rather than exiting psychiatric drug R&D as GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and others have done, AZ opted to move the neuroscience programs into the virtual iMed operating in Boston and Cambridge, U.K. The iMed has a small crew of about 40 employees.

"What was recognized is for us to create the amplification required for a very small lean team of only 40 folks, and for us to enable them to orchestrate an entire neuroscience portfolio through a complex network of partners--it needed a huge technology component," Reynders, AZ's vice president of R&D information, said in an interview. "The analogy would be … a 747 that you're flying, and yeah, you've got three or four guys flying this thing, but they also have a ton of computers up there."

To extend the analogy further, Big Pharma groups have been flying blind in neuroscience R&D with experimental meds against unproven targets and poorly understood biology clouding their paths. AstraZeneca has suffered some setbacks in this area. In March, for instance, the pharma giant scrapped its partnership with Targacept ($TRGT) after the smaller company's experimental antidepressant failed in late-stage trials. Yet with major unmet medical needs in the neuroscience area, AstraZeneca kept a foothold in this field, even if it's largely a virtual presence.

"I think something that was really exciting about the virtual iMed from a technology point of view is that early on … at the inception of designing how would you make a virtual iMed work we were having the technology, informatics and analytics discussions," Reynders said. He added that out of 6 separate iMeds with different focuses, the neuroscience group is the only virtual unit.

Biopharma folks sometimes mean different things when they pin the "virtual" tag on research groups. It can mean a small startup highly focused on one or two drug-development programs, using contract researchers to manage clinical trials or even perform preclinical testing. Yet AstraZeneca's iMed manages an entire neuroscience portfolio from target identification through proof-of-concept trials with a constellation of CROs and external partners.

This requires a lot of coordination among both internal and external partners.  The virtual group's team uses an integrated software platform called "Rapid" from Deloitte to manage the clinical development programs. Deloitte had previously worked with Eli Lilly's ($LLY) Chorus group to provide similar capabilities to marshal R&D programs through the proof-of-concept stage, Reynders said. AstraZeneca also partnered with the startup Assay Depot to provide the neuroscience iMed with an Amazon-like service to hunt for CROs that perform preclinical research.

While supporting the clinical and preclinical efforts of the iMed group, neither the Assay Depot nor Deloitte technologies aid the neuroscience unit in another key area--scouting for hot science and experts working on important neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's, depression and Parkinson's disease.

Thus, AstraZeneca is working with the Boston startup Knode, which has web software that can serve as a search engine for finding scientific experts and their content such as key journal articles. Knode's technology gives AZ's lean neuroscience team a platform to scout and track innovations in their field in a heavily automated fashion that could reduce the manpower that would otherwise be required to find collaborators scattered across the globe.

It's too early to gauge of the success of AstraZeneca's virtual approach in neuroscience R&D, with years required for some of its new programs to begin yielding results from clinical trials. However, Reynders and his partners have provided the group with the tech platforms to operate with a relatively tiny staff for a Big Pharma research group and with no internal wet labs. Importantly, the technologies help AZ stay in the hunt for new CNS treatments. -- Ryan McBride (email | Twitter)