By Ben Hirschler
CAMBRIDGE, England (Reuters) - AstraZeneca, which will complete its move to Cambridge by 2016, is already putting down roots in the ecosystem of the university city as it seeks to revitalize its drug research.
Britain's second-biggest pharmaceuticals group said on Monday it had struck an unique deal with the state-funded Medical Research Council (MRC) under which academic scientists will work alongside its staff at its new Cambridge site.
Transplanting AstraZeneca to the university city in the east of England forms the centerpiece of a $2.5 billion restructuring plan by Chief Executive Pascal Soriot, who hopes closer links with academia will spark ideas and innovation.
AstraZeneca has suffered a dry period in drug discovery in recent years and badly needs to find new medicines to replace blockbusters like Nexium for heartburn and Crestor for high cholesterol that will lose patent protection in a few years.
The initial five-year MRC collaboration, which was welcomed by British science minister David Willetts, may provide part of the answer by finding early leads for new drugs.
Within the AstraZeneca MRC UK Centre for Lead Discovery, the academics will get access to more than 2 million compounds in AstraZeneca's library and have the use of high-tech screening equipment to study diseases and possible treatments.
Their research proposals will be assessed by the MRC, which will fund up to 15 projects a year and AstraZeneca will have the first option to license any resulting drug discovery programs.
Mike Snowden, head of discovery sciences at AstraZeneca, said the MRC agreement was a "flagship" deal but the firm would also strike other academic tie-ups from its new home base.
"The strategy is to share science," he said. "Cambridge is a hotspot for bioscience. That's why we're moving there and it certainly makes it easier to work with people like the MRC, who have their Laboratory of Molecular Biology next to where we work."
AstraZeneca's $500-million corporate headquarters and R&D center in Cambridge will put some 2,000 staff within walking distance of university scientists and academic labs when it is completed in two years time.
In July, AstraZeneca agreed another deal with the university and Cancer Research UK specifically to seek out new cancer-fighting drugs.
Other large drugmakers have built research outposts in life science centers like Cambridge, Boston and San Francisco - but none have undertaken such a wholesale move of operations.
The strategy is not without risks, especially if the upheaval disrupts current research projects or results in key staff leaving the company. A smooth transition is seen as a key test for CEO Soriot as he tries to change the culture at AstraZeneca to put science at the center of its activities.
AstraZeneca currently has a limited research presence in Cambridge via its biotech unit, MedImmune. Most R&D has been carried out at a site in Alderley Park, near Manchester, which AstraZeneca is now selling.
(Editing by Sophie Walker)