MRC_Chris_WatkinsLast week the Medical Research Council (MRC) announced a new partnership with AstraZeneca to create a joint facility in Cambridge for screening compounds. Here MRC’s Director of Translational Research and Industry, Chris Watkins, reflects on the motivations behind the move.

Large pharmaceutical companies like AstraZeneca are used to hosting visiting researchers from universities or research institutes. In fact, one of the ways that the Medical Research Council supports academic researchers to work with industry is by funding them on projects that will require that kind of interaction. There are examples of industry researchers working in academic labs in the early stages of developing a commercial product.

But non-industry scientists working full-time within a company environment is much rarer. That’s just one of the ways that the exciting partnership with AstraZeneca, announced last week, is breaking new ground in the UK in relations between the academic and industrial sectors.

We’re collaborating to create a new facility, the AstraZeneca/MRC UK Centre for Lead Discovery, which will be based in AstraZeneca’s new R&D site at the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. There MRC-supported academic researchers will work side-by-side with AstraZeneca scientists in their high-throughput screening group, working on ways to better understand disease pathways.

These non-industry researchers will have open access to the company’s state-of-the-art high throughput screening equipment. And they won’t just have access to the equipment – they’ll also have access to AstraZeneca’s compound library of more than two million molecules.

The collaboration will run for an initial five years, and we plan to fund up to 15 screening projects per year to be carried out at the centre at steady state, with the possibly of some projects beginning as early as 2015 at AstraZeneca’s existing facilities.

The MRC will assess applications to use the centre in our usual rigorous way, via peer review, and will encourage applications from a broad range of therapy areas and diseases – not just those of core interest to AstraZeneca. The company will have first refusal to negotiate licences for the development of any resulting intellectual property, with the researchers free to pursue other options if they wish.

Sharing the same labs, resources and aims will create a truly transparent research environment where academic and pharmaceutical industry scientists can work together.

We’re anticipating that this kind of innovative access to equipment and resources – and these new relationships – will speed up the identification of new, better validated targets for drug discovery, and ultimately more effective treatments for patients. This research simply wouldn’t have happened without such a collaboration being in place. We hope that by partnering with industry in these kinds of inventive ways, the MRC can help break down barriers to more effective collaborations between the academic and commercial research sectors.

I’ve written recently about why the MRC collaborates with industry – it’s because researchers working across sectors is the only way that we can accelerate research into how diseases develop and progress, and speed up the discovery of drugs and other interventions.

This collaboration is a great example of the kind of truly open and innovative research environments that this mission requires.