MedImmune creating drug pipeline for AstraZeneca

Gaithersburg biotech company acquired five years ago

  • Gail Wasserman, senior vice president of the biopharmaceutical department at MedImmune, does a presentation on biopharmaceutical development.
Gail Wasserman, senior vice president of the biopharmaceutical… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
November 18, 2012|By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun

When Gail Folena-Wasserman joined Gaithersburg biotechnology startup MedImmune in 1991, she was its first employee in research and development, and dreamed of what the company might be "when it grew up."

Two decades later, the senior vice president for biopharmaceutical development is helping to test new drugs at a dramatically different MedImmune. Five years since a $15 billion acquisition by British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, the company is funneling a pipeline of potential therapies that has grown three times over and covers a wider spectrum of diseases.

MedImmune leaders say they are entering a prime phase in drug development, with several projects moving into final patient trials and a growing share of AstraZeneca's overall drug pipeline. Given intense competition in the industry, success will depend on how each gamble pays off in the laboratory. AstraZeneca's sales and stock prices have taken a hit because of challenges from generic drug competition, putting the pressure on MedImmune to quickly turn out new patented innovations.

Despite fears that the AstraZeneca takeover might strip Maryland of its marquee biotechnology success, MedImmune leaders said the progress might not have happened without it.

"AstraZeneca made the play for MedImmune, and I have to say this was a good strategy for the long term," said Bahija Jallal, MedImmune's executive vice president for research and development. "That long term is no longer very long. I think we're bringing that to fruition."

Yet the phrase "the next MedImmune" is never far from the lips of state and regional economic development officials eager to replicate the company's success. As the company continues to grow under AstraZeneca, biotech industry advocates say its presence still provides a boost to the region.

"They are the model company," said Aris Melissaratos, a former state economic development official who leads technology-transfer efforts as a special adviser to Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels. "It's a huge success case study."

The company, founded in 1988, built its reputation on Synagis, used to prevent an infant lung disease known as respiratory syncytial virus, and FluMist, a nasal-spray flu vaccine. MedImmune also contributed to successful drug products including Humira and Gardasil.

By the time AstraZeneca came courting, MedImmune had built up a 23-acre Gaithersburg campus, employed 2,500 people and stood to add $1 billion to AstraZeneca's sales. Once the deal closed, AstraZeneca melded another recent acquisition, British firm Cambridge Antibody Technology, into MedImmune with the charge of building a pipeline of medicines based in biology, as opposed to being chemically created.

At the time, MedImmune's roster of about 40 projects represented less than 25 percent of what AstraZeneca researchers were exploring, Jallal told reporters at a recent open house for news media. Today, MedImmune researchers are testing about 120 potential or proven therapies, 45 percent of AstraZeneca's drug pipeline.

"We're not going to stop at 45 percent," Jallal said.

Before the acquisition, MedImmune's most acclaimed research was in the fields of infectious and respiratory diseases, with some exploration into cancer drugs. But in the past five years its focus has expanded to include neurological, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases, Jallal said.

Among the ailments that could one day be treated by drugs MedImmune is exploring are drug-resistant bacterial infections, leukemia, asthma, lupus and diabetes. Steve Projan, who heads the company's research into infectious diseases and vaccines, said he expects to file plans with the FDA by the end of the year to start clinical trials on a drug to fight the sometimes deadly Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, a form of which is better known as MRSA.

Juggling the deeper stable of projects has required some adjustments, Folena-Wasserman said.

"Our science has certainly matured a lot because of the size of the organization," she said. (There are about 1,000 more employees than five years ago.) "One of the most difficult aspects was, how do you go from a small portfolio where you know absolutely everything about every project to — which of 35 projects am I thinking about now?"

There has been a need to trim projects with a lower probability of succeeding, Jallal said. And officials recognized that the current pipeline, which is updated twice a year to the public, is heavy on relatively early-stage projects. A significant number are in Phase 1 and 2 clinical trials, being tested on small groups of patients, but none are in Phase 3 trials, when drugs are fine-tuned on larger populations. In January, a few will shift into the Phase 3 column, Jallal said.

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