AstraZeneca says that its move to cut its 800-900 neuroscience staff and adopt a virtual external research unit of about 40 scientists is already bearing fruit.

Speaking at a press briefing in London, Mene Pangalos, head of innovative medicines at the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker, said that using a small team of researchers taken from the academic hubs on the US east coast and in Cambridge UK who are not burdened by the bureaucracy that runs through big pharma will speed development of drugs. Given the "exceptionally high risk" involved in neuroscience, using this virtual innovative medicines unit, or iMed, makes much more sense financially.

The unit was created as part of a restructuring announced by the company in February which would result in the loss of some 7,300 jobs. Dr Pangalos said that the iMed will "work as a biotech that doesn't have to sell its assets at Phase II", adding that "we have hired tremendously good people". He went on to say that neuroscience is an area of huge unmet medical need which is "where oncology was about 20 years ago". However, before the changes were made, "we didn't have a competitive pipeline".

Alzheimer's alliance, Link deal

Highlighting this new strategy, AstraZeneca unveiled the 'A5 alliance', which will see the firm work with four leading US academic research laboratories to study a major risk factor for Alzheimer's disease, the apolipoprotein E4 genotype. It also announced that it has acquired a portfolio of neuroscience assets from Link Medicine Corp, a privately-held US biopharmaceutical company which specialises in the field of autophagy; this is an intracellular process that clears and recycles misfolded proteins aimed at developing treatments for a range of neurodegenerative diseases.

Dr Pangalos said that AstraZeneca, and indeed most of the pharma industry, had been guilty of going for quantity rather than quality in packing their pipelines and internal research in some areas has not been productive enough. The previous model was unsustainable, he said, and "we are agnostic about where compounds come from".