AstraZeneca has linked up with fellow UK firm Heptares Therapeutics to develop new medicines targeting G-protein coupled receptors covering a wide range of diseases.

The four-year collaboration will focus on a number of specific GPCR targets linked to central nervous system/pain, cardiovascular/metabolic and inflammatory disorders from projects in AstraZeneca's small and large molecule portfolio. The Anglo-Swedish drugmaker notes that "GPCRs are among the largest and most important family of proteins found in the human body, yet they become highly unstable when removed from their natural membrane-bound environments".

This instability "has prevented pharmaceutical researchers from understanding GPCR structures and hampered efforts to design medicines" that work on those targets.

In return for worldwide commercial rights to product candidates emerging from the collaboration, AstraZeneca will pay an upfront $6.25 million cash fee plus "committed research funding". Heptares is also in line for undisclosed "significant future payments depending on delivery of agreed milestones" and royalties.

AstraZeneca R&D chief Martin Mackay said that "this exciting collaboration gives us access to cutting-edge technology that will enable us to apply our biophysical and antibody generation capabilities to this important, yet extremely challenging, area of research". The deal is Hepatares' third major GPCR collaboration in 2011 following recent agreements with Takeda and Shire.

End to free doc trips part of integrity focus

Meantime, AstraZeneca's chief executive David Brennan has declared that the company will no longer pay for doctors to attend international conferences as part of the company's commitment to transparency.

Speaking at the Fifth International Pharmaceutical Regulatory And Compliance Congress in Istanbul earlier this month, he addressed the problem of the industry's poor reputation with the public. Mr Brennan said that pharma "is a force for good. But if we are honest with ourselves, that is not how we are perceived. We’re often seen as the bad guys. People don’t trust us to do the right thing".

He cited a Harris poll conducted in the USA last year where only 11% said they thought the pharmaceutical industry was generally honest and trustworthy, compared to 20% who have faith in banks. "So even three years on from one of the world’s most far reaching financial crises, the banks are still seen as more honest than our own sector," he said.

To address this problem, one part "is about setting the highest standards of behaviour and never doing anything that could be misinterpreted". Mr Brennan said that at AstraZeneca, "we start from the position that our products stand on their own merits…healthcare providers should know about their benefits but we should not do anything that could be seen as an inducement to use that product".

As such, "we have decided that we will no longer pay for doctors to attend international scientific and medical congresses but will instead focus our educational efforts on local educational opportunities for healthcare professionals," he added. The AstraZeneca boss went to say that "I know from my own experience as a sales representative, you will encounter people who will ask for gifts, or other inducements. And they will threaten to take their business elsewhere, if you don’t acquiesce".

However, "we have made it clear that our sales force have to say no. They must do the right thing, not the easy thing," he said. "In reputation, in gaining trust, you are only as strong as the weakest link in your chain. Inconsistency undermines trust because it creates room for ambiguity".