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Collaborating to innovate: AstraZeneca's collaborations in mRNAs, antisense oligos and cell therapy

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In this exclusive interview we spoke to Anna Collén, Senior Project Director, Innovative Medicine at AstraZeneca, about how collaboration is driving innovation in mRNAs and antisense oligonucleotides at AZ.

What work is AstraZeneca currently doing on oligos?

'We are doing quite a lot of oligo work...and it's mainly through collaborations. Within the mRNA field we work with Moderna Therapeutics and in the antisense oligo field we work with Ionis and there we have a very strong collaboration.

We also have a very diverse portfolio within the cardiovascular space due to the fact that we want to target every target with a molecule. We were a small molecule company from the start, but we expanded into the new modality space to be able to target certain disease areas.'

What challenges still need to be overcome in utilizing mRNA as a therapeutic molecule?

'What is good with mRNA is that we know when it gets into the cell, it will work; so mRNA will translate into protein and the protein is actually the active modality, or the drug in a way. The mRNA is just a translation to the protein that is actually doing the mode of action.

What is the challenge with mRNA and specifically the project I'm working on, is to deliver the mRNA. So we are injecting it into the myocardium of the heart and there we would like to have very strong uptake into the cells. So to formulate it to get it taken up into the cells is a challenge. In the cardiac tissue we have seen uptake when we inject naked mRNA, just an ordinary citrate buffer. That's fantastic that we can have uptake in the heart in that respect, but if you inject it in other areas, or want to take it for example into the liver, you need to have it formulated with an LMP and that's the difficulty.

It also relates to the cost of goods. It is very costly to produce right now, which I'm sure we can solve that working closely with Moderna, but we are also working quite intensively to see how we can formulate mRNA.'

And you're working also on a regenerative portfolio in the cardiovascular metabolic space?

'We have a collaboration right now with a new company called Procella that focuses on cell therapy. We are wanting to regenerate the heart by injecting progenitor cells into the myocardium and regenerate the tissue in that respect.

So we are working with mRNAs for cardiac regeneration to induce angiogenesis with a VEGF protein, but also we have a collaboration in discovery in the stem cell therapy area and we're super excited about that collaboration. So we're working very broadly with different modalities - small molecules, mRNA, oligos, but also cell therapy.'

How can Big Pharma and biotechs work together better?

'It's very important to be working in collaborations, in particular in these novel scientific areas of mRNAs, antisense oligos and cell therapy. AstraZeneca is a Big Pharma company and we have a lot of experience when it comes to clinical phase, launching drugs and scale-up manufacturing. However, biotech is usually very agile and has a lot of novel ideas, sometimes using shortcuts that we in Big Pharma think are impossible - but it is possible.

Working together we can find new ways - I think in the borders between biotech and pharma we will see new innovation. We have good examples of that working together with Ionis where we have now identified GLP-1 as a targeting molecule to target pancreatic cells with antisense oligos. So working together will help us to enable new science and new technologies. And it's great fun!'

This interview was filmed at TIDES Europe in November 2018. Join over 1000 peptide and oligonucleotide professionals at TIDES US on May 20-23, 2019 in San Diego, CA.

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