Dr Jane Osbourn, site leader for MedImmune in Cambridge & vice-president, research
Backgrounder: MedImmune is the worldwide biologics business for the AstraZeneca Group. The company has approximately 3,100 employees worldwide and is headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland with facilities in Pennsylvania, California, Kentucky, the UK and the Netherlands.
With two marketed products and an advancing pipeline of promising candidates, its aim is to be the next revolutionary force in biotechnology by delivering life-changing products, industry-leading performance, and a tireless commitment to improving patient health. Dr Jane Osbourn has significant experience in the antibody engineering and drug discovery field, gained during her 15-year career at Cambridge Antibody Technology (CAT), now MedImmune.
She initially worked among antibody-generation teams before moving on to lead technology development teams, making a significant contribution to MedImmune’s research capabilities and generating many key publications and patents.
Dr Osbourn has led the research department at the Cambridge site since 2007 and is also the interim leader for the oncology therapeutic area within Cambridge. Prior to CAT, Dr Osbourn completed a doctorate at the John Innes Centre for Plant Science Research in Norwich, followed by a British Heart Foundation Post-doctoral fellowship at the Department of Medicine at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. She obtained a first-class degree in natural sciences (biochemistry) from the University of Cambridge.1. How has the Cambridge operation coped with going from a local spin-out to part of one the world’s top five pharmaceutical firms?Cambridge Antibody Technology (CAT) was founded in 1990 and the company experienced rapid growth and development over two decades. In addition to developing in-house products CAT also engaged in significant licensing and collaborative activities to generate revenue, resulting in many clinical candidates including Humira® developed by Abbott for rheumatoid arthritis.
This licensing business provided valuable insights into the way in which many different types of biotech and pharma organisation operate. The alliance between CAT and Astra Zeneca, which was signed in 2004 to enable the discovery and development of respiratory and inflammatory biologic therapies ,provided mutual understanding between the biotech and pharma elements of the business and this was a useful stepping stone to allow the transition that followed when CAT was acquired by AstraZeneca and later integrated with MedImmune.
We have a team of experienced managers who now have a range of experience through stages of biotech to large pharma, so this transition has been relatively seamless. 2. You personally have a long history in the region, first Cambridge University, then the John Innes Centre, than back to Cambridge at Addenbrooke’s. How has the biotech industry changed in the region in that time?I would say that the main change to the biotech industry is a more sophisticated understanding of the challenges and the importance of developing products, not just technologies. This does not mean that the underlying technological ideas and development are not vital to the industry’s success, but they however, have to be built with an understanding of the most important commercial opportunities. The other change is maybe a more subtle realisation that collaboration and partnership is more important than competition. Today, the biotech industry seems more open to sharing ideas and challenges. 3. How does working for a government funded organisation, like the JIC or Addenbrooke’s, compare to a massive corporate business?In reality, when you are working scientifically the differences are less evident than you would expect. In most organisations that I have worked, approaches to problems and ideas are treated similarly because people understand their key goals and have a passion to achieve them. At MedImmune, our goals are clearly defined as making a meaningful difference in patients’ lives.
This differs from some organisations that I have worked where the goals were more ‘blue sky’ research aims. MedImmune has a very impressive culture of teamwork and awareness of opportunities, for example MedImmune as a global organisation has made a very rapid response to initiate development and manufacture of a H1N1 vaccine over a six month period, and such responsiveness is hard to replicate in other types of work settings. 4. The East of England biotech cluster seems to be suffering at the moment: Start-ups are struggling for funding, established firms like Alizyme, Sareum, York Pharma, MMI, are going bankrupt, and apart from CAT, the region is yet to produce a single marketed drug – is the biotech industry as we know it in terminal decline?It is true that smaller companies are finding it more difficult to raise funding in the current economic climate, but many of Britain’s biotechnology firms are finding different ways to deal with these pressures, particularly by looking to larger companies for collaborations. An example is Astex’s relationship with Janseen.
Companies such as CAT and Domantis have taken that one step further by being acquired by large pharma (AZ and GSK, respectively), which provides a route to preserving biotech culture, but provide further expertise and financial support to progress the pipelines.
In terms of marketed drugs, given the development timelines it is still early in the game, but the industry is by no means in decline, it is adapting its business model to the financial and regulatory environment. Particularly in Cambridge the University, Addenbrooke’s and the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) provide a base for scientific innovation, networks and people which will help sustain the productive biotech environment.
5. What about MedImmune Cambridge? How does the size of the operation compare now to when CAT was first acquired by AstraZeneca?Since the acquisition, we have grown from fewer than 300 employees to more than 450 employees to date, adding over 50 staff in 2009 alone. We anticipate further growth in 2010 and beyond. 6. Major pharmaceuticals seem to be under massive pressure to come up with new drugs as their portfolios expire (Pfizer has just been stung with a $2.3 billion fine for mispromoting drugs and bribing doctors to push its medicines), CAT’s acquisition was viewed as a potential source of new medicines for AstraZeneca. What kind of pressure does that place on you and MedImmune in Cambridge?I would not say that MedImmune Cambridge is under additional pressure; the key difference is the scale at which we are now operating. Our approach to all our projects has been consistent to use innovate science to develop safe, effective medicines. But we are now working in multiple therapy areas and using a wider range of drug formats which adds complexity to the manufacturing and development process.
We are now making biologics candidates in neuroscience, cardiovascular and metabolic disease, in addition to the existing areas of oncology, respiratory, autoimmune, inflammation and infections. Using different antibody and protein formats gives us innovative opportunities which have been developed as a result of the combination of the technology bases of the old MedImmune organisation and CAT.
Such technologies include ways to extend the half life of antibodies to hopefully reduce dosing frequency, and for example designing biologics which can cross the blood brain barrier to enable neuroscience treatments.7. What are the biggest hurdles for drug discovery companies at the moment?There are many hurdles and many opportunities. I would say some of the biggest challenges are demonstrating differentiated efficacy in therapeutic setting and understanding the translation science requirements to support this in terms of patient stratification, personalised healthcare and predictive biomarkers. 8. How has the economic downturn impacted the business?The importance of effective medicines for patients is vital and through the economic downturn this does not change and the long term investment planning to drive drug development is built in to organisational plans for many years. As such, the business is able to continue drug development despite the environment, and little has changed because the drives of efficacious medicines generated as efficiently as possible is fundamental to the business model. 9. Does MedImmune have any plans for physical expansion in Cambridge?Over the past two years, MedImmune has expanded the buildings and staffing at the Cambridge site and as the pipeline matures further growth in key areas may be needed to support the increasing demands of later stage projects. Decisions on where and how these capacity and capability demands across MedImmune and its global sites have not been made, but it is clear that MedImmune will continue to invest in lab and office requirements for Cambridge in support of its robust pipeline.10. What are your biggest challenges going forward?Staying at the cutting edge of science and innovation is critical to any drug development company’s success. Our challenge will be to ensure that we continue to recruit and develop top talents; especially staff who maintain a passion and eagerness to learn, understand and shape developing science areas.
At MedImmune we have a Science Track career ladder to help nurture this and our employees are continually going out into the boarder science communities to learn and share ideas. As the business grows keeping this science focus as the heart of what we do will be a challenge for all our staff.