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AZ links with Harvard for diabetes research

Firm extends ties with the highly respected academic institution in hope of finding innovative leads


AstraZeneca will tap into the stem cell expertise of Harvard University in the US in a five-year project to discover new treatments for diabetes.

The two partners intend to adapt a technique that converts stem cells into human beta cells - the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas - so they can be used to screen AZ's compound library for new diabetes leads.

Harvard's work overcomes a key bottleneck in diabetes research, as human beta cells for research purposes "are extremely limited in number and availability," said AZ in a statement.

The company has made no secret of its ambitions in diabetes - the company is confident the market will continue to grow strongly despite reports of increasing competition and pricing pressure among its rivals in the category - and the deal with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) indicates it is in it for the long-haul.

The collaboration with HSCI will extend the work of researchers led by the unit's co-chairman - Professor Doug Melton - which allows "limitless quantities" of beta cells to be produced from human induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs) generated directly from adult cells.

Last October, Melton and his co-workers published the technique in the journal Cell, marking the culmination of 15 years of research, sparking speculation that the beta cells could be used to create an artificial pancreas that - one day - could end diabetics' reliance on insulin injections.

The team have implanted the cells into diabetic mice and found that they restored some degree of insulin function.

AZ will fund a team of investigators at HSCI - led by Melton - which will work with an in-house team that will be set up at its R&D facility in Mölndal, Sweden. In addition to the screening exercise, the scientists will also use the beta cell clones "to better understand how the function of beta cells declines in diabetes."

In people with type 1 diabetes beta cells are destroyed by an autoimmune response, so they have to inject insulin to maintain normal blood sugar levels. In type 2 diabetes beta cells either stop working properly or their numbers fall.

AZ said the collaboration dovetails with its own strategic research approach in diabetes, which is "aimed at restoring the function of the pancreatic beta cells as well as insulin sensitivity, irrespective of therapeutic modality."

The company also boosted its portfolio of marketed diabetes drugs with the $4.3bn acquisition of Bristol-Myers Squibb's interests in the two companies' joint venture, which closed last year.

Article by
Phil Taylor

25th March 2015

From: Research



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