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MedImmune, Hopkins to collaborate

The Johns Hopkins University and Gaithersburg-based MedImmune LLC are beginning a five-year, $6.5 million research collaboration that will focus on identifying potential treatments for several complex diseases, officials announced Wednesday.

Both Hopkins and MedImmune — the biologics research and development arm of pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca — will contribute funds, employees and materials to the partnership, which will consist of several joint research projects and training programs, officials said.

MedImmune will funnel $5.3 million over the first three years into the projects, which are not expected to take the entire five years, said JoAnn Suzich, vice president and head of infectious disease and vaccine research. Hopkins will kick in the rest.

The research projects are designed to accelerate development of new drugs or other therapies for diseases such as multiple sclerosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The focus will be on MedImmune’s top areas of interest, including oncology, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, respiratory issues and neuroscience.

The exact topics chosen for the research projects will depend on where MedImmune’s interests overlap with Hopkins scientists’ expertise, said Dr. Landon King, executive vice dean at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who helped organize the partnership. King said the list is almost finalized.

The idea is to tap into both organizations’ expertise to make greater progress in treating serious diseases than either could on its own, King said. Each party will benefit from gaining access to the other’s facilities, equipment and brainpower.

“[Hopkins] has a long track record in basic and translational sciences … but we don’t have the capacity within Johns Hopkins to advance beyond that in actually developing a therapy,” King said. “We need a partner to push the work we do to become a therapy that could ultimately make it to patients. And that’s what MedImmune does extremely well.”

As part of the collaboration, the organizations hope to launch training sessions to give Hopkins students opportunities to meet MedImmune scientists and learn about biomedical careers. Officials also plan to hold symposia for employees at both organizations, perhaps on topics related to the research and open to employees who aren’t actually participating in them, King said.

The partnership is part of MedImmune’s broader initiative to forge closer ties with Maryland’s research community and promote the state as a leader in bioscience and pharmaceutical development, officials said.

In September, the company announced a similar $6 million partnership with the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Even though Maryland already has a rich bioscience and biotechnology landscape, King said, it’s important to create more links like this.

“What we hope to develop is a more entrepreneurial, innovative product-development, therapy-development and diagnostics-development community than what has historically been present in the state,” he said. “We think there are opportunities through this partnership to advance that message and that goal.”

The idea to create formal partnerships with research institutions had been brewing for a while, Suzich said. MedImmune was inspired by a division of AstraZeneca in Cambridge, England that has a strong relationship with Cambridge University, she said.

“You get benefits when you create that kind of biotech hub that you can’t even imagine when you first start,” she said.

If researchers emerge from the five-year collaboration with a viable new vaccine or drug, that would be great, Suzich said, but that’s not the only measure of success. The team won’t necessarily have something tangible to offer after the formal partnership period is up — the goal is to “advance science,” and that could take a number of forms, she said.

“We could gain some insight that changes how we go about development of a particular molecule, we could find a new application for a molecule that we hadn’t previously considered or we could decide to take a program in an unexpected direction,” she said. “It’s not ‘Oh, we need two new drugs.’”

MedImmune and Hopkins will, however, need to monitor their progress closely to ensure they’re on the right track, and “not just spending money,” Suzich added.