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Astex Pharmaceuticals – structural biology revolutionises drug discovery

Astex Pharmaceuticals – structural biology revolutionises drug discovery. Wikimedia Commons

In 1999, Professors Tom Blundell and Chris Abell from the University of Cambridge, and Dr Harren Jhoti from pharmaceutical company GSK founded Astex Technology to commercialise their new approach to drug discovery. The company, which became Astex Pharmaceuticals in 2011 when it was bought by SuperGen Inc., was sold for $886M in 2013 to Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd.

Data breakout

US$150M Value of company in 2011, when Astex Technology was bought by SuperGen Inc. and renamed Astex Pharmaceuticals. It was later resold for US$886M
80-100 Number of Astex employees since 2003
$120M Approximate investment funding Astex has received from major pharmaceutical companies

Their ‘structure-guided fragment-based’ approach, developed by Blundell and colleagues from decades of structural biology research, is now employed by many major pharmaceutical companies, including GSK, Novartis, AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson, alongside their traditional drug discovery programmes. It works by detecting the position and orientation of small molecule ‘fragments’ bound to target proteins at high resolution using X-ray crystallography; these fragments can then be modified to create novel drug precursors.

Astex has used the approach to develop four potential drug compounds in-house, which are all now in Phase I or Phase II clinical trials, and has worked with industry partners to develop several others. GSK and AstraZeneca subsequently established their own fragment-based discovery programmes based on their collaborations with Astex.

"Astex Pharmaceuticals was listed on NASDAQ [ASTX] and is one of the most successful British biotechnology companies ever," says Dr Roberto Solari, former Vice President in the Respiratory Therapy Area at GSK, and former Astex employee.

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