AstraZeneca plc, which, like the rest of big pharma, has gravitated toward the biologics space to replenish its dwindling drug pipeline, hopes to strengthen its efforts by merging two recent acquisitions - MedImmune Inc. and Cambridge Antibody Technology - into an operationally independent biologics subsidiary.

Under the plan, Gaithersburg, Md.-based MedImmune, acquired by London-based AstraZeneca in a $15.2 billion deal over the summer, will absorb CAT's operations, along with other biologics activities within AstraZeneca.

The new unit, which will operate as a wholly owned subsidiary of AstraZeneca, will employ about 3,000 people worldwide, with 100-plus research products and more than a dozen clinical-stage drug candidates.

It's an arrangement that bodes well for AstraZeneca, which is able to preserve the science and entrepreneurship of a traditional biotech company and keep the research and development pipelines flowing.

MedImmune, meanwhile, gets the privilege of continuing operations without restrictive controls from its parent company and the opportunity to expand its business. From UK-based CAT, however, there have been a few grumblings about this latest move.

An article in the London Times last week alluded to accusations that AstraZeneca reneged on the pledge not to interfere with CAT's operations or identity.

It's true that when the big pharma company bought CAT in 2006, in a deal valued at $1.3 billion, executives said that they planned on letting the antibody firm, which was considered the UK's largest biotech, remain a distinct entity. But AstraZeneca's subsequent purchase of bigger MedImmune earlier this year resulted in several redundancies in overall operations.

To help reduce those redundancies, AstraZeneca recently cut about 10 percent of CAT's work force, including CEO Hamish Cameron. John Stageman, vice president of biopharmaceutical strategic planning for AstraZeneca, takes on the role of interim site head at the Cambridge facility.

Since mid-2006, AstraZeneca has focused on building up its biologics business. At the time of the CAT acquisition, the company said it planned to have biologics represent about a fourth of its overall product pipeline by 2010. The MedImmune deal accelerated that goal.

CAT, which has one marketed product, Humira (adalimumab), which is partnered with Abbott Park, Ill.-based Abbott, has several monoclonal antibody candidates in early-stage development for cancer, including CAT-3888, a drug targeting CD22 that is in Phase II trials for hairy-cell leukemia.

Among MedImmune's contributions is its manufacturing capabilities and its vaccine technologies. The company also brings to the table Synagis (palivizumab), a monoclonal antibody approved for the prevention of severe lower respiratory tract infection due to respiratory syncytial virus in high-risk infants.

In separate news, MedImmune recently released data at a pediatric conference showing that Synagis treatment in premature infants could end up having an economic impact by possibly preventing subsequent RSV infections.

Recent data also have suggested that RSV infection early in an infant's life might lead to chronic respiratory complications, though more evidence is needed to determine a definite link. In addition to Synagis, MedImmune is developing a next-generation anti-RSV antibody, motavizumab, and expects to submit a biologics license application for that drug in 2008.