AstraZeneca said today it has exclusively licensed rights to compounds developed by the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery (VCNDD) that act on the M4 muscarinic acetylcholine receptor, hoping to identify drug candidates for psychosis and other neuropsychiatric symptoms.

AZ and Vanderbilt University said they will continue to collaborate further develop existing compounds and identify additional M4 compounds. Selective activation of M4, through positive allosteric modulation, has been shown in animal models to block dopamine release in several key brain regions, and improve cognitive performance, with antipsychotic-like effects.

AZ will pay Vanderbilt an undisclosed upfront payment, plus research funding for two years, as well as unspecified milestone payments, and royalties on global sales of products developed under the collaboration.

The agreement with Vanderbilt is the second academic collaboration signed by AZ’s Neuroscience Innovative Medicines Unit since it was established in February 2012, as part of AZ’s effort to switch its neuroscience drug development model from internal R&D. AZ at the time laid off about 2,200 researchers, most in neuroscience R&D, and announced plans to shutter R&D labs in Södertälje, Sweden, and Montreal. AZ’s actions followed two years of layoffs and neuroscience R&D cutbacks by GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, and Novartis.

The compounds licensed by AZ were developed through Vanderbilt’s participation in the National Cooperative Drug Discovery and Development Group program, which is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health.

“We believe the new model for furthering neuroscience drug discovery created by AstraZeneca fits perfectly with the mission of the VCNDD, making this an ideal partnership for advancing treatment of these devastating disorders,” P. Jeffrey Conn, Ph.D., VCNDD director and Lee E. Limbird professor in pharmacology, said in a statement.

The licensing agreement is not the first collaboration between AZ and Vanderbilt. In 2006, the drug developer and Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center signed a master scientific agreement to streamline and integrate collaborations in basic, translational and clinical cancer research, hoping to speed up development of new medicines.

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