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Pfizer signs rare diseases deal with UK universities

LONDON, May 9 (Reuters) - U.S. drugmaker Pfizer, battling to buy British rival AstraZeneca, has struck a deal with leading British universities to hunt for new medicines to treat rare diseases.

The tie-up with scientists from Cambridge University, Imperial College London, King's College London, Queen Mary University London, University College London and Oxford University is likely to be portrayed as evidence of Pfizer's commitment to British science.

Its $106 billion takeover approach for AstraZeneca has been rejected by the British company and criticised by a number of politicians and scientists who fear it will lead to job cuts that undermine the country's position in biomedical research.

Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer's research head, said on Friday the five-year agreement highlighted the vital role of collaboration between industry and academia in driving the development of new medicines.

The project aims to match the scientific expertise of university researchers with Pfizer's drug discovery and development knowledge in the specific area of rare diseases, defined as conditions affecting less than 0.1 percent of the population.

There are more than 6,000 recognised rare diseases, affecting about 60 million across Europe and the United States. Around 80 percent of the disorders are thought to have a genetic origin.

(Reporting by Ben Hirschler; editing by Keiron Henderson)