Pfizer joins academics in bid for progress

Hopes to hasten drug development

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / June 9, 2011

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Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. announced an unusual partnership with leading Boston-area hospitals, medical schools, and universities yesterday, in an attempt to address a major problem in medicine: the years-long gap between basic science discoveries and the testing of drugs stemming from those advances.

The company will invest $100 million over five years and establish a research space in the heart of the Longwood Medical Area, where Pfizer scientists will work in teams with academic researchers, jointly planning and pursuing projects. The new Center for Therapeutic Innovation, which will create about 50 jobs, is part of a global Pfizer initiative to foster new kinds of collaboration with academia to accelerate drug development, a program that will be headquartered in Boston.

Bridging the chasm between “eureka’’ moments at the lab bench and the development and use of new drugs at the bedside has become an urgent national priority. In the biomedical research community, this problem is known as “the valley of death’’ — where exciting lab results stall while patients desperately wait for breakthroughs.

Despite many billions of dollars spent on biomedical research each year by federal agencies and companies, only about two dozen new drugs are approved in the United States annually, and fewer still make a major dent in fighting disease.

“Over the last decade, the entire biomedical community has been unable . . . to translate billions of dollars of investment to sufficient impact on improvements in health care,’’ Mikael Dolsten, president of worldwide research and development at Pfizer, said in an interview. “We think it’s really a great opportunity to embark on a change and transformation plan, which in the end would be very much enabling patients to get medicine sooner . . . and we think we cannot as a company do it in isolation.’’

Until now, there’s been limited collaboration between academic and industry researchers on early-stage drug development projects. The arrangements are usually made between individual labs and are not on the scale of the new initiative. New York-based Pfizer has also started Centers for Therapeutic Innovation in San Francisco and New York within the past year and has plans to expand the model to other countries.

Other drug companies are also moving in this direction, motivated by overall industry trends: expiring patents on some of their most lucrative drugs and cutbacks in their internal research and development programs. The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Belfer Institute for Applied Cancer Science, for example, has partnered with pharmaceutical giants Sanofi-Aventis and Merck to translate research on cancer targets into useful drugs.

“The reality is that at this point, in the history of cancer medicine and medicine in general, it’s exceedingly clear the greatest challenge is the complexity of the biology,’’ said Dr. Ronald DePinho, director of the Belfer Institute. “One needs new academic constructs . . . to systematically translate these brilliant discoveries into clinical endpoints, and that has been challenging to do or inefficiently done.’’

The announcement in Boston yesterday was attended by Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas Menino. It was made in the lobby of the Center for Life Science building, where Pfizer is opening lab space on the 18th floor and where researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Children’s Hospital Boston, Harvard, and other institutions also work.

Pfizer’s new agreement, which focuses on the development of drugs that are based on biology rather than chemistry, includes Beth Israel Deaconess, Boston University, Children’s Hospital, Harvard University, Tufts Medical Center, Tufts University, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Partners HealthCare — the parent company of Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals.

Under the new model, a joint steering committee consisting of three people from Pfizer and three people from a scientific research institution will decide which proposals will move forward as research projects. Pfizer scientists, based at the new research space in Longwood, will work with academic scientists — and the company will open up what Dolsten calls “the crown jewels’’ — its deep expertise and resources in developing and screening drugs and its massive library of antibodies, proteins used by the immune system. Pfizer will have the first crack at exclusively licensing the research.

For Boston institutions, the deal offers an opportunity to push research further than it would normally go. For some time, pharmaceutical companies including Merck, Novartis, and Pfizer have been locating research laboratories in the Boston area to work with the local community of scientists, hospitals, and biotechnology companies, but this agreement would make industry and academia closer partners.

“We’ve been wrestling with this issue for a couple of years,’’ said Mark Chalek, director of technology ventures at Beth Israel Deaconess. “It’s not as if we can do drug discovery and drug development — to some extent, [the deal with] Pfizer contains many of the elements we thought we would have to create on our own.’’

The new partnership comes as connections between industry and academia are being increasingly scrutinized because of concerns that financial ties could bias the practice of medicine. Many medical schools and academic medical centers have recently adopted stricter rules governing those relationships.

Dr. Jerome Kassirer, a distinguished professor at Tufts University School of Medicine who has been a critic of conflicts of interest, said the way he evaluates industry and academic partnerships is by looking at whether they are good for patients.

“This sort of thing is what I have pushed all along — which is the kind of collaboration between industry and physicians that is beneficial for patients,’’ said Kassirer, a former New England Journal of Medicine editor. He noted that the participants would still need to be vigilant about potential conflicts, but that “the spinoffs are the problems for me — the speakers’ bureaus, the lecture series, promotion of drugs. Those are the things that have tainted the relationship.’’

Dr. Richard Karas, interim chief scientific officer at Tufts Medical Center, said Tufts is in talks with several pharmaceutical companies to develop broader partnerships.

“It’s basically just not what we do — to bring a new drug to the market requires tremendous expertise in regulatory affairs. For example, you have to understand all about FDA regulations, worldwide patent type things, which academics — I’m a basic scientist; I don’t have [that] expertise,’’ Karas said.

The partnership with Pfizer is already rolling out at other institutions, and Dr. Ralph Nachman, associate dean for clinical research at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, said he has been pleasantly surprised by the research proposals.

“I must say, I was slightly skeptical’’ at first, Nachman said. But the proposals he reviewed had “a different degree of creativity that we hadn’t seen before the input of industry. . . . These grant applications and thinking went well beyond the idea [that] ‘this could be applicable’ ’’ and instead laid out a clear plan to bring an intriguing finding into the clinic.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at