Pfizer vows to go 50-50 in accords with academic researchers

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As it grapples with how to pump more new drugs out of a smaller R&D operation, Pfizer is seeking to attract external research partners. In the process, the world's largest pharma company is giving up some control over drug discovery.

The firm vows to go into new accords with academic centers limiting itself to just a 50% say on decisions about drug candidates. “Pfizer used to believe that a true partnership was 51-49. It doesn't have to be so,” said Anthony Coyle, PhD, who heads up Pfizer's Global Centers for Therapeutic Innovation, an initiative the company launched last fall to spur development of drugs from discovery to phase I.

Academic partnerships are one way—in addition to in-house research, corporate venture capital and licensing deals—that biopharma companies bring new products into their pipelines. Most likely prefer to retain the final go/no-go say on whether to advance a compound, and to take their time doing it.

Speaking at the New York Biotechnology Association (NYBA) meeting Wednesday, Coyle also said Pfizer will impose a 12-month deadline on itself for deciding whether to exercise an option to develop a new therapeutic. After a year, “those assets and the IP and the work that we generate together will go back to the academic institution” for it to find a new partner, said Coyle. “Too many assets get lost on the way…with industry fingerprints.”

Like many of its peers, Pfizer is under pressure to bring new compounds into the clinic for patients. Last year the FDA sanctioned an update to the firm's Prevnar, streptococcus pneumoniae vaccine—Prevnar 13, a more broadly protective version of Prevnar. At the same time, the industry is moving away from the blockbuster, primary care model toward specialty care products, and Pfizer is perhaps most symbolic of the shift. Its cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor is oft mentioned as the prototype mass-market drug. Pfizer's $68-billion purchase of Wyeth in 2009 gave it a platform for developing more complex biologic drugs.

Pfizer said this year that it is shrinking R&D spend by 18% and closing some sites as it braces for a massive decrease in Lipitor revenue. Expediting the best ideas for new drugs through the discovery process won't be easy. Pfizer can be “somewhat bureaucratic,” Coyle said.

But the company wants to alter its vision for conducting research, breaking down silos and moving away from the mentality that if “it's not invented in Pfizer, it can't be any good.” Coyle joked that it was easier to get seven of New York City's most prestigious academic medical centers to sign onto a recent R&D deal with the company than it was to convince Pfizer lawyers to consent to the pact.

The New York City deal marks Pfizers' second regional Center for Therapeutic Innovation (CTI). The first was with the University of California, San Francisco. Looking to act more like a collaborator in these agreements, Pfizer is providing spacious labs and amenities like a company car to shuttle researchers. The CTIs will focus exclusively on developing biologic products. 

The NYC facility, dubbed the Alexandria Center for Life Sciences, has occupancy for 45 scientists—split roughly between Pfizer and its academic partners. Among the institutions participating are Rockefeller University, Weill Cornell Medical College and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

The company thinks the time is right for a friendlier posture. NIH funding has decreased, and venture capital is drying up such that it's harder for researchers to fund early stage projects. Said Coyle: “We see CTI as an opportunity to leverage the areas that pharma has tremendous experience in, to combine our understanding of drug development with the basic science and innovation in academic institutions.”

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