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Volume 88 Issue 47 | p. 5 | News of The Week
Issue Date: November 22, 2010

Pfizer Unveils Academic Network

Alliances: UCSF will be the first partner in firm’s Global Centers for Therapeutic Innovation
Department: Business, Education
Keywords: Pfizer, industry-academia alliances, UCSF
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UCSF biomedical researchers will collaborate with Pfizer scientists.
Credit: U of California, San Francisco
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UCSF biomedical researchers will collaborate with Pfizer scientists.
Credit: U of California, San Francisco

Pfizer is forming a network of academic collaborators to accelerate the translation of basic science into biologics-based drugs. The University of California, San Francisco, has signed on as the first of what are expected to be multiple partners in Pfizer’s Global Centers for Therapeutic Innovation (CTI), based in Cambridge, Mass.

UCSF will receive up to $85 million in research support and milestone payments over the course of the five-year partnership. Pfizer will open labs adjacent to the UCSF campus, where 25 to 30 Pfizer scientists will work alongside university researchers to find new biologics targeting a range of diseases. Although Pfizer has an R&D site in South San Francisco, proximity to the UCSF campus was seen as critical to fostering “a true intellectual exchange,” says Anthony J. Coyle, who will head CTI.

Pfizer is rolling out CTI at a time when venture capital for early-stage research is scarce. At the same time, drug companies are becoming more reliant on external research to fill their pipelines. “Increasingly, the Pfizers of the world are trying to reduce their spending on R&D and leverage other people’s effort,” says G. Steven Burrill, CEO of the life sciences investment firm Burrill & Co. “I think we’re going to see more relationships like this as big companies try to get closer to the source of where research is actually done.”

Under the pact, UCSF scientists will have access to Pfizer’s phage display libraries and other antibody research tools. Metabolism and endocrinology professor and UCSF executive vice chancellor Jeffrey A. Bluestone says bringing in Pfizer’s technology will ease the translation of university research into medicines and could cut two to three years out of the drug development process.

A call for proposals is going out to UCSF shortly, and a steering committee composed of four representatives each from Pfizer and the university will decide which projects to fund. Over the next three years, CTI expects to accept up to eight programs annually from UCSF.

Once a program is accepted, CTI will mete out funding on a milestone basis. Initially, CTI will cover postdocs and the primary investigator’s lab. The steering committee will then decide whether a project should move forward to preclinical and clinical studies.

The venture-capital-like approach to funding reflects the tightening of R&D purse strings at big pharma firms. “Those old days of writing big-dollar checks up front are in the past,” Coyle says.

Ultimately, Pfizer hopes to have seven or eight partners in its network. Three or four of the partners will be based in the U.S., one or two in Europe, and the rest in Asia or Australia. Pfizer expects to announce the next two partners—academic institutions in Boston and New York City—by year’s end, Coyle says.

The network is a leap forward for Pfizer, which has in recent years been evolving its relationship with universities beyond making grants to individual researchers. In 2008, for example, Pfizer and UCSF’s branch of QB3, the multicampus California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, signed a broad-ranging three-year research pact worth up to $9.5 million.

This spring, the company shook up the industry-academia model again: It gave scientists at Washington University in St. Louis access to data on Pfizer compounds that have gone through or are in clinical trials (C&EN, Nov. 8, page 14).

Not everyone thinks closer ties between drug companies and universities are a good thing. The pact “just goes one more step in blurring the boundaries between academia and industry as though they had the same missions—which they don’t,” says Marcia Angell, a senior lecturer in social medicine at Harvard Medical School and former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine.

 
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