The collaboration between industry and academia has produced significant improvements in science and medicine for almost a century. From the mid 1920’s when Frederick Banting and his assistant Charles Best isolated insulin in 1921 at the University of Toronto, academic-industry collaborations has led to tremendous breakthroughs that have saved and improved the health of millions.
A new academic-industry partnership was recently discussed in an article in Bloomberg News. The collaboration first began when Hal Dvorak, a Harvard scientist, helped spur the advance of targeted cancer drugs. He then sought a partner to help him develop new treatments. His partner—Pfizer, Inc.—is spending $100 million to open a state-of-the-art laboratory in Boston. For Dvorak, teaming with Pfizer “is an ideal arrangement,” he said, providing convenience and expertise bringing research into the clinic.
“Pfizer, Sanofi, Merck & Co. (MRK) and other drug companies are putting a new twist on the arrangement by stepping up their level of collaboration with universities. In the case of Pfizer, the world’s largest drug company is embedding operations in Boston, San Francisco, New York and San Diego, often in the very same buildings where famed academic institutions have labs.
“No matter how much money you have, nothing compares to the innovation going on out in the world,” said Jose Carlos Gutierrez-Ramos, the director of the Pfizer lab, in an interview. “We want to be here, integrated into this fabric.”
This new collaboration represents Pfizer’s future, as it sees uncertain times for its blockbuster drugs Lipitor and the painkiller Lyrica. By establishing these academic relationships, Pfizer can “buy” promising ideas later down the road. In two to three years, Pfizer plans to have 50 drug development projects running in their centers around the country, all of which have been opened since late 2010, Gutierrez-Ramos said.
Part of these new collaborations come from the leadership of Pfizer Chief Executive Officer Ian Read, who has begun cutting back the size of the company, selling one non- pharmaceutical unit, planning to spin off another and trimming expenses. He has said he wants to rebuild Pfizer into a smaller, faster-moving company that focuses on development of new drugs. “It makes sense to outsource anything that someone else can do better than you and that you don’t consider a core competency or source of competitive advantage,” Erik Gordon, a professor of business at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said in an e-mail.
Pfizer is turning to executives like Gutierrez-Ramos, whose job is to create strong connections within one of the world’s most creative hotbeds for biotechnology innovation. In Boston, the Pfizer lab is located in the same building as offices of renowned research centers of Boston Children’s Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which would make some potential partnerships just an elevator ride away.
The Boston lab has reviewed 400 partnership proposals in the last year and is working on projects involving chronic kidney disease, osteoporosis and cancer, Tony Coyle, chief scientific officer for the Pfizer center, said in an interview. Gutierrez-Ramos said he is trying to create an atmosphere at the lab where outside researchers easily come and go, and Pfizer’s scientists visit neighboring academicians on their turf.
Pharmaceutical companies, which historically are highly secretive about their work because of competition, need to be willing to take more risks in the future, he said, creating access to its inner sanctums to develop drugs earlier.
What Pfizer offers academic researchers are “extraordinary” resources for drug development that nearby university labs can’t match, said Harvard’s Dvorak. Dvorak, in 1983, was one of the first scientists to demonstrate that cancer cells secreted vascular endothelial growth factor, or VEGF, the initial idea behind development of drugs, such as Roche Holding AG (ROG)’s Avastin, that cut off the blood supply to tumors to stop their spread.
“An academic lab can only go so far,” Dvorak said in a telephone interview from Boston. “We’re good at identifying targets, but if you want to make monoclonal antibodies or take this to the clinic, we have no experience in that. That’s not our bag.” Coyle, of Pfizer’s center, agrees. “We’ve cured diabetes in mice so many times” in the laboratory, Coyle said. “But there’s been a very poor appreciation from the academic community” about how to develop drugs for use in the clinic.
An example of the advantages for academics can be seen in a single machine located on the lab’s 18th floor. Separated by a wall of glass from an open-plan suite for the group’s top managers, the machine has the ability to rapidly test thousands of compounds against Pfizer’s own chemical library to see if they match with known disease pathways or proteins that have been identified as possible targets. Past rows of lab benches, two rooms full of complex imaging equipment are used to identify how proteins interact.
Universities and research institutes need all the help they can get, according to a report by the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development released in April. Funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health has been unchanged for a decade, at about $31 billion for 2013. At the same time, pharmaceutical companies have cut their early-stage research budgets in a tough economy to focus on late-stage clinical development and marketing, the report said.
The partnership model now being pursued by Pfizer and a few other large drugmakers, “represents the most significant change in the innovative landscape we’ve seen in three decades,” said Ken Kaitin, director of the Tufts center. “With academic centers, with the reduction in NIH support, there’s almost a desperation that they must, must find new revenue streams,” Kaitin said in an interview in Boston. “That, in most cases, means working with industry.”
Sanofi (SAN), based in Paris, has its own collaboration program, with Harvard, the University of California, San Francisco, and several others, the company said. In March, Merck, the second-biggest U.S. drugmaker, announced it was joining the party. The Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based company said it will spend as much as $90 million over seven years to help fund a new California Institute for Biomedical Research it will run in San Diego.
Ultimately, these companies and academic medical centers should be applauded for their collaboration and more partnerships such as these should be encouraged. As the article recognizes, the tough economic times have resulted in less scientific grant money from the federal government and tighter budgets for pharmaceutical companies. These partnerships have the promise of changing the current business structures of companies and finding new treatments and drugs that will cure chronic disease and help reduce health care costs. Like the first collaboration that produced insulin over 90 years ago, these collaborations may be the ticket for curing diabetes and other serious illnesses.