Pfizer trying new twist on academic collaborations

By LINDA A. JOHNSON | June 8, 2011 | 2:45 PM EDT

The world's biggest drugmaker said Wednesday it is starting a major research collaboration with Boston-area scientists, putting them in charge of their own projects to speed up and improve discovery of new medicines.

Pfizer Inc. announced that it is setting up shop at a Boston medical campus where its scientists will work side by side with university and hospital researchers from eight prominent Boston-area institutions. Pfizer is pledging a $100 million investment over the next five years.

The new Center for Therapeutic Innovation is Pfizer's third in the U.S., with the others in San Francisco and in New York, Pfizer's base. The Boston site will be the headquarters for all the centers, part of a new twist on how industry and academic collaborations are typically run.

The research projects will come from ideas generated by doctors and university scientists in the Boston area, which has long been a hotbed for medical research.

But instead of them dropping out after potential drug compounds are tested in lab dishes and animals, those scientists will stay on board through the first small tests in people, project head J.C. Gutierrez-Ramos told The Associated Press.

"What we hope is that we accelerate by five or six years the time to do that," said Gutierrez-Ramos, who is Pfizer's head of BioTherapeutic Research and Development.

That unit creates biologic drugs, which are produced in living cells and injected into patients, as opposed to traditional pills made by synthesizing chemicals.

Gutierrez-Ramos will oversee all three therapeutic innovation centers.

He said that once new experimental drugs go through the first small-scale tests in people, Pfizer will decide whether to take over and conduct the multimillion dollar, years-long testing in increasingly larger groups of patients. If not, it could turn the projects back over to the academic researchers or set up partnerships with other pharmaceutical companies or venture capitalists to share risk by jointly funding the research needed for approval.

"The basic premise is that if we don't option it, it's free and clear" for the original scientists to pursue, with Pfizer retaining only a "really minor" interest, such as future royalties from an eventual product, said Gutierrez-Ramos.

"We will not encumber another party to come in," he said. "This was key" to signing on the academic institutions.

Those are: Harvard University, Tufts University, Tufts Medical Center, University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worchester, Boston University School of Medicine, Children's Hospital Boston, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Partners HealthCare.

Pfizer announced the new center at a news conference attended by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

The new center will be based at the Longwood medical campus in Boston, amid a cluster of top-tier medical research institutions. Pfizer and many other pharmaceutical companies have major operations in the Boston area.

Gutierrez-Ramos said the new center initially will have about 40 staffers, including Pfizer scientists and graduate student researchers from the participating institutions.