Pfizer’s Idea to Fix the Drug Development Crisis, Which Probably Won’t Work (But Just Might)
Big companies love acronyms, and Pfizer is no exception. So when I heard the world’s biggest drugmaker talk about using its CTI network to validate POMs, it sounded like some Dilbert-style, soul-crushing initiative going nowhere.
Writing off this latest initiative would be the safe bet, as many have tried and failed to revitalize the unproductive business of early-stage drug development. After taking a closer look at Pfizer’s big new alliance with eight of Boston’s leading biomedical research centers, my guess is there’s a 90 percent chance it won’t work. But it is a clever strategy that balances the interest of all parties, and if executed well, it could change how drugs get developed for the better.
For those just tuning in, Pfizer made headlines earlier this month when it established a new Center for Therapeutic Innovation (CTI) in Boston, which represents a five-year, potential $100 million investment in early-stage R&D. This is the third such agreement Pfizer has formed in the past year, following similar deals with academic centers in San Francisco and New York.
Pharma collaborations with academic institutions aren’t new, but these Pfizer deals do establish new rules of the road. In the old days, a big drug company with a shiny headquarters far away would pour in some money to support basic research. The scientists looked at Big Pharma sort of like Uncle Sam, as just another rich benefactor to hit up for cash. Once the checks arrived, the scientists would explore the way genes and cells work. When they learned something important, they’d publish it, and move on to the next exciting problem.
The Big Pharma company, in return for its largesse, would usually get a chance to license any inventions from the academic lab that could lead to new drugs. But rarely did any new drugs come out the other end. The drugmakers often saw esoteric advances of knowledge, or half-baked ideas that couldn’t be reproduced. Sometimes the company would make headway for a while, until corporate priorities would shift, leaving once-promising drug candidates sitting on a shelf.
But now it’s clear that Pfizer, despite all its well-documented problems with patent expirations on aging blockbusters, is showing some long-term, creative thinking about how to fill up its pipeline (and even the whole industry’s) with innovative new drugs.
Here’s how the new plan is supposed to work, based on a chat last week with J.C. Gutierrez-Ramos, a senior vice president at Pfizer in Cambridge, MA, who is overseeing the Centers for Therapeutic Innovation in Boston, San Francisco, and New York.
Instead of being set up in a distant headquarters, the new Pfizer centers are being established right across the street or down the hall from some of the top minds in biomedicine. The centers will be staffed by SWAT teams of about 40 people with entrepreneurial experience in biotech, venture capital, or in one of the more aggressive corners of Pfizer itself. Their job starts with watching for seminal publications on new drug targets. Then they will identify the subset of researchers with the most motivation to test their new proposed drug mechanism in people, rather than just move on to the next line of research.
The job of these Pfizer people is to ride herd on these early stage drug development projects, to make sure they have the money and manpower needed to get to a “proof of mechanism,” or POM, as Gutierrez-Ramos says. The Pfizer teams will have access to plenty of cash to … Next Page »