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Can Academics Save Pharma?

By Kevin Davies
Nov. 13, 2007 | Two big pharmas — Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) — made critical executive hires last month. After a yearlong search, GSK ended up plucking company insider Andrew Witty, a 40-something former head of Pharmaceuticals Europe, to succeed retiring CEO Jean-Pierre Garnier. GSK’s pipeline is considered strong, but the company is still trying to recover from the recent Avandia controversy.

Meanwhile, Pfizer, facing the looming expiration of $12-billion-per-year Lipitor patent, is urgently looking to reinvigorate its pipeline (which consumes $7 billion annually). Thus, the news of the hiring of Martin MacKay as the company’s new R&D director and former Merck executive Briggs Morrison to head up clinical development was noteworthy. But even more intriguing was the appointment of Corey Goodman to head a new Pfizer research center in the Bay Area. Goodman was the founder and CEO of Renovis, a San Francisco biopharma producing drugs for pain and stroke. Goodman bowed out of Renovis following its $152-million acquisition by Evotec AG, only to resurface at Pfizer a few days later. He will report directly to CEO Jeffrey Kindler.

It’s probably fair to say Goodman isn’t being hired for his Renovis record as much as his outstanding academic credentials and creativity. For two decades, Goodman’s group at first Stanford, then Berkeley, led the study of axonal migration, making key discoveries in the identification of molecular cues that guide the nervous system development, albeit in fruit flies. In 1994, he co-founded Exelixis, another Bay Area biotech, with two fellow fruit fly geneticists.

Goodman’s Bay Area center will bridge the gap between basic research and drug discovery, Kindler said, partnering with academic groups and incubating startups with innovative technologies. The latter sounds reminiscent of Biogen Idec’s BI3 incubator (See Biogen Idec’s Innovation Incubator, Bio•IT World, March 2007). Goodman said the Bay Area center would be independent, “free to establish its own distinct culture, and empowered to recruit entrepreneurial scientists.” It would also leverage the assets of Pfizer Global R&D (PGRD), using the company’s high-throughput screening and pharmaceutical science capabilities and collaborating with PGRD’s biotherapeutics teams, before handing off new drug candidates for late-stage clinical development.

Goodman added: “While we will be focused on biotherapeutics, we will look for any innovative technology in any area that will help develop new medicines. We will be in the center of the California biotech and venture community, in the midst of some of the greatest biomedical research institutions.”

Question Time
This surprising turn of events raises many questions, not least being the time it will take for Goodman to make his mark. Pfizer owns the Rinat Neuroscience facility in South San Francisco, following the acquisition of the protein therapeutics firm in 2006. The site is a key part of Pfizer’s biotherapeutics program spanning various disciplines including oncology, neurology, infectious and metabolic diseases. Another uncertainty is how Goodman’s new center will dovetail with Pfizer’s existing Research Technology Center (RTC) in Cambridge, Mass., though the infusion of new blood and ideas must be welcomed.

It’s a fascinating gamble from Pfizer, which saw its plans to replace Lipitor with Torcetrapib crash last year. But Goodman’s hiring has ample precedent: several pharmas have turned to world-class academics to rethink their approach to drug discovery. Novartis hired cardiologist Mark Fishman to head its Cambridge research hub, the Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research. Despite some high-profile losses — former oncology chief Sasha Kamb and functional genomics director Mark Boguski have both left — Fishman continues to lure leading academics to the institute. The most recent example is Mark Keating, a renowned cardiologist at Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School, who now runs ophthalmology.

At Genentech, Richard Scheller and Marc Tessier-Lavigne head a research program that has seen great success in the biologics arena, prompting other pharmas to emulate this approach. Another success story appears to be taking shape at Merck, where former Whitehead Institute structural biologist Peter Kim is turning the research program around, even as the Vioxx saga drags on. Interestingly, all of the aforementioned recruits were investigators with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. GSK has also been down this route before, hiring former Cambridge University chair of genetics Peter Goodfellow to head discovery research in 2000. Goodfellow led an international team of some 1500 scientists until 2006.

The scale and complexity of global drug development makes it difficult to gauge the long-term success these academic infusions are having. Pfizer has certainly picked a superb scientist for the task, but time is of the essence.

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