Pfizer’s much-vaunted Discovery Technology Center — which opened its doors in 1999 as an interdisciplinary research mecca designed to integrate informatics, engineering, chemistry, biology, and the promising new field of genomics — has grown in leaps and bounds since the pharma closed two acquisitions, with Warner-Lambert in 2000 and Pharmacia this April.
Early in the center’s life came a shift in leadership. Alan Proctor, who first conceived the idea for the novel research division and initially oversaw it, headed off for another position within Pfizer, and in May of 2001 Rod MacKenzie became VP of DTC.
The center is still in growth stages. “We’re into our fifth year of science now, [but] it’s still pretty young in drug discovery terms,” says MacKenzie, 43. Early work has focused on setting up the “fundamental disciplines” and in more recruitment rounds: the current one will bring the unit to about 90 discovery scientists, which is just half of the center’s capacity, he says.
The DTC’s early devotion to integrating genomics across every part of pharma research seems to have waned somewhat. MacKenzie says the center is “still very involved in genomics” but that “we certainly don’t see genomics as the single technology that’s going to be applicable across the board.” It fits in best so far with target discovery, he says. Also apparently out the window is the no-pressure-for-discovery research environment. A high-level industry watcher in Cambridge says Pfizer now insists that the DTC deliver a compound to trials within two years.
Still, MacKenzie believes that genomics and its related research fields could play a more important role in drug discovery. Much of the current technology is neither robust nor validated enough for pharmas to bring it in-house, he contends. “We need to see more partnerships between technology companies and the big pharma companies,” he says. A key application: molecular toxicology, where MacKenzie says proteomics in particular could be crucial for pharmaceutical firms. “It’s true across the whole industry that we don’t have the kind of predictive assays and tests we need to stop the kind of attrition that we get. It’s a huge burden that everybody in the industry is carrying,” he says. The solution: If proteomics companies can work with pharma to cull through attrition databases and help solve the “tox” element of ADME/tox, the entire industry could be invaluable to its dream customer.
— Meredith Salisbury