Skip to main content
Premium Trial:

Request an Annual Quote

Big Pharma’s Academic Courtship Continues With Pfizer-UCSF, Glaxo-IDI Research Pacts

Premium
A pair of pharma giants inked broad research and drug-discovery collaborations with prominent US research institutions this month, continuing the recent trend of pharmaceutical companies dipping into academic waters to replenish their drug pipelines. 
 
The deals, between GlaxoSmithKline and the Immune Disease Institute, and between Pfizer and the University of California, San Francisco, are similar in their overarching goals but differ in scope.
 
The alliance with GlaxoSmithKline, announced last week, will provide Immune Disease Institute $25 million over five years to jointly develop with GSK researchers projects in the immuno-inflammation field.
 
Meantime, the three-year, $9.5 million drug-discovery and development pact between Pfizer and UCSF will span several disciplines, Pfizer research units, and UC campuses, including the UCSF-headquartered California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, UC-Berkeley, and UC-Santa Cruz, Pfizer said. The project will be led by Pfizer’s recently formed Biotherapeutics and Bioinnovation Center in South San Francisco, Calif.
 
“The need to find better ways to bridge the gap between biomedical research and drug discovery could not be more acute,” Pfizer BBC president Corey Goodman said in a statement. “The great discoveries from basic research must be better translated to develop new medicines for unmet medical needs.”
 
Under the terms of the IDI-GSK agreement, researchers at both organizations will develop joint grant proposals in targeted areas of research under a “competitive” alliance research grant program, GSK said. The partnership will be anchored at GSK’s Immuno-Inflammation Centre of Drug Discovery in Stevenage, UK.
 
GSK will receive an exclusive right of first negotiation for “a substantial portion” of the new technologies discovered and disclosed by IDI scientists over the course of the collaboration.
 
Ryan Dietz, director of Boston-based IDI’s Office of Technology Development, told BTW that right of first negotiation differs from the more frequently invoked “right of first refusal” in that the latter term “is problematic … because it requires me to go out and find another company that is willing to license it, and then I have to go back to the company that has that right, and offer it to them at the same price,” Dietz said.
 
By comparison, in right of first negotiation, “effectively there is a time limit where they can look at it and take it first,” he added. “If they don’t want it, then they have to give it back and I can go anywhere I want from there with additional partnering.” Dietz said that the time limit differs case by case.
 
The precise nature of the research projects to be undertaken by GSK and IDI scientists under the agreement is unclear. Calls and e-mails to GSK were not returned in time for this publication.
 
IDI, formerly known as the Center for Blood Research and subsequently the CBR Institute for Biomedical Research, is an independent legal entity of Harvard Medical School. It is dedicated to discovering therapeutics for inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and psoriasis.
 
The majority of the institute’s funding comes from the National Institutes of Health, but in recent years the institute has increased its collaborative activity with industry to provide additional support for its more applied drug-discovery research model, Dietz said.
 
“I think IDI is uniquely positioned to have a group of scientists that is very translational, and is very focused in the areas that GSK wants to move in the near future,” he said. “I think our world-class research expertise was able to meet with a group that was really looking for those resources.”
 
IDI’s entire faculty also holds appointments at Harvard Medical, but as a separate legal entity of the school, IDI owns intellectual property arising from research conducted independently in its labs.
 
“We often have joint inventions if there are, for example, collaborations with Harvard [scientists],” Dietz explained. “I deal with that regularly. But for the most part, all of our independent inventions will be owned by our institution and therefore can be dealt with through a license to a company or any other agreement that IDI wants to enter into.”
 
Broadly Speaking
 
While GSK’s partnership with IDI is limited to immunology and inflammation, Pfizer’s collaboration with UCSF appears to be much broader in scope.
 
This agreement, for which Pfizer will provide research funding and other support up to $9.5 million over three years, will establish a university team to help identify promising areas of mutual interest and facilitate project management, Pfizer said. The effort already “has templates in place to allow swift” industry-university agreements, the company added.
 
According to Pfizer, the partnership will encourage collaborative projects between company researchers and scientists from UCSF’s unit of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences – also known as QB3 – which is a cooperative effort between UCSF, UC-Berkeley, and UCSC.
 
“This is a very open collaboration,” Daniel Santi, a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry who will manage the collaboration out of QB3, told BTW this week.
 

“The need to find better ways to bridge the gap between biomedical research and drug discovery could not be more acute.”

“It’s rather unusual,” Santi said. “I don’t think there is another partnership quite like this where we are identifying projects after rather than before funding has been committed.”
 
QB3 will officially manage the academic side of the project, and although Pfizer said in a statement that researchers from institute partners UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz will be eligible to participate, the paperwork for work with those academic entities has yet to be finalized, according to a UCSF official familiar with the deal.
 
“QB3 has no legal standing and although it benefits from this deal [it] is essentially a UCSF deal signed by UCSF for the benefit of all [its] investigators, which include UCSF investigators designated as QB3 investigators,” the official, who requested anonymity because he did not directly participate in negotiations, wrote in an e-mail to BTW.
 
“QB3’s role was to ‘tee-up’ the deal and participate in the negotiations but [UCSF] also participated in the negotiation and drafting and was UC’s signatory,” the official added.
 
For the agreement to benefit QB3 investigators at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, those institutions would need to sign the agreement, as well, the official added.
 
“I believe the feeling was that the QB3 people felt they wanted to close a deal with Pfizer relatively quickly and having to get agreement from the two other campuses would have delayed the process,” the official said. “If one or both of the other UC campuses feel they can live with the terms UCSF negotiated, UCSF and Pfizer can always agree to amend the agreement to include the other campuses.”
 
Santi said that he anticipates that the QB3 members from UC-Berkeley and UC-Santa Cruz will eventually sign on to the deal. “I don’t see any reason why they would not want to,” he added.
 
Pfizer said that discussions on the collaboration began in late November, and that as of the time the agreement was signed last week, three unidentified projects were ready to begin.
 
Industry-Academia Pipeline
 
Corporations, and especially pharmaceutical and biotech companies, have been sponsoring research for many years at academic and other non-profit research institutions, typically in narrow areas of interest involving single investigators or laboratories.
 
However, in recent years, large pharmaceutical companies have been forging broader partnerships with research institutions in an attempt to identify new disease targets, pathways, and small molecules to replenish their shrinking drug lead pipelines.
 
IDI’s Dietz told BTW that the partnership with GSK is different from others in that “it’s more of a comprehensive alliance arrangement that contemplates multiple research programs as opposed to our typical sponsored research agreements, which are usually very fixed around a specific research program and a specific investigator.”
 
Pfizer has been especially active on this front, having struck a five-year, $25 million partnership in January with Washington University in the area of immuno-inflammatory diseases (see BTW, 1/30/2008); and a three-year, $14 million arrangement in April with the Insulin Resistance Pathway Project, a public-private consortium involving researchers from biotech firm Entelos, UC-Santa Barbara, the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Massachusetts (see BTW, 4/30/2008).
 
Pfizer also established its BBC in the Bay Area in October to discover new medicines and secure new technologies and research tools that can be used across all of its therapeutic areas by collaborating with the academic, biotech, and venture communities. Pfizer has said the center will focus on both delivering new compounds for the company and incubating start-ups with new innovative technologies.
 
And in May 2007, Pfizer began supporting academic start-up companies in a 26,600-square-foot incubator established last May in La Jolla, Calif., that will also fund candidate companies with an average of $2 million per over two years (see BTW, 5/7/2007).
 
“A lot of this has to do with Corey Goodman joining Pfizer and his thoughts on how to bring more innovation into the company,” UCSF’s Santi said. “But certainly pharma going into academia is becoming more prevalent. I think pharma is looking for new ways to reach into academia.”
 
Around the same time that Pfizer established its incubator, Biogen-Idec established BI3, an incubator located in Cambridge, Mass., designed to nurture start-ups with a “milestone-driven research plan that outlines a clear path toward transition into development and can be completed in two to three years for a maximum of $10 million,” according to the company’s website.
 
In December, Biogen-Idec announced the first resident of its incubator, a Columbia University spinout called Escoublac developing treatments for metabolic disease.
 
Other recent examples of broad-based pharma-academia research partnerships include a five-year, $12.5 million pact inked in January between French pharma Ipsen and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (see BTW, 1/16/2006); a broad collaboration signed in April between AstraZeneca and Washington University in the area of Alzheimer’s disease (see BTW, 4/23/2008); and a 10-year, $65 million research collaboration announced in October between Novartis and MIT in the area of pharmaceutical production (see BTW, 10/1/2007).