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Pfizer-QB3 Drug-Discovery Pact Moving Forward Despite Minor Snags

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By Ben Butkus
This article has been updated from a previous version.

Approximately one year after Pfizer and the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences inked a three-year, $9.5 million drug-discovery pact, the alliance is now overseeing seven projects combining researchers from the institute and various Pfizer sites, a project official said this month.

Though it has thus far involved only QB3-affiliated scientists at the University of California at San Francisco, the partnership has been able to quickly identify and fund individual project teams due primarily to a master agreement put in place when it was created.

It is also now seeking ways to involve scientists from the two other QB3-affiliated campuses: UC-Berkeley and UC-Santa Cruz, neither of which has signed the master research agreement, according to Tracy Saxton, industrial affairs manager at QB3.

The project is also dealing with last month's departure of Corey Goodman, the former president of Pfizer’s South San Francisco-based Biotherapeutics and Bioinnovation Center, who spearheaded the partnership's formation.

Following the most recent meeting of the Pfizer-QB3 steering committee meeting earlier this month, Saxton told BTW that she and many participants in the project had worried about the direction of the alliance following Goodman's departure. "He was so integral in setting up the relationship, and his strong ties to the Bay area were very influential in bringing Pfizer's attention to all the research that's going on here," said Saxton.

However, since that time, and especially after the most recent steering committee meeting, "those fears are gone," Saxton said. "Even though the alliance might not be driven from the top down in the same way, the projects are going fantastically. There is a lot of energy for the alliance in general."

Catherine Mackey, a Pfizer senior vice president of global research at the company's La Jolla, Calif., site and a member of the Pfizer-QB3 steering committee since its inception, is now leading the collaboration.

"During his tenure at Pfizer Corey fostered great relationships between the two institutions such that now there are many strong ties between QB3 and Pfizer," Mackey wrote in an e-mail to BTW news this week. "He helped kick off a great program that now has its own momentum that we believe will continue to grow in the future."

At this month's steering committee meeting, participating scientists from five of the seven individual research projects provided progress reports, Saxton said. Because all of the projects are between five and eight months old now, "we weren't expecting any of these to be completely rounded projects in a scientific sense," she said,

The goal of the meeting was "to ensure that there was good communication within the project teams and with the steering committee," Saxton said. Overall, she added, "the steering committee was pleased with the progress of the programs" and scientists from both Pfizer and UCSF provided positive feedback on their initiatives.

"I think the key is that [the projects] span diverse interests, and have formed with many Pfizer sites," Saxton said. "These represent the broad shared research interests between UCSF faculty and Pfizer scientists."

Current project titles and the Pfizer research site involved are:

• MRI analysis of knee osteoarthritis with molecular imaging (Groton, Conn.);

• Conformational investigation of antibodies (La Jolla);

• Epitope mapping by combining protein-protein docking and varied low-resolution structural data (South San Francisco);

• Production of pure and stable membrane proteins (South San Francisco);

• Tyrosine kinase signaling and autoimmunity (St. Louis, Mo.);

• Nanocarrier-forming lipids (Cambridge, Mass.);

• Targets for type 2 diabetes-related coronary heart disease (Cambridge and Groton)

The projects were chosen from more than 100 proposals that the steering committee received last summer. Pfizer is funding all of the projects from the $9.5 million bankroll it pledged over three years. The length and funding amount of individual projects has not been disclosed. According to Pfizer's Mackey, five of the projects were kicked off in 2008 and two launched this year. The projects vary in scope and funding, and the timeframes range from one to three years, she said.

Mackey also said that Pfizer's collaboration with QB3 differs from a classic sponsored research agreement in that projects funded under the QB3 alliance are truly joint research projects. "The industry-academia project team brings together complementary skills and resources from both sides to tackle a scientific question," she said. "Experiments are conducted in both the QB3 and Pfizer labs, and the relationship between the collaborators is highly interactive."

Saxton said that a master agreement negotiated between Pfizer and QB3/UCSF at the onset of the partnership has "really sped things up" in terms of moving projects forward.

"We are now able to find things really quickly, now that we understand how the master agreement is really written," Saxton said. "We were able to get an agreement signed for the most recent project in just a couple of weeks. And I think one of the reasons is that the intellectual property terms have been completely worked out ahead of time."

Under the master agreement, Pfizer receives first rights to negotiate on any IP stemming from projects funded under the alliance.

"But any research that occurs on a UC campus … is property of UC, and Pfizer needs to then license it from the school if interested," Saxton said. UC retains the right to license IP to other entities should Pfizer not want it.

Pfizer also is allowed to review scientific papers prior to publication to determine whether it wants to patent results.

Moving forward, Pfizer and QB3 will be looking to tweak the collaboration based on their experiences thus far. For instance, as reported last year by BTW, the collaboration was originally to be spearheaded by QB3 and involve scientists from each of the institute's participating UC campuses: UCSF, UC-Berkeley, and UC-Santa Cruz (see BTW 6/11/2008).

However, thus far only UCSF scientists have participated in research projects; and UCB and UCSC have not yet inked the master agreement.

Saxton said the main reason for this is that unlike UCB and UCSC, UCSF has a medical school that overlaps more with Pfizer's research goals.

"The original call for proposals was open to UC-Santa Cruz and Berkeley scientists, as well," Saxton said. "And we didn’t get as many responses from them. If a Berkeley scientist and Pfizer scientist wanted to work together, then we would push that …up on the priority list."

QB3 and Pfizer also plan to change the way future research projects are identified, partly to attract more researchers from UCB and UCSC; and partly to focus on specific therapeutic areas of interest. Instead of issuing a call for research proposals, the alliance will be hosting a series of "mini-symposia" focused on specific research niches to get different scientists from QB3 and Pfizer talking "and not necessarily pre-conceive what a project might be," Saxton said.

Added Mackey: "Since the research focus of the other campuses is not necessarily medical-based, there needs to be some education and introduction on both the industry and academia side to detail the scope of research interests of the two institutions, and determine where good collaborative projects might be born."

At this month's meeting, the steering committee also discussed ways that it could enhance or expand the program, Saxton added. Ideas include educating undergraduates at the QB3 UC campuses about Pfizer’s internship programs; and allowing Pfizer scientists to take research sabbaticals at a UC campus and vice-versa.

"We want new scientists to meet that haven't met before," Saxton said.

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