Washington University said last week that it has extended a longstanding research collaboration with Pfizer that will focus broadly on immuno-inflammatory disorders.
The resulting five-year, $25 million pact will pair scientists from Washington University and Pfizer at the earliest stage of research conceptualization, potentially resulting in applied drug research that may be more quickly translated into commercial products, a university official said this week.
Under the terms of the agreement, scientists from Washington University and Pfizer will jointly propose, design, and carry out research projects – a model that Washington University’s vice chancellor for research, Samuel Stanley, said is unorthodox in terms of industry-sponsored research.
Most of the research will be performed at Washington University’s St. Louis campus and at Pfizer’s Chesterfield, Mo., facility, but certain projects will “leverage the skills and experience of Pfizer’s research scientists worldwide,” the university said in a statement.
“I think that [the] collaborative component right from the beginning of the program is a strength,” Stanley told BTW. “The days are more and more [over] when industrial partners would be willing to throw money at you and say, ‘You’re a great university, go and do something fantastic and then we’ll see if something develops.’
“We liked that model, in some respects, because it gave us a lot of freedom, but we also recognized that it’s hard to sustain that kind of model if there aren’t clear-cut winners from that,” he said.
According to Stanley, terms of the alliance enable either a Washington University or Pfizer scientist to submit a proposal for research to be funded. Those proposals, he said, should have already identified a collaborator at the partnering institution.
If not, “it is the job of the scientific oversight committee for this program – which contains representatives from both Pfizer and Wash U – to do some match-making and bring people together so there can be true collaboration on these projects,” he said.
That same oversight committee, which will comprise an even number of officials from the university and the company, will also decide which projects move forward.
Such an arrangement should somewhat alleviate concerns about Pfizer exerting too much control over the direction of the research – concerns that have cropped up in the wake of a number of recently announced industry-academia research collaborations such as the University of California, Berkeley; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign’s establishment of a $500 million joint Energy Biosciences Institute with British energy giant BP in November (see BTW, 11/19/2007).
In fact, the Washington University-Pfizer deal brings to mind certain aspects of a five-year, $12.5 million agreement announced in January between the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and French pharma Ipsen (see BTW, 1/16/2008).
“The days are more and more [over] when industrial partners would be willing to throw money at you and say ‘You’re a great university – go and do something fantastic and then we’ll see if something develops.’”
But while only a portion of that deal was designed to explore areas of specific interest to Ipsen – the rest consisting of funding for Salk scientists to pursue almost any project they see fit – the Wash U-Pfizer collaboration does appear to have more of an applied pharma research feel to it.
“Pfizer is going to be working with us on research that they consider important from the get-go, but it’s also research that our faculty consider important,” Stanley said. “I think having the partner involved from the beginning in terms of thinking about some of the key scientific issues, but also having their ability to look at it from the broader point of view of their translational component, is a big plus to this.”
Although the funded research will fall broadly under the umbrella of inflammation, it is expected that researchers will explore the role of inflammation in arthritis and related bone and cartilage diseases; atherosclerosis; asthma and chronic pulmonary disease, pain, diabetes, obesity, cancer, neurological disorders, and gastrointestinal disorders.
Details of how intellectual property arising from the research will be handled are unclear. Pfizer declined to comment, but Stanley said that the agreement “does a good job” of respecting both sides.
“It doesn’t really deviate from our standard policy as posted in terms of our ownership of IP as derived by Wash U research,” Stanley said. “It really fundamentally adheres to those principles with a few wrinkles here or there.”
Furthermore, although most research should be of interest to Pfizer down the road due to its early collaborative nature, if the company chooses not to pursue the development of specific technologies, they won’t necessarily fall by the wayside.
“I think it’s fair to say that I don’t think there is the possibility that good discoveries would not go forward just because they didn’t necessarily fit in with what Pfizer was interested in,” Stanley said.
Stanley said that both Wash U and Pfizer are currently putting out calls for applications, and that an entire new set of projects is expected to begin receiving funding later this year.
The current agreement was born out of an alliance started in the 1980s between the university and Monsanto; which transformed into a pact between Wash U and Pharmacia when the latter merged with Monsanto in the late 1990s. The deal took its current form in 2002 after Pharmacia spun off the Monsanto agricultural subsidiary and Pfizer subsequently acquired Pharmacia.
“That actually had a number of successes in terms of generating things that Monsanto elected to patent and pursue,” Stanley said. “But as time went on, we saw a need to focus more … on inflammation and biologicals.”
Stanley added that the newer model is a nice compromise in that it “respects the intellectual freedom of what we do, while also allowing us to engage a partner that has tremendous know-how and resources, so if we find something, it allows us to make that translation into helping patients and people.”