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Pfizer to Shut Down Oligo Therapeutics Unit as Part of Restructuring

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By Doug Macron

Pfizer is closing its oligonucleotide therapeutics unit, which handled the company's nucleic acid drug-development efforts, as part of a broader restructuring announced this week, Gene Silencing News has learned.

It was not immediately clear what impact the move would have on the programs overseen by the unit. Moreover, the news comes just months after a Pfizer official said that the company was pulling back from previous guidance on the timing of an in-house RNAi drug (GSN 10/28/2010).

This week, Pfizer announced that it is reducing the number of disease areas on which it focuses "based upon where the greatest medical and commercial impact can be achieved."

In total, the company plans to cut its 2011 R&D expenses by as much as $2 billion by exiting its Sandwich, UK, research site and moving some R&D activities from Groton, Conn., to Cambridge, Mass. The realignment will impact several thousand positions worldwide.

In an e-mail to colleagues that was obtained by Gene Silencing News, Art Krieg, CSO of Pfizer's Research Technology Center in Cambridge and head of the oligonucleotide therapeutics unit, wrote that the company now plans to focus its internal efforts on neuroscience, cardiovascular, endocrine and metabolic diseases, oncology, inflammation and immunology, and vaccines.

"External efforts will be focused on primary care including women’s health, urology, and bone disorders; and specialty care, including genetic diseases, retinal and pulmonary vascular disease," he noted.

"As a result of this focus, Pfizer intends to exit some research sites and certain research areas to allow for greater investment in higher potential areas," Krieg wrote.

Among these are the RTC and a site in Dusseldorf, Germany, which it acquired in 2007 when it bought Coley Pharmaceutical, a developer of toll-like receptor agonists.

This essentially ends Pfizer's oligonucleotide therapeutics unit, Krieg wrote, adding that all of the roughly 100 positions at both sites will be eliminated.

Krieg cautioned that this "does not reflect a blanket decision to abandon any RNAi or other oligo development. There continues to be strong internal interest in oligos as a therapeutic modality, and I am hopeful that it will be possible … to transfer some of the oligo development programs from my unit to other Pfizer units.

"I think it is safe to say that many in Pfizer continue to believe that RNAi and antisense are exciting long term technologies that could prove to be transformative for pharma," he noted. "I believe that decisions to pursue future RNAi, antisense, or other preclinical or clinical programs will be made on a case-by-case basis. I continue to believe that the oligo field has great potential to provide new generations of drugs to help patients."

Krieg wrote that the timing of the changes is "unclear," but confirmed that he would leave Pfizer once existing programs are transferred to other areas of the company.

A Pfizer spokesperson confirmed that the company was eliminating its oligonucleotide therapeutics unit, and that it is evaluating how to handle its assets and programs. She noted that some may be transferred to other Pfizer units, while others may be out-licensed.

She said that the decision-making process could take several months to a year.


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