Cantley Talks Pfizer CTI Collaboration

As drug companies forge closer ties with academic researchers, the value of pharma-academia partnerships continues to be cause for much debate (see here, here,  here, and here for more on that). We’ve watched the evolution of these collaborations with interest, and as part of our ongoing coverage, this week’s issue brings an in-depth look at the mechanics of Pfizer’s Centers for Therapeutic Innovation, its network of academic partners centered on hubs in San Francisco, New York, Boston, and San Diego.

But much of our focus has been on what drug companies can gain from deeper ties with academia. There’s another side to the coin: what the academic lab gains from teaming up with industry. While visiting Pfizer’s Boston CTI, I was glad to have a long chat with Harvard’s Lewis Cantley, known in cancer research circles for the discovery of the PI3K pathway, about why it made sense to link up with Pfizer.

Cantley has had many pharma partnerships, was a founder of Agios Pharmaceuticals, and has sat on the boards of other start-ups. As such, I was curious what made him want to turn to Pfizer for this particular project—developing a drug against a cancer target discovered in his lab–rather than go at it alone, or try to spin out another company.

Cantley conceded that his lab could have plugged away at the target for several years and eventually come up with something promising. But the target requires an antibody, and his lab is more experienced at discovering small molecules. Pfizer, meanwhile, could step in with expertise and technology that they otherwise would never have access to, significantly speeding up the drug discovery process.

Further, Pfizer made teaming up easy. “The legalities of conflict of interest issues and IP issues had all been addressed with negotiations between Harvard and Pfizer before they even solicited proposals,” Cantley says. “To me, this was huge.” He notes that past partnerships with industry have involved at least a year of negotiating before anyone gets down to doing business—or, as it may be, science.

Another positive was that working with Pfizer meant researchers in his lab could continue to be involved with the project. When Cantley became a founder of Agios, which focuses on developing drugs that interrupt cancer cell metabolism, he could no longer ethically allow students in his lab work on that aspect of the science. But under the Pfizer pact, post-docs can continue to explore the drug development as well as any basic biological questions that may arise.

Lastly, Cantley was attracted by the facility with which Pfizer and academic scientists could interact. As it turns out, Cantley’s labs are in the same building as Pfizer’s Boston CTI. “It’s literally two minutes to get from my lab to theirs,” he notes. The seamless exchange of reagents and technologies occurs at a “speed which just doesn’t happen with other industry collaborations,” he says.

Indeed, as the story discusses, Pfizer is banking on that proximity to enable good targets or lead molecules to be quickly moved from the bench to the bedside. The goal is to have three to four compounds in human trials in the next 18 months—a swift turnaround considering the first CTI, a partnership with UCSF and labs in San Francisco, was announced just two years ago.

Author: Lisa Jarvis

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2 Comments

  1. I’m not convinced this is necessarily a good thing. It’s generally known that people that postdoc at a big pharma rarely get offered permanent positions. Pfizer is now going to get postdoc work, but they won’t have to go through the HR hullabaloo of hiring the person. Even better, they will only have to pay Harvard’s postdoc salary (which I’m guessing is the minimum $39K). The amount of networking a postdoc could do is also going to be diminished since they’ll be doing the bulk of their work on the Harvard campus rather than inside the walls of Pfizer.

    Time will tell whether my suspicions are correct or not. I hope you will follow up on this story in a few years as it develops further.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, postdoc. Interesting thoughts, as I admit my assumption was that having hands-on experience with an industry project might make someone a more attractive candidate (in the article, I go into detail about the learning curve for academics working on these drug discovery efforts). Then again, I’ve seen comments on other threads about industry-academia collabos suggesting industry likes to hire folks they can teach from scratch. Would like to hear others’ input on what kind of experience gives a postdoc the best edge in a competitive job market.