Pfizer program seeks closer ties with top universities

All Souls Quad at the University of Oxford
The University of Oxford is one of the first ITEN scheme partners.

Pfizer has set up a new partnering network to try to foster collaborations with top-tier universities, shortly after stripping out a chunk of its in-house R&D effort.

The new Innovative Target Exploration Network (ITEN) has already forged ties with Oxford and Cambridge universities in the U.K. as well as the University of Texas Southwestern in the U.S., and Pfizer said it hopes the effort will “deliver novel therapeutic targets and mechanisms of action to underpin future drug discovery in core areas of interest.”

That external drive comes a day after Pfizer announced plans to exit from neurosciences R&D, jettisoning a host of of phase 1 and 2 clinical projects in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and retaining just a few late-stage projects. Instead, it intends to pursue neuroscience projects via a VC fund that will back external projects.

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The two actions, while unrelated, follow the trend towards R&D externalization that has been apparent at a number of Big Pharma companies, with Accenture noting (PDF) in 2016 that over the past decade, 60% of innovator small molecules and 82% of innovator biologics have their roots outside of big pharmaceutical companies.

The ITEN program involves the appointment of a lead Pfizer person who acts as the point of contact with scientists at each institution, and the first fruits of those negotiations have already been harvested.

The Oxford and Cambridge alliance will focus on deubiquitinylation enzymes (DUBs) with potential in cancer, autoimmune, cardio-metabolic diseases and rare diseases, while the UTSW program—with Nobel Prize-winning immunologist Bruce Beutler, M.D.—is focused on a forward genetics approach to find new genetic targets in oncology and metabolic disease.

“By establishing relationships with researchers early in the research and development process, we believe the ITEN model will better position us to identify potentially promising research projects,” commented Pfizer’s chief scientific officer Uwe Schoenbeck.

“The ITEN partnering model creates an environment of creative and agile scientific interaction” will sit alongside Pfizer’s Centers for Therapeutic Innovation partnering scheme, which has been running since 2010, he added.