Drug giant Pfizer has once again cast its eyes on academia as part of its R&D strategy, signing an $85-million deal with the University of California that marks the first under its newborn Global Centers for Therapeutic Innovation network.

The world’s largest drugmaker has unveiled plans for an innovative entrepreneurial network of partnerships with leading academic medical centres around the world, in a move designed to transform R&D by “combining the unique advantages of top academic research institutions with Pfizer's leading drug development capabilities and research technologies”, explained Mikael Dolsten, president of Pfizer Worldwide Research & Development.

The scheme marks a step away from conventional public-private partnerships in creating an open network of researchers from Pfizer and academia to allow combined working on the identification and development of promising experimental drugs, the idea being that this will ultimately slash the timeline of transforming promising biomedical research into new medications, which can currently take up to 15 years and cost $1 billion.

“This new model complements the venture capitalist-funded biotech start up and has the potential to catalyze the transformation of global biomedical drug discovery by advancing scientific breakthroughs in translational medicine,” said Jose-Carlos Gutierrez-Ramos, Pfizer's senior vice president of Worldwide BioTherapeutics R&D.

Pfizer's Global Centers for Therapeutic Innovation - which will be headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and headed by Anthony Coyle, former vice president and global head of respiratory, inflammation, and autoimmune research at MedImmune Biologics - will initially focus on collaborations within the US but is expected to expand into Europe and Asia in 2012.

Each Center will operate under the rule of a Joint Steering Committee of representatives from Pfizer and the academic medical center, who aside from providing leadership will also gage the success of each program through discovery and early stage clinical development, the company said.

Access to expertise

Under the first collaboration of the scheme, UCSF researchers will be given unprecedented access to Pfizer's world-class R&D expertise, and the University could potentially receive up to $85 million in research support and milestone payments over the next five years if new therapies for diseases with high unmet medical need are developed as a result.

"This is an excellent example of how we can fundamentally improve the process of translating research into better drugs by bringing all of the people involved to the same table," said Jeffrey Bluestone, UCSF executive vice chancellor and provost. “This partnership takes advantage of the expertise in both camps to create new ways to develop drugs that have the potential to achieve their most important goal - improving patient health,” he added.