In a major strategic shift, Pfizer, the maker of the blockbuster cholesterol drug Lipitor and the now off-patent antihypertensive Norvasc, is to abandon early-stage research on heart drugs as the New York-based behemoth puts its R&D focus on other areas such as oncology and diabetes.

The changes emerged as Pfizer announced its latest pipeline update that will see the firm end early-stage R&D in anaemia, cholesterol, bone health, gastrointestinal conditions, heart failure, liver fibrosis, muscle disease, obesity, osteoarthritis and peripheral arterial disease. However, the changes will not affect candidates in Phase III trials, including experimental anticoagulant apixaban which being developed with Bristol-Myers Squibb.

The firm now intends to focus on Alzheimer's disease, cancer, pain, diabetes, schizophrenia, inflammation and immunology. In the pipeline update, 31 programmes advanced to the next stage of development and 19 of them occurred in the aforementioned “high-potential disease areas”.

Martin Mackay, president of Pfizer global R&D, said that the company is making “significant operational improvements and driving our strategies to accelerate development, refocus investments and further improve execution, including trial design and cycle times”. He added that “we are investing in the most promising disease areas, where there is strong unmet medical need, favourable markets and an opportunity to advance medical science”.

The pipeline now includes 114 programmes, and the number in Phase III has grown from 16 to 25 over the past six months. Pfizer, which is now targeting 15-20 regulatory submissions in 2010-2012, while 13 programmes have been discontinued.

The company added that it is “vigorously driving its biotechnology investments and has 16 biotherapeutics in development”, including CP-751871, a fully humanised monoclonal antibody to treat non-small-cell lung cancer which is in late-stage trials.