Published November 15. 2011 4:00AM
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. said Monday it is delaying a plan to build a new Anti-Infectives Research Unit in China after shutting down its antibacterials program in Groton earlier this year.
David Shlaes, an industry consultant from Stonington, blogged over the weekend that Pfizer had announced internally the cancellation of plans to pursue antibiotics research in China.
But a Pfizer spokeswoman said in an email to The Day Monday that the planned Anti-Infectives Research Unit's timeline for implementation in Shanghai has simply been extended. Earlier this year, the company said the move to China would occur over a two-year period; it did not commit to any specific schedule in its latest announcement.
"Our business priority is to maximize the investments we are making in the mid-stage portfolio so that we can deliver new products more quickly," Pfizer spokeswoman Kristen Neese said in an email. "The creation of a new Anti-Infectives Research Unit in Shanghai will now be implemented on a longer timeline."
The announcement hit a raw nerve with advocates for antibiotics research, who have bemoaned R&D cutbacks worldwide in recent years even as life-threatening superbugs kill more and more people in U.S. hospitals - an estimated 70,000 in the past year.
"They had a spectacularly talented group of people and an exciting pipeline and they've destroyed their program," said Brad Spellberg, a UCLA researcher, in an email. "From the perspective of someone who believes that we need talented people developing important antibiotics to help treat our patients, this was a crushing blow. To find out now that the Shanghai thing is not proceeding, well it just adds insult to injury."
The U.S. Congress is considering several ways to boost antibiotics research, including a bill co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called the Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now Act. The bill would double to 10 years the time drug companies can market new antibiotics with exclusive patents and would speed up the regulatory review process.
New York-based Pfizer announced the planned closure of the Groton antibacterials unit in February as part of a downsizing of its research-and-development contingent worldwide. Locally, 1,100 jobs were to be eliminated over an 18-month period, the company said at the time, and two other major research units - focusing on neurological and cardiovascular diseases - were slated to move to the Boston area.
In September, Pfizer announced that it had completed the move of its cardiovascular medicine and endocrine disease research unit to Cambridge, Mass., over the summer. The move of its neuroscience unit would follow next year, Pfizer said.
It is not clear what impact the delay in the Shanghai plan would have on operations in Groton.
At the same time, Pfizer had said Groton's anti-infective medications research unit was in transition. The company said earlier this year that it was building a new research site in Shanghai, but promised "we will continue to run our existing clinical and pre-clinical programs in the U.S. to ensure uninterrupted progress on these important programs in areas of high unmet medical need."
Pfizer said it has retained scientists with anti-bacterial expertise at the Center for Discovery and Development Sciences in Groton.
"This includes medicinal chemists and clinical pharmacologists among other specialized disciplines that have extensive anti-bacterial expertise," the company said. "Our vaccines research organization, which continues to be very successful, has extensive anti-infective expertise."
In its latest announcement, Pfizer said the pullback from immediate plans to build an antibacterials unit in Shanghai, which would have been the first complete move of an American R&D unit to China, will not affect operations already in Shanghai and Wuhan.
"R&D investment in China continues to be centrally important to the innovative core of Pfizer," Pfizer said.
Pfizer also said it plans to pursue investments "in the treatment and prevention of infectious disease, an effort that includes several gram negative (antibacterial) projects approaching the clinic and numerous vaccine R&D programs."
Shlaes, a former vice president for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, wrote in his blog, Antibiotics-The Perfect Storm, that Pfizer claims "they will continue to pursue what antibiotics they have in development. I seriously doubt they will be successful."
Shlaes based his skepticism on Pfizer's decision to jettison much of its internal scientific expertise in antibiotics.
"Antibiotics expertise ... is required throughout the development process and throughout the period of marketing," Shlaes said. "With the loss of this internal expertise, Pfizer is lost."
Shlaes said in a separate e-mail that he doubts whether Pfizer has been serious about antibacterial research in recent years, despite its history of developing such popular medicines as the powerful antibiotic Zithromax. He said the company appears to be more serious about vaccine research, and might want to move other therapeutic areas to China, but probably not antiobiotics.
Pfizer, however, said that in addition to retaining scientists with anti-infectives expertise in Groton, its Specialty Care Business Unit "remains committed to progressing our projects that are in clinic as planned."
Shlaes said Pfizer officials approached him about their search for a scientific leader required to head the planned Chinese antibiotics unit.
"I pointed out that no one in the antibiotic area who knows anything about Pfizer's history of firing their most valued people would ever trust Pfizer enough to want to work for them," Shlaes said in his blog. "I also noted that they had an opportunity to offer that job to the very talented people they fired earlier this year - an opportunity they ignored. Who would work for a company like that?"
Spellberg, an associate professor of medicine at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine, had hoped to tap into Pfizer's talent pool to create a public-private partnership operating out of labs at the Yale Science Park in an effort to continue some of the company's antibiotic research. But he was unable to get the project off the ground because most of the top antibacterial researchers had left the company before his proposal gained traction, he said.
"The brain drain from this field has been dramatic, and it is continuing with alarming frequency," he said. "AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline are the only two big companies left that have dedicated antibacterial discovery and development groups. That is not healthy for our society and for our patients."