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Was lost chance at UConn a harbinger of Pfizer pullback?

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A dozen years ago, the University of Connecticut's struggle to become one of the nation's leading public research universities hit a snag on Horsebarn Hill.

The New York-based pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. had proposed building a $35 million animal vaccine laboratory on the bucolic site. In 1998, the UConn administration, led by then-President and current interim President Philip Austin, had extolled a new partnership with Pfizer that the then-governor, John G. Rowland, said would help "transform the state almost overnight" into a leader in biomedical research.

But a year later, faced with two lawsuits, the outrage of students and faculty and community opposition from a group called the Coalition to Save Horsebarn Hill that included the longtime anti-Millstone advocate Nancy Burton, Pfizer backed down.

"Our mission is to discover new drugs," Pfizer spokeswoman Kate Robins told The New York Times in August 1999 as the company decided to pull the plug on the 90,000-square-foot research lab. "That's not what was happening. We were in court."

Even the opposition was stunned.

"People warned us maybe we would lose the partnership," spokesman Richard Sherman told The Times. "Our feeling was the more important thing was saving Horsebarn Hill."

From the standpoint of biotechnology advocates today, however, saving the hill may have led to losing mountains of research money.

Some say a successful early collaboration between UConn and Pfizer, which has a significant presence in southeastern Connecticut, might have solidified a relationship between the two organizations and led to other commitments that would have benefited the state. A closer relationship also might have stanched the bleeding of biotech jobs to other states, including the 1,100 announced last week in a downsizing at Pfizer's large Groton research-and-development campus.

Instead, Pfizer and UConn drifted apart, they said, culminating in the pharmaceutical giant's decision last week to move all of its drug-discovery scientists out of state - some to be shuttled to labs near Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Boston area and others to be redirected to China's growing biotech hub in Shanghai.

A changing industry

"Pfizer wants to be associated with the universities," said Edward Mena, a former company employee and current president of the New London-based biotech LifePharms. "They made an attempt with UConn, but it didn't work out."

Not everyone agrees that the failed UConn-Pfizer collaboration had long-term ramifications on the drug firm's operations in Groton and New London. Several see Pfizer's decision to reduce its local work force by 1,100 over the next 18 months - whittling it down to about 3,400 - as nothing more than the inevitable result of changes in the industry and a lack of new drugs in the pipeline.

Others say Connecticut needs to do more to promote biotechnology in the state, particularly science that leads to medicines or treatments that can be commercialized.

"We've been relatively timid," said Phillip P. Marcus, director of the Biotechnology-Bioservices Center at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. "If you are going to compete at the highest level ... you need to bring in a group of people and start off running."

Marcus said UConn has had a few opportunities to sponsor groups of researchers doing significant work but lacked the funding and space to accommodate them.

Even when UConn is able to provide space, such as at its biotech incubator at Avery Point in Groton, it isn't always adequate (though university officials say an updated lab there should be ready for interested former Pfizer scientists in July).

James O'Malley, president of the New London biotech start-up Myometrics, said its lab at Avery Point does not allow for the kind of medicinal-chemistry work his company is doing, so he had to build his own facility.

"I don't have a lot of faith in Connecticut anymore," O'Malley said.

He said even agencies such as the state Department of Economic and Community Development have been unhelpful, ignoring repeated requests for a meeting. This despite the fact that O'Malley has invested tens of thousands of dollars in the business, has received significant federal grants and hopes to build a biotech company that will continue to generate jobs in the region.

"DECD cares nothing about anything east of the Connecticut River," O'Malley said.

Promoting biotech research

Ronald F. Angelo, deputy commissioner of the DECD, said in a phone interview that the state is doing a lot of high-quality biomedical research, particularly at Yale University and UConn. And he pointed to the state's stem-cell research grants that are expected to tally at least $100 million through 2015 as an example of some of Connecticut's investments in biotechnology, along with the Connecticut Innovations program that has encouraged the birth of such firms as Helix Therapeutics and Alexion Pharmaceuticals in New Haven.

"Connecticut is known as a state with good research-and-development tax policy," Angelo said.

Rita Zangari, director of UConn's Technology Incubation Program, added in an e-mail response to questions that the university views itself as a leader in promoting biotech research in such areas as drug discovery and processing, stem cells and biomedical engineering.

"At Avery Point, Arcanatura is a biotechnology startup developing and selling animal health products, and while not a biotech, Systamedic is building a new IT system to enhance drug discovery processes," Zangari said. "We have continued to reach out to Pfizer in a variety of ways to be sure separating employees know about our ability to support their interests."

The state's 70 biotech companies employ about 18,000, according to Paul Pescatello, president of the industry group Connecticut United for Research Excellence in New Haven.

Pescatello said in a telephone interview that the state has a hard time competing with places like Boston and San Diego and their academic institutions, research hospitals and venture capital.

Companies inevitably will be attracted to places where intellectual ferment is most ferocious and productive, he and others said, and there is no tax policy, university program or incentive that would draw these firms to Connecticut overnight.

"I think we have created a substantial biopharmaceutical cluster, but we still have a long way to go," Pescatello said.

l.howard@theday.com

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