Science Foundation Ireland: SFI enters into unique partnership with Pfizer

It is hoped that new therapies will be discovered during the joint venture


Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and Pfizer have joined up in a unique new academic-industry partnership which aims to promote biotherapeutic breakthroughs in Ireland.

The three-year partnership is aimed at qualified academic researchers from Irish universities with novel drug-targeting ideas. Research proposals are currently being sought and successful applicants will have the opportunity to work with the Pfizer Global Biotherapeutics Technology (GBT) group, including Pfizer researchers at the Pfizer Grange Castle site in Dublin, in an effort to develop the next generation of potential protein therapies.

It is hoped this will enable the blending of the research expertise of academics with Pfizer’s drug discovery and development expertise and resources and that the collaboration will identify new advances that may lead to the accelerated creation of potential new therapies for medical needs which are unmet at present.

“Building strategic partnerships that fund excellent science of value to both industry and society is a key goal within SFI’s Agenda 2020 strategy,” says SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson.

“This innovative partnership with Pfizer could help to deliver and promote important potential breakthroughs in the areas of immunology and rare diseases. It also creates a platform for building future collaborations between academia and industry in the area of biomedical research.”

The collaboration is aimed at novel drug targeting ideas. According to Pfizer’s Dr William Finlay, this involves disease pathways and triggers.

Extensive expertise
“Pfizer has extensive expertise in discovering and developing new drug molecules, while academic researchers have extensive, complimentary, experience in unravelling the fundamental biology of disease pathways and triggers”, he says.

“With this partnership, we hope to bring these two distinct capabilities together so that we can create new potential drug molecules to target specific disease triggers and pathways early in their understanding.”

In other words, the academic researchers come up with the idea in relation to the mechanism by which a disease works and how that could be targeted by using a particular enzyme or protein. If this is proven to work or shows promising signs Pfizer can then work on the development of a drug molecule which is based on that.

“Working with Science Foundation Ireland provides Pfizer with an exciting and unique opportunity to collaborate closely with the top biomedical academic researchers in Ireland,” says Pfizer vice-president Dr Paul Duffy.

“What is unique about this partnership is that it involves direct collaboration rather than sponsored research. Researchers from Pfizer’s R&D laboratories will work hand-in-hand with the academic investigators to synergise our two areas of expertise, forming a working relationship that functions in a similar fashion to a biotech start-up. It is hoped this collaboration will identify exciting new advances that may lead to the accelerated creation of potential new therapies.”

The research areas of particular interest are diseases involving severe inflammation or tissue remodelling as well as rare diseases.

“Pfizer focuses R&D on core areas on significant health and social care burden and invests approximately $7 billion (€5bn) in R&D each year,” Duffy points out.

“These areas include chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, vaccines, oncology, neuroscience and pain, cardiovascular and metabolic disease and rare diseases. Key to our approach is collaborating in new ways with other innovators across the health landscape, including academic scientists, patient foundations, governments, other biopharmaceutical companies and treating physicians.

“Pfizer’s pipeline currently comprises over 80 innovative therapies, including potentially first-in-class vaccines for two deadly hospital-acquired infections, new antibodies for lupus and high cholesterol and the next-generation of targeted therapies for cancer.”

Jobs benefit
The research may offer benefits for Ireland in terms of jobs and new investment from Pfizer which already employs more than 3,200 people in six separate locations here. “It is hoped that a potential new therapy or therapies could be discovered as a result of this three year partnership,” says Duffy.

“Any molecules that meet important qualification criteria will then commence the pre-clinical and clinical journey through the usual R&D process of rigorous clinical trials that take several years to complete. While this is a risky, lengthy and expensive process, Pfizer is hopeful molecules resulting from this collaboration that are successfully commercialised, could potentially be manufactured in Ireland.”

There is no set funding level available under the partnership as SFI’s Mark Ferguson explains. “It is up to the academic researchers who have the ideas to tell us what level of funding they need to progress them. The proposals will go through a peer review process and if they are approved the funding level will be set after that.

“This is a very exciting approach. The advantage of partnerships like this is the flexibility they offer. They allow us to support things that don’t necessarily fall within our existing schemes.”

Another important facet of this partnership is what Ferguson describes as a sensible sharing of the intellectual property created as a result of it.

“Each partner will own their own property going into the partnership,” he points out.

“The university may already have patents on what they are bringing into it in any case. The principle is that the target will be owned by the university and this will be licensed to Pfizer on an appropriate basis. Any drug candidate Pfizer develops as a result of the research will be owned by the company. This allows the work to get done and for the good things that come out of it to be followed up. That’s the important thing.”