Standing by the food truck outside the 11-story Merck & Co. tower at 33 Avenue Louis Pasteur, you can watch a procession of young scientists and postdocs strolling purposefully down Blackfan Circle, toting laptops and notebooks filled with images of proteins and gels.
They are walking emissaries from hospital research labs tucked away in the academic medical complexes that line the streets of Boston’s Longwood Medical Area. And they are part of a new innovation cluster that joins the passions of clinicians and basic researchers with the resources and experience of global biopharmaceutical giants Merck and Pfizer Inc.
“The geographic proximity is extremely meaningful,” said Michal Preminger, executive director of Harvard University’s Office of Technology Development, which arranges collaborations between Harvard researchers and industry in Longwood. “People both bump into each other and have planned meetings. They are working together on new therapeutic approaches such as gene therapy and cell therapy. A lot of this innovation is happening in Longwood.”
Much of the cross-pollination involves drug discovery, but there are labs in and around the hospital district experimenting with everything from bioengineering new materials to health care process innovation. One of the newest, two-year-old Ariadne Labs, works on a range of projects, such as developing safe surgical checklists and improving care in developing countries.
“Boston is the place that could become the Silicon Valley of health care innovation,” said Ariadne Labs executive director Atul Gawande, the Brigham and Women’s Hospital surgeon, author and New Yorker writer who is pioneering alliances with institutions in Longwood and beyond. “We’re creating a home for people who want to fix the damn health care system.”
Over the past decade, many of the world’s top biopharmaceutical companies have gravitated, lemming-like, to Cambridge’s Kendall Square, now widely recognized as the leading global life sciences hub. Merck, by contrast, opted to set up shop in the heart of one of the nation’s most famous hospital districts. Its 80,000-square-foot research facility, opened on the edge of the Emmanuel College campus in 2004, now employs more than 450 scientists, chemists, and biologists working in the fields of cancer, inflammation, diabetes, genetics, and neuroscience.
The perch makes it easy for Merck, a Big Pharma stalwart based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., to partner with — and sometimes hire — promising researchers from nearby Harvard teaching affiliates, such as Brigham and Women’s, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as students and newly minted graduates from Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health.
“It’s certainly an advantage for Merck,” said Mark Goulet, executive director at Merck Research Laboratories. “There's a lot of biomedical research happening here, and we want to be part of that. This is the world’s training ground for doctors and scientists in the biomedical field. We want them to have a recognition of Merck, and we want to have their phone numbers.”
Goulet said researchers at the academic medical centers are often experimenting with new compounds that can be tested at Merck’s labs to determine if they are “drug-able”— meaning capable of being turned into commercialized medicines. The company is engaged in many joint ventures and earlier-stage partnerships with nearby universities and hospitals.
“Some of it is networking,” he said. “Sometimes it turns into collaboration. We’re on the Green Line together, we’re at the same Dana-Farber fund-raisers. It breaks down barriers.”
Pfizer, meanwhile, opened its Center for Therapeutic Innovation two and a half years ago in a glass-faced building on Blackfan Circle, next to Merck’s labs. The New York-based drug maker has since consolidated other research sites in the Boston area, and relocated some research programs from New London, Conn., into Kendall Square. But in Longwood, where it has nearly a dozen ongoing projects, Pfizer’s focus is on partnerships with the academic researchers from nearby hospitals and universities.
“The concept is to embed ourselves in biomedicine and excellence,” said Anthony J. Coyle, vice president and chief scientific officer for Pfizer’s Center for Therapeutic Innovation. “Given the richness of academic and clinical research in the Boston area, we wanted to part of the Longwood ecosystem. We felt that if we could put our people who work on drug discovery next to this area’s basic scientists and clinicians, we could do something different.
“We love the idea that we have boots on the ground,” he said.
Pfizer and Merck are mostly quiet about the specifics of their research alliances, noting that the long drug development cycles make it too early to gauge their results. Thus far, no other large biopharma companies have followed them into Longwood, though many operate just a few miles away across the Charles River. More are expected to migrate into Longwood when new buildings, such as the Alexandria Real Estate Equities project on the corner of Brookline and Longwood avenues, open in the coming years.
When they do, they will have to navigate a research culture that is less structured and more freewheeling.
“We’re trying to bridge very different cultures,” Coyle said. “The culture of academia has been very much about the individual, and the culture of pharma has been about teamwork. This is part of a huge culture change, not only for pharma but for academia as well.”
For academic researchers, there could be a big payoff.
“We provide access to Pfizer’s crown jewels: our antibody libraries, our small molecule libraries that we’ve spent 20 years developing, our drug development capabilities,” Coyle said. “These basic scientists get to see their ideas being demonstrated not only in animal models but in the clinic.”