Pfizer adopts different style for new research center
CAMBRIDGE — This is what happens when Big Pharma meets Kendall Square.
Abandoning their closed-door offices and cloistered campuses, scientists at Pfizer Inc.’s new research center here are experimenting with the vibe of working in open spaces, sharing ideas, and mixing it up with their academic and biotech neighbors. Trading in stodgy for hip, they even have a lab with black walls dubbed the “pink flamingo lounge.”
Pfizer’s gleaming 280,000-square-foot research center, which formally opens Monday at a ceremony featuring Governor Deval Patrick and MIT president L. Rafael Reif, will work on therapies to expand the drug maker’s pipeline in rare diseases, inflammation, neuroscience, and cardiovascular diseases. But it will also be working on a new kind of research approach.
While the company has historically deployed the standard pharmaceutical industry model of in-house, siloed drug discovery, the new research center here has stolen a page from the collaborative culture and open architecture of the entrepreneurial startups that dot Kendall Square.
“No one has an office here,” said Jose-Carlos Gutiérrez-Ramos, the Spanish-born Pfizer senior vice president of research and development, who also has an open workstation surrounded by colleagues. “We want interaction between scientists inside and outside. We really want to have a strong laboratory culture, with experimentation and collaboration at the center of everything. Collaboration and innovation is what we came here to do.”
Hundreds of white-coated researchers, many with freshly minted PhDs, already have moved into the complex and two smaller sites nearby. The atmosphere is a cross between serious science and move-in day at a college dormitory.
All around the building, workers are wheeling heavy boxes of equipment while electricians on ladders install lighting fixtures. “When you’re moving furniture and doing experiments at the same time, that’s when you know you’re alive,” said Gutiérrez-Ramos.
In a sleek visualization lab, chemist Kevin Hallock brandishes a wand-like flystick to rotate a colorful image of a human brain projected on a giant screen. Hallock, sporting antenna-spiked 3-D glasses, is trying to identify the molecules that act on the brain’s various regions to help develop treatments for disorders such as depression or Alzheimer’s disease.
Nearby, in another lab, a team of drug designers pores over laptops that display the ribbon-like crystal structures of proteins. “You can think of these proteins as locks, and we’re trying to design the keys,” said the team’s leader, medicinal chemist Kathy Lee.
Upstairs, in a black-walled suite crammed with custom-made microscopes, neuroscientist Joel Schwartz is examining nervous system tissues, another building block of drug discovery. “Welcome to the pink flamingo lounge,” he jokes.
The research center has been under construction for three years on the site of a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology parking lot at the corner of Portland and Albany streets, though its address is 610 Main St. It will consolidate about 1,000 researchers and support staffers located in far-flung sites from Alewife to Memorial Drive, including some who recently moved here from the Pfizer research campus in Groton, Conn.
Many will work in partnership with other local university and industry scientists, reflecting the push by New York-based Pfizer, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, to supplement its own research with collaborations. That philosophy is also guiding sister research sites in Groton, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Cambridge, England, which work in areas ranging from cancer to vaccines.
The new lab is key to Pfizer’s goal of winning regulatory approval of two new medicines a year, said Mikael Dolsten, the company’s president of worldwide research and development. To do that, Pfizer scientists must work with scores of compounds and bring multiple drug candidates into human testing each year.
Pfizer’s decision to plant its flag in the heart of the local life sciences cluster “is a real recognition of our confidence in Cambridge, Mass., to become one of the leading hubs of biomedical research for us in the future,” Dolsten said. “Every year, we hope to see discoveries coming from Cambridge that will help us to bring medicines to the market.”
Generating successful new therapies from its research labs and growing number of research partnerships will become more important after the recent collapse of Pfizer’s bid to acquire London-based AstraZeneca plc, the Anglo-Swedish drug maker that has its own research center in Waltham, off Route 128. That will be far from easy for Pfizer.
Part of the challenge is Pfizer’s sheer size — its market value exceeds $187 billion. That means the pharma giant, in order to grow, must constantly bring out new drugs, particularly so-called blockbusters that ring up annual sales of $1 billion or more, said Seamus Fernandez, analyst at Boston health care investment bank Leerink Swann
“For a company of Pfizer’s size,” said Fernandez, “you need five blockbusters simultaneously to move the needle. It’s a herculean task.”
Pfizer’s strategy includes making the research center a gathering place for scientists from area universities, teaching hospitals, and biotech startups, as well as patient advocates from foundations willing to advise — and help fund — research into treatments for diseases such as Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, lupus, and diabetes.
Joan Finnegan Brooks, who has cystic fibrosis and advises drug makers as a volunteer, originally worked with researchers at FoldRx Pharmaceuticals Inc., a Cambridge rare diseases startup. After the company was bought by Pfizer in 2010, the drug giant reached out to her.
“The important thing from my perspective is that Pfizer is open to have that voice at the table,” Brooks said. “A lot of companies say they want patient input [on drug development], but they do it after everything is cooked, and that doesn’t result in the best outcomes. Pfizer is a big company, but there’s been a sea change in how companies are dealing with patient communities.”
Pfizer has 25 to 30 research collaborations under way in the Boston area. That number is expected to increase with the opening of the Kendall Square research center, said Gutiérrez-Ramos. He downplayed the risks that collaborators from other companies could get an edge by eavesdropping on Pfizer’s proprietary drug discovery methods and technology.
“There are a few things — the chemical structure of a drug or the protein sequence of a therapeutic antibody — where we need to take precautions,” he said. “However, those are only 10 percent of our activity. The other 90 percent can be shared.”