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Cambridge is central to Pfizer’s future

Pfizer scientists Katherine Hales (left), Robert Bell, and Kevin Le image brain vasculature and Alzheimer amyloid plaques in their Cambridge research lab.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — Pfizer Inc.’s future is murky after its $160 billion merger with Allergan PLC fell apart, but one thing is clear: Its Cambridge research center will play a pivotal role in drug discovery, regardless of how the company moves forward.

The blockbuster deal was called off when the US Treasury Department issued new rules that would have prevented the combined companies from capitalizing on the lower corporate tax rate in Allergan’s home country, Ireland.

Pfizer chief executive Ian Read said the New York-based company was reconsidering an earlier plan to unlock “shareholder value” by separating its established franchises, which sell approved drugs, from its “innovative” businesses that develop medicines.


While a decision isn’t expected till the end of the year, Cambridge has already emerged as Pfizer’s innovation capital.

Its center here, which tests experimental drugs and forges outside partnerships in four of Pfizer’s six research areas, formally opened in June 2014, when the company consolidated scientists dispersed at several area sites in a new building leased from MIT at 610 Main St.

An adjoining Pfizer research building, called 610 North, is scheduled to open early next year and house other Pfizer researchers as well as independent biotech startups in collaboration space modeled after the Lab Central incubator next door. Together, the two buildings will employ nearly 1,000 people in a 500,000-square-foot “unified research campus.”

“It will have a leading impact on our portfolio when it comes to innovation,” said Mikael Dolsten, president of Pfizer’s worldwide research and development. “We are very optimistic about what the Cambridge group will be doing. And Cambridge will be one-stop shopping for biotech companies and academic scientists who want to engage with us.”

Most of the world’s pharmaceutical heavyweights have similarly set up outposts in Cambridge to monitor the local research scene, strike scientific alliances, and fund and license promising therapies. But only Pfizer and Novartis AG, a Swiss drug maker that planted its global research headquarters in Cambridge in 2007, also conduct far-reaching research of their own here.


The site will be on display Thursday when Dolsten and other senior executives outline their vision and strategy at a Pfizer Pharma Day presentation before Massachusetts life sciences leaders. Among other things, they’ll discuss drug research programs within key therapeutic areas and Pfizer’s new approach, which combines in-house science with outside alliances.

“What we don’t want to be is the partner who just whips out the checkbook,” said Michael Ehlers, the senior vice president for biotherapeutics research who took over last May as site head for the Cambridge research center. “We are here to do discovery science and early clinical research as well as partnering and bringing in great assets from the outside.”

For Pfizer, the largest US pharmaceutical company, Cambridge has become the second-largest research site, after its sprawling campus in Groton, Conn., which it has gradually been shrinking. Ehlers, who initially worked for Pfizer in Groton as chief scientific officer for neuroscience research, moved his group to Massachusetts in 2012. The neuroscience team was the first to set up shop in the new Cambridge research center, where it can more easily collaborate with dozens of academic research labs and biotech startups in the neighborhood.

The new research center features open architecture and a hipper culture more akin to Kendall Square’s entrepreneurial startups than the closed-door research at Pfizer’s traditional campuses. Pfizer hosts Cambridge forums to share ideas with its research neighbors, and it even built a lab with black walls dubbed the “pink flamingo lounge.”


“We intentionally didn’t want to be in some large remote campus behind a security fence,” said Ehlers. He took over as Cambridge site head last year from Jose-Carlos Gutiérrez-Ramos, now the chief executive of a Cambridge microbiome startup, Synlogic Inc.

In addition to neuroscience, Cambridge is ground zero for Pfizer’s research into rare diseases, inflammation and immunology, and cardiovascular and metabolic conditions. Those research groups have a total of more than 20 drug candidates in clinical trials. They also manage more than 150 partnerships with other companies, patient foundations, and researchers, ranging from a collaboration with Spark Therapeutics Inc. on gene therapies for rare diseases to an alliance with IBM’s health-data business on diagnosing Parkinson’s disease.

Pfizer, with about 2,000 employees in Massachusetts, also does protein engineering and biotech research and manufacturing in Andover and operates a Center for Therapeutic Innovation in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area, where it works with university researchers. (Its cancer research is based in California, and its vaccines research in Pearl River, N.Y.)

The research center in Cambridge “is one of our core hubs,” Ehlers said. “You need to be in the midst of all the emerging science. We’re here with a big presence. It goes from idea and core science to designing molecules and taking them into the clinic for testing in patient populations. We have great science going on here, but we can’t do it alone.”


Robert Weisman can be reached at