In a little-noticed deal yesterday, Pfizer announced a $22.5 million agreement with the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The company will give the school “unprecedented access to information regarding more than 500 pharmaceuticals and pharmaceutical candidates” in an effort to find new uses for existing drugs, and also to find new uses for failed drugs that are collecting dust on Pfizer’s shelves.
It’s an intriguing idea. One of the great frustrations of the drug industry is that, for all the billions of dollars that it spends on R&D, very few drugs successfully get through the development process. A big part of that problem is structural: big organizations, whether private or public, are like slowly-turning battleships. Universities have a pretty shoddy history with drug development. While academic labs are the font of many biological discoveries, universities tend to run their own clinical trials quite casually. A recent Institute of Medicine report found that 40 percent of all advanced trials sponsored by the National Cancer Institute are never completed.
So the Pfizer deal could be a sign of things to come. It helps the company gain an outside perspective on its proprietary programs, without compromising its financial investments in these molecules. University researchers gain access to a wealth of heretofore non-public scientific data, along a nice chunk of change. Here’s hoping that Wash. U. scientists give Pfizer a reason to replicate the model elsewhere.