LONDON – Researchers in the English city of Cambridge, birthplace of the world’s best-selling drug and 47 Nobel Prizes in medicine and chemistry through its university, have little faith in Pfizer’s vision for AstraZeneca.
AstraZeneca has been planning to move its headquarters from London to Cambridge in 2016 at a cost of $558 million. Now, with New York-based Pfizer bidding to buy AstraZeneca, the fate of British science is up in the air.
Pfizer has vowed to complete the facility and keep at least 20 percent of its research workforce in Britain for five years, alongside a similar research hub in Boston in the U.S. Yet interviews with many in the academic community show they remain unconvinced.
Pfizer’s commitment to Cambridge can’t be relied upon for anything beyond five years, said Rob Kay, a group leader in cell biology research at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology or LMB, said. When Pfizer had the choice, they’ve disinvested, not invested in this country.
Memories of Pfizer’s 2011 decision to shut down research in Sandwich in southeast England, once the company’s biggest European lab, are still fresh. Kay said he has spoken with 10 group leaders at his laboratory and the nearby Babraham Institute. While all oppose Pfizer’s takeover of AstraZeneca, he said, they’re not opposed to Pfizer expanding in Cambridge independently.
We would welcome it as the best outcome, Kay said.
Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer’s president of worldwide research and development, has compared the Cambridge, England, hub to Pfizer’s facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which sits across the Charles River from Boston and is home to Harvard University and scores of biotech companies.
At Pfizer’s Boston centers, the company opens up lab resources to local academics to help get ideas for drugs into the clinic. Dolsten said he thought a similar arrangement was possible in the U.K. The planned AstraZeneca headquarters and research facility at the Cambridge Biomedical Campus will be near the LMB and a dozen other research centers.
Dolsten, Pfizer Chief Executive Officer Ian Read and AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot appeared before Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee on Wednesday to answer lawmakers’ questions about the impact of the potential takeover of the second-largest U.K. drugmaker.
Read told a Parliamentary committee Tuesday that any breaches to his commitments would be subject to action by the High Court, noting, I am a man of my word. Pfizer is a company of its word.
At the same time, Pfizer said in a May 2 letter to Prime Minister David Cameron that it may adjust these obligations should circumstances significantly change.
That language gives Pfizer an easy opt-out, said Julian Huppert, a member of Parliament representing Cambridge. Britain and the university town would be better served if Pfizer and AstraZeneca remained independent and expanded their local operations separately, said Huppert, a former research scientist who headed a small biotech company in Cambridge before entering politics.
Andy Cosh, assistant director at Cambridge University’s Centre for Business Research, agrees.
If Pfizer succeeds in its takeover, there’s a danger that the network of academic researchers, consultancies and biopharmaceutical companies that Cambridge has been building, largely based on personal contacts, gets busted, said Cosh, who is studying models of interaction between the university and businesses.