A year after ditching in-house neuroscience work, Pfizer execs shared their 'star cluster' strategy for betting on promising brain drug startups

A year after ditching in-house neuroscience work, Pfizer execs shared their 'star cluster' strategy for betting on promising brain drug startups

alzheimers brain scan

Atthapon Raksthaput / Shutterstock

Pfizer has a new strategy for neuroscience research.

  • Last year, after several failures related to Alzheimer's disease drugs, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced it was stepping away from neuroscience research and development.
  • The company isn't completely done with the field. It partnered with Bain Capital in October to launch neuroscience spinoff Cerevel Therapeutics.
  • Cerevel is part of a much larger strategy to maintain a presence in neuroscience, Pfizer Ventures executives explained in an interview with Business Insider during the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference.

Nearly a year after throwing in the towel on a suite of efforts to develop better treatments for brain diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, drug giant Pfizer appeared to make an about-face.

Together with investment firm Bain Capital, it created a new drug company called Cerevel Therapeutics in October to focus on Parkinson's, epilepsy, and other central nervous system disorders.

The Cerevel launch is just one piece of a larger strategy that Pfizer aims to use to keep its eye on neuroscience - if not from the front row, then at least from the sidelines. Although the pharmaceutical behemoth will no longer pursue neuroscience research and development efforts internally, it will fund startups doing everything from screening for better drug targets to running advanced clinical trials for superior drugs.

Those efforts will be directed by a new initiative called Pfizer Ventures, which has up to $150 million to invest in nascent neuroscience companies. The venture arm manages a total of more than $1 billion, and also makes investments in medical treatments for other conditions.


"We did not feel that [neuroscience] was an area we wanted to totally walk away from," Barbara Dalton, the vice president of Pfizer's worldwide business development team and a senior managing partner of Pfizer Ventures, told Business Insider during a meeting on January 9 on the periphery of the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference.

Read more of Business Insider's coverage from the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference here

Dalton and Denis Patrick, who leads Pfizer's innovative medicines initiative and is also a managing partner of Pfizer Ventures, outlined a broad strategy for maintaining an arms-length approach to neuroscience that will include the Cerevel spinoff as well as funds for neuroscience startups.

In November, Pfizer Ventures contributed to a $25 million funding round for System1, an early-stage startup based in Silicon Valley that's growing 'mini brains' to screen for new drug targets for schizophrenia and autism.

Read more: A Silicon Valley startup is growing 'mini brains' to create new drugs for schizophrenia and autism - and big pharma is investing millions


Dalton said that while the Pfizer Ventures team considers System1 to fall on the early end of the drug development continuum, they aim to invest in a range of companies from mid-to-late-stage.

"We'll go across the spectrum, from much earlier to much later too," Dalton said.

From in-house R&D to seeding 'star clusters'

system1 petri dish


Silicon Valley biotech startup System1 is growing "mini brains" to come up with new drug targets for psychiatric diseases from autism and epilepsy to schizophrenia.

Up until last year, Pfizer had been heavily invested in research on the brain. Its primary focus areas were Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, two diseases characterized by the progressive degeneration or death of the brain's nerve cells. In 2012, Pfizer and research partner Johnson & Johnson called off work on a highly anticipated Alzheimer's drug called bapineuzumab when it failed to help patients in a trial.

Dozens of other Alzheimer's drugs failed around the same time, leading many large pharmaceutical companies to step away from neuroscience entirely. Pfizer announced in early 2018 that it was pulling back from brain research and eliminating several hundred jobs.

"The trends have largely been disappointments," Patrick said.


Read more: What we saw at JPMorgan's big healthcare investor conference

Those failures taught Pfizer some valuable lessons, Patrick and Dalton said. So instead of abandoning the field completely, they're turning to startups to carry the neuroscience torch - with those lessons in mind.

The first lesson, Dalton said, is that researchers can no longer rely on animal models to study how drugs might work in the human brain.

Second, besides neurodegeneration, the company wants to be more open to investigating two additional research areas in neuroscience: neuroinflammation, where parts of the brain swell in response to infection or something else, and neurometabolism, where the brain's energy-generating areas stop functioning properly.

While neuroinflammation may play a role in everything from Alzheimer's to psychosis, neurometabolism is a central feature of conditions like epilepsy.


To lead those efforts, Pfizer Ventures created a scientific advisory board specific to neuroscience, Dalton said.

The board will keep an eye out for what Dalton calls "star clusters" - where a successful hypothesis about how a drug might work leads one company to a win, and several other companies build their ideas on the same hypothesis.

"That's when you want to kind of keep your ear to the ground," she said.

"If you put too many blinders on, you'll maybe miss the next big thing," said Dalton.

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