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SLU Will Snap Up Ex-Pfizer Staff

From St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) (February 11, 2010)

Feb. 11--St. Louis University will tap into the large pool of laid-off Pfizer scientists to launch a new research center focused on discovering drugs to treat medical problems in the developing world.

SLU has committed $5 million over the next two years to fund the Center for World Health & Medicine, which will launch in July, Raymond Tait, SLU's vice president for research, said Wednesday. The school initially plans to hire a dozen soon-to-be former Pfizer researchers.

In November, Pfizer announced it would lay off 600 of its 1,000 employees in St. Louis, part of a 15 percent reduction of the drug maker's global work force. The reductions followed Pfizer's $68 billion acquisition of the drug maker Wyeth . Pfizer's main research campus in the area is located in Chesterfield.

SLU began discussions in early December to figure out ways to keep some of those scientists in St. Louis. In a time of strained university resources, this reflects SLU's commitment to the region, Tait said.

"St. Louis U. worked with uncharacteristic speed," he said. "The initial reaction was a form of horror to think about the impact of (the layoffs) on the St. Louis region. After we had a chance to digest it, we then thought, 'Gee, this also provides us with an important opportunity that could be transformative for research at St. Louis U.'"

This is a somewhat unusual venture, in that universities have not typically delved into the realm of drug discovery, Tait acknowledged.

"We're not going to compete with Pfizer and Wyeth," he said. "We're not going after blockbuster drugs."

Rather, the appealing part of this idea was that the school could follow its Jesuit mission by helping underserved populations, he said.

Steve Johnson, senior vice president of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, said SLU's move is a small but important step in the right direction if St. Louis hopes to plug the leakage of high-skilled workers to other areas.

There are between 1,700 and 2,000 laid-off scientists and skilled technical workers in the region right now, Johnson said. Keeping them, and their skills, in St. Louis is becoming an increasingly high priority, he said.

"That represents a tremendous amount of talent," Johnson said. "You don't want to dehumanize people, but those are marketable assets for the region."

They are the kind of assets that can help lure other big medical and technology firms here, or that can seed startups, or that, as in this case, can help launch research groups at local universities.

"We applaud (SLU's effort)," Johnson said. "And we'll be digging into this whole issue and look at what other regions are doing."

SLU still has to hash out many of the details about the new center -- such as whom exactly it will hire, where it will be housed, and what areas it will focus on.

"This is still a work in progress," Tait said. "Give us another couple of months where we can flesh out who will be working with us."

While many of the scientists have already vacated their laboratories, they are still under contract with Pfizer, Tait said. So SLU has not yet officially hired anyone, but it has spoken with several people who are very interested in the new center, he said.

Targeting childhood diarrhea is one area that some scientists have expressed a special interest in, he added.

Tait said he hopes the center will be sustained down the line in part through research grants, subcontracting work, and perhaps foundation support.

"We'll see if we cannot make this viable," he said. "Over time, we suspect we will get some intellectual property, but intellectual property is not the lifeblood."

SLU has already started writing up an application for a federal stimulus-funded research grant at the new center, he said.

Down the line, Tait said, SLU could work with pharmaceutical companies -- including, but not limited to, Pfizer.

"I don't see us undertaking clinical trials," he said. "What I can see us doing is identifying some promising treatment approaches, working to where we have some evidence or sense that they are safe. But in order to bring them to market, we will have to partner."

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Posted: February 2010