Cambridge Sees Pfizer’s AstraZeneca Offer as Science Threat

May 14, 2014 7:24 am ET

(Updates with Pfizer CEO comment in 10th paragraph.)

May 14 (Bloomberg) -- 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 Inc.’s vision for AstraZeneca Plc.

AstraZeneca has been planning to move its headquarters from London to Cambridge in 2016 at a cost of 330 million pounds ($558 million). Now, with New York-based Pfizer Inc. 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 the U.K. 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 in an interview at the lab’s roof-level restaurant. “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.

Pfizer in Boston

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, alma mater to Francis Crick, who helped uncover the structure of DNA; the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute; 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 today to answer lawmakers’ questions about the impact of the potential takeover of the second-largest U.K. drugmaker.

‘My Word’

“I suspect the combined research budget will go down,” Read told the panel. “I suspect there will be less scientists than the natural arithmetic combination of the two.”

Read told a Parliamentary committee yesterday that any breaches to his commitments would be subject to action by the U.K.’s 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.

‘Busted’ Network

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.

“Just saying you’re going to stay in Cambridge doesn’t mean you’ll keep the same personnel,” Cosh said in an interview at his office by the famed wooden Mathematical Bridge over the River Cam. “Pfizer may see this as a key research site and therefore they might want their own top people here.”

That would result in broken links within the network, which could ultimately make parts of it “deletable,” he said. Cambridge’s scientific legacy includes giving birth to Cambridge Antibody Technology, a company that helped develop Humira, a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and the world’s best-selling medicine last year. Cambridge Antibody, which has roots in the LMB, was bought by AstraZeneca in 2006.

No Talks

“Cambridge is probably the only place in Europe that can compete with Boston,” Soriot said today at the hearing.

AstraZeneca isn’t in discussions with Pfizer about securing jobs and declines to comment on hypothetical scenarios, spokeswoman Ayesha Bharmal said by e-mail. The U.K. company has already started moving workers to temporary facilities at Melbourn Science Park and Cambridge Science Park.

By the end of the move, about 2,300 employees are set to be based in the new headquarters, which will span 13 acres, according to Jeanette Walker, project director of the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.

The team is “sticking to the plan” in spite of the uncertainty around the takeover, Walker said.

Soriot ’Legacy’

“There is a lot of history of foreign and British companies buying Cambridge companies,” said Walker, a former business development director at EBRI, the Cambridge biotech networking organization that became One Nucleus. “If you just look at the number of transactions, it’s probably true to say that when a Cambridge drug company is acquired, it results in closure, rather than in investment.”

At yesterday’s hearings, Soriot said he saw AstraZeneca’s commitment to Cambridge lasting decades.

“In many ways, this will be my legacy,” the CEO said. “Hopefully I can give you the greatest confidence that we will maintain our R&D here.”

The Cambridge community has been looking forward to the presence of a large pharmaceutical champion anchoring its research in the area, said Greg Winter, co-founder of Cambridge Antibody Technology and master of Trinity College at Cambridge University.

“AstraZeneca has made a huge effort to interact with the local ecosystem,” Winter said. “Pfizer might be just the same, but we don’t know yet.”

Scientists may decide to leave of their own accord if Pfizer succeeds in buying AstraZeneca, even if there are promises to preserve jobs, Soriot told lawmakers today.

“We always need to remember a company is made of people and you can’t decide what people will do,” he said.

--With assistance from Drew Armstrong in New York and Oliver Staley in London.