U-M recruits top Pfizer researchers

April 23, 2008
  • umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—It was 1984 when 25-year-old Michael Wilson moved to Ann Arbor to become a pharmaceutical researcher. His first assignment: join the team developing a new drug called Lipitor.

“It was my first project,” Wilson recalled. “We had no idea it was going to be that big. It was supposed to be the third or fourth cholesterol-lowering agent to hit the market so we didn’t expect it to be that big but in the testing, it did much better than all the rest.”

Today Lipitor earns $12.9 billion per year, by far the most profitable medicine in history, but its patents (and most of those profits) expire in 2010. In 2002, Pfizer Inc. bought the rights to Lipitor and the Ann Arbor R&D campus where Wilson and more than 2,100 others worked. However, last year, amid massive companywide cuts, Pfizer announced plans to close the complex by late 2008.

Wilson, now 49, is one of 13 Pfizer scientists recruited by the University of Michigan through multiple efforts to keep Pfizer’s most talented scientists in the state after Pfizer announced plans to close the complex by late 2008.

Within hours after Pfizer announced its plans to leave Michigan in January 2007, U-M President Mary Sue Coleman pulled together rapid response Strategic Working Action Teams to tackle the challenges from multiple fronts. She also established a $3 million fund, administered by U-M Provost Teresa Sullivan, to attract and hire Pfizer employees into research-track positions.

“A major change like this one forces all of us to take risks and try new ideas,” Coleman said. “We believe that by making an investment in these talented people, we could not only help lessen the impact of the Pfizer move in the short term, but also strengthen the foundations of the region for the longer-term future.”

Sullivan added, “These scientists bring significant experience in drug research to the University. We look forward to their contributions to our programs in pharmacy and medicine.”

Ten scientists joined U-M’s College of Pharmacy, including six at U-M’s newly formed Center for Drug Design and its core Medicinal Chemistry Core Synthesis Lab, directed by Hollis Showalter, a 30-year veteran of the pharmaceutical industry. Initial center forays include drug discovery research related to cancer, rare diseases such as Gaucher disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and infectious diseases including tuberculosis. The team is already collaborating with U-M’s School of Medicine, the U-M Life Sciences Institute, the Center for Chemical Genomics and other U-M and external units.

Ron Woodard, chair and professor of the medicinal chemistry department, spearheaded the college’s effort to establish the center and lab and to hire Pfizer scientists to staff them.

“They add exciting, innovative dimensions to our education and research mission,” he said.

Other former Pfizer researchers have joined other pharmacy programs, the U-M Medical School and the U-M Master of Pharmaceutical Engineering program.

“This is an excellent case where the University saw a need to quickly build up its strength in the area of drug discovery and at the same time take advantage of a significant emphasis in this area by a departing company,” said Steve Forrest, U-M vice president for research. “It has been a clear win-win situation for both U-M and the researchers who have every reason to remain in our area.”

As major manufacturers cut their payrolls, U-M and its University Research Corridor partners, Michigan State University and Wayne State University, are boosting business-supported R&D, taking over some Pfizer facilities and equipment and hiring top people from industries that are downsizing.

“A lot of applied research is moving more and more from the pharmaceutical companies to biotech companies and academia,” said Scott Larsen, a 2007 recipient of the Pfizer Achievement Award who is now a U-M research professor of medicinal chemistry.

Ann Arbor SPARK, U-M’s economic development partner, estimates that more than 400 former Pfizer employers have been hired by more than 80 Michigan employers. SPARK also has helped organize 23 new startup companies begun by former Pfizer people.

U-M and SPARK are already filling former Pfizer space with U-M researchers as well as startups begun by former Pfizer workers, while MSU is converting former Pfizer space in Holland. For more details, visit: http://www.ns.umich.edu/htdocs/releases/story.php?id=6106.

Still other former Pfizer workers have enrolled as U-M students. Four former Pfizer employees enrolled in the U-M School of Education Master of Arts with Certification (MAC) program in June 2007 to pursue jobs as teachers. Edward Lenoir, for example, enrolled in Secondary MAC and began student teaching in Integrated Science at Forsythe Middle School in Ann Arbor this year.

Alla Karnovsky, a research investigator in the Medical School’s Center for Computational Medicine and Biology, said Pfizer offered her several other posts within the company including the ability to work remotely. But U-M offered a role that’s “both challenging and exciting.”

Rose Feng, a U-M associate research scientist who came to U-M last September, worked on anti-pain medications for Pfizer. She especially enjoys teaching a U-M interdisciplinary chemical engineering/pharmacy course called Population Pharmacokinetics, offering students cutting-edge methods for improving drug safety.

Pfizer cut Gregory Amidon’s unit in Kalamazoo in 2005, transferring him to Ann Arbor and then came news of the early 2007 announcement of the Ann Arbor closure. He’s still doing a long commute to his home in Kalamazoo, happy he didn’t sell his home sooner.

“The second time, it wasn’t as big of a surprise but it made me start thinking, ‘Where can I have the biggest impact?'” Amidon said. “In industry, a project is assigned and your creativity comes within that project. In academia, you create that vision yourself. What’s important, are you able to fund it? Then you’re putting it all together.”

Wilson, now a U-M associate research scientist after 24 years working at the nearby Pfizer R&D campus, said one reason he and his wife opted to stay in Ann Arbor was because their children are 7 and 11. Wilson didn’t want to uproot his children but they were still impacted as many of their classmates moved as their parents took Pfizer transfers to other states.

Could Wilson wind up working on another blockbuster drug like Lipitor at U-M?

“I’d like to think in a university setting, there’s always that potential,” he said.

Pfizer scientists now working for U-M

Gregory Amidon, pharmaceutical science research professor

James Dunbar, research scientist, medicinal chemistry

Meihua Rose Feng, research associate scientist and adjunct associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences and engineering

Paul Keller, assistant research scientist, pharmacy

Paul Kirchhoff, associate research scientist of pharmacy

Alla Karnovsky, research investigator, Center for Computational Medicine and Biology, U-M Medical School

Scott Larsen, research professor of medicinal chemistry

Patrick Lester, clinical instructor in animal medicine, unit for laboratory animal medicine, U-M Medical School

Greesun Ryu, assistant research scientist, medicinal chemistry

Gerald Schielke, research investigator, internal medicine and adjunct assistant research scientist, neurosurgery, medical school

Hollis Showalter, research professor of medicinal chemistry

Roderick Sorenson, associate research scientist, pharmacy

Michael Wilson, associate research scientist, medicinal chemistry