About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« Back To Life | Main | Pfizer Recalculates »

July 25, 2006

The Sun Shines at Pfizer

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

The New York Times ran an article last week profiling Pfizer's head of research, John LaMattina, as "Dr. Optimistic". He seems to be earning the title:

But in two recent interviews, Dr. LaMattina said the pessimists, on and off Wall Stret, were about to be proven wrong. "The science has exploded and all sorts of things are happening," he said over tea last month at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhatan, where Pfizer executives were meeting to discuss the company's strategy for 2007.

He insists that Prizer - the entire industry, for that matter - is on the verge of a new age of drug discovery, one that will turn cancer, diabetes, and other debilitating illnesses into manageable conditions. Decades of research into the mechanisms of disease have given drug makers hundreds of promising new cellular and genetic targets to study.

I've got to disagree with the man here. While I think we are in the process of turning (some kinds of) cancer into a manageable disease, and while progress is being made in a lot of other areas, I'm having trouble picturing hundreds of promising new targets. In fact, I'd challenge anyone to name a hundred cancer targets. I'm sure it could be done, actually, although not without some spadework, and I can guarantee that you won't be reaching for the word "promising" by the time you get even halfway through the list. "Interesting", yeah. "Speculative", absolutely. But "promising", well, I'd rather not promise that much.

I should mention that some of LaMattina's sunny outlook seems to have rubbed off on Alex Berenson of the Times, because he makes special mention of Sutent as an important drug because it came out of Pfizer's own labs. Well. . .sort of, if by that you mean "out of the labs of a company that Pfizer bought, changed the name of to Pfizer, pillaged, and closed", then it's perfectly true. Otherwise, not so true.

But LaMattina sounds like a reasonable person otherwise, which like many people, I define as someone who shares my opinions:

Dr. LaMattina said that, given the complexity of the science underlying drug discovery, he tried not to become too optimistic or pessimistic about any new compound. "I have seen too many research heads be too absolute about, 'This is a good program; kill this program' ", he said. "It's very easy for someone to come in and say 'Kill it.' "

I wish him well. But I don't share his outlook, not completely. It's true that we're accomplishing some big things in the industry, but we're spending a ferocious amount of time and money to do it, and the outcome is not yet clear. And that goes, with cherries on top of it, for Pfizer - one phrase that doesn't appear in the article is "Lipitor patent expiration", and you can't write about the future of the company and ignore that one.

Comments (22) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | Drug Development


1. steve s on July 25, 2006 9:54 PM writes...

Do you think your industry will move (at least some of the) R&D to china to take advantage of smart people at low cost?

Permalink to Comment

2. burt on July 26, 2006 10:30 AM writes...

Much as I hate to agree with the likes of LaMattina, I think he's right; I think there's more scinece ahed of us to be done than behind us. By a lot. I think our industry is in the doldrums now because the broader economy is rudderless.

"Do you think your industry will move (at least some of the) R&D to china to take advantage of smart people at low cost?"

You can get the "low cost", but will find few smart people. I think outsourcing research is a trap and a blind alley. Ask MSFT (off the record) about their experiences outsourcing IT R&D.

Permalink to Comment

3. Palo on July 26, 2006 10:52 AM writes...

On outsourcing R&D to China, burt says:

You can get the "low cost", but will find few smart people

and you base this on... what exactly? shortage of smart people in China? Really?

Permalink to Comment

4. Jake on July 26, 2006 10:58 AM writes...

Replace "smart" with "educated", both formal and on-the-job, and I think that's a reasonable statement. The experience I've had with outsourced IT operations to China has been more or less abysmal.

It's not that they aren't smart, but they are just at a disadvantage to a native English speaker who grew up reading 2600 and spent his late teens and early 20s around people with 10 years of IT experience.

I'm pretty sure the same thing applies in the sciences.

There's no reason it has to stay that way, and it almost certainly won't, but the US pharmaceutical research establishment has been built up over more than half a century.

Permalink to Comment

5. burt on July 26, 2006 11:12 AM writes...

"shortage of smart people in China? Really?"

yes, because the good ones are still emigrating. Will this be true in 10 years? Beats me.

Permalink to Comment

6. secret milkshake on July 26, 2006 12:20 PM writes...

there is plenty of good chemists in China, India, Russia and Ukraine - what is missing is good biology that is necessary to do pharma research.

Process research, combichem, manufacture of generics - this all can move there but the biology depends on good university programs, funding policies, etc. This biology advantage US and Western Europe has now will not last forever though.

I was in SUGEN, to the sad end. I even got to work on some Sutent backups - I think I will write a short methodology paper on it. Looking back, I think Pfizer did me a favor even if it did not feel that way at the time. Pfizer is certainly not a good company to work for.

Permalink to Comment

7. Palo on July 26, 2006 12:29 PM writes...

There are thousands of chinese in science in university and pharma labs in the US and the world. All current indications are that many of the best are beginning to either go back to China, or not leaving China (it is not true anymore that the best are leaving), thanks to the investing boom in that country. Even if a tiny fraction of the best chinese would remain in China, in a population of 1.6 billion there's no way that Burt's original statement holds true.

Jake's variation could be true in the short term. Obviously relocating research to China wouldn't be a short term enterprise.

In any case, at least for Clinical Trials, outsourcing is already happening in big numbers. We can discuss the reasons some other time.

Permalink to Comment

8. Hap on July 26, 2006 12:32 PM writes...

I don't think that Pfizer has to wait for patent expiration on Lipitor to have a problem with it - my insurance company moved Lipitor to its lowest coverage tier (higher copay) because of generic Zocor. While the two don't work completely in the same way (nor does Zocor work as well), I have to figure other insurance companies are doing similarly, which might cut down on Lipitor's sales.

I don't know that the health care situation would have me sanguine about any sort of future if I were in his position, but maybe I'm just a congenital pessimist.

Permalink to Comment

9. Canuck Chemist on July 26, 2006 12:35 PM writes...

In response to Burt, I agree that there is definitely more science ahead of us than behind us. Many of us see a paradigm shift towards more personalized medicine, where patients and their doctors can make more informed choices based on e.g. biomarkers. This type of shift isn't going to happen overnight, and it's unclear with the current "blockbuster" system how companies will have the profit incentive to do this work (e.g. 5 different variations of a drug for 5 different genotypes). I expect the pharma industry to be in a state of upheaval for awhile-- I don't think there are many easy solutions to these current unmet medical needs. I'm very optimistic for the long-term, but not for the short-term.

Permalink to Comment

10. GA on July 26, 2006 12:49 PM writes...

Does anyone have any thoughts on today's news about Pfizer's decision to sell torcetrapib on its own? From what I'd heard, their earlier decision to sell it exclusively in combination with Lipitor was being mentioned as a way of differentiating themselves from the rest of the statin crop. Something significant must have happened for them to drop this strategy...and I don't this it's the "best interests of the patient" and "criticism that Pfizer has faced" that did that (contrary to what's being said).

Permalink to Comment

11. GA on July 26, 2006 12:51 PM writes...

Sorry for the typo...too quick to hit the "Post" button.

It should read "...and I don't think it's the "best interests of the patient" and "criticism that Pfizer has faced" that did that (contrary to what's being said)."

Permalink to Comment

12. Supa Dupa on July 26, 2006 12:54 PM writes...

Hey Secret Milkshake,

you worked at Sugen? Did you work under Peng Cho Tang? That guy is definitely an interesting character. He made a pit stop here in Hawaii and now he is the CSO for some company in Shanghai. We used to refer to the chemists in his group as the Cho Bots.

Permalink to Comment

13. secret milkshake on July 26, 2006 1:16 PM writes...

Cho was boss of the entire medchem at SUGEN. Some strange things came up when he left - from what I heard he used his own company as an intermediary when contracting building block scaleup for SUGEN - a conflict of interest kind of situation -and the resulting controversy was probably the reason for his departure - but while he was a boss there, he certainly took a very good care of his people and chemistry. He was pleasant, not pushy at all and very generous about things in general - I have mostly very fond memories about SUGEN and Cho, and I wish him good luck.

Permalink to Comment

14. Supa Dupa on July 26, 2006 2:13 PM writes...

Cho was a decent fellow. He was the Director of Chemistry/Drug Discovery here at Hawaii Biotech for about a year. While he was here he outsourced most of the contract work to companies owned by friends of his. The companies did excellent work so no one had any problems with the arrangement. His group really liked the guy and they went into a bit of a tail spin for awhile after he left. Cho had a very heated run in with a chemist in another group and upper management kind of botched the situation. Cho told me a story about a similar incident at a previous company (I assumed Sugen) where he had to work with a difficult bench chemist and upper management handled that situation in a similar manner. Both incidents played major roles in his deciding to leave both companies. This is pretty funny...this is my second connection to you...I also used to work for Molecumetics.

Permalink to Comment

15. secret milkshake on July 26, 2006 2:33 PM writes...

I think the chemist Cho had problem with while at SUGEN was most likely Dave H. - and he was my boss when I got hired there (into combichem group) but not for very long because Cho put a new boss in charge of that group (and we started doing a real medicinal chemistry as a result).

It is a small world.

Permalink to Comment

16. Chrispy on July 26, 2006 2:47 PM writes...

Molecumetics? I thought I'd never see that name again!

I hear Mike Kahn (former M'metics CSO) is moving to California, along with Mike McMillan, who every medicinal chemist seems to know...

Permalink to Comment

17. secret milkshake on July 26, 2006 2:54 PM writes...

If you see Prof. Michael Kahn, ask him when is he going to retract the papers he published with Savitri Rhamamurdy. And also about that cyclization methodology which he got from Selectide through our common friend Honza (Jan) U. - which he then then published and patented as his own.

Permalink to Comment

18. Supa Dupa on July 26, 2006 3:22 PM writes...

Jan Urban is the "anal" Czech guy I referred to on Dylan's blog. Maybe "anal" was a poor choice of words on my part. Meticulous is probably a better descriptor. Jan is one of the brightest guys I have ever met and I learned a ton of chemistry from that guy. I miss working with him. Mike McMillian...his work area was a DISASTER AREA!!! His bench should have been on the EPA's Superfund list. He probably gave the safety officer quite a few ulcers.

Permalink to Comment

19. secret milkshake on July 26, 2006 3:36 PM writes...

anal is the right word because he could be extremely unpleasant to sloppy people he despised. What happened to Honza, do you know where is he now?

Permalink to Comment

20. Supa Dupa on July 26, 2006 4:06 PM writes...

Jan was part of a group of Molecumetics guys who moved to San Diego to work for Kemia ( He is on a couple of Kemia patents that published in 2005 so I am assuming he is still there.

Permalink to Comment

21. Duane on August 9, 2006 3:30 PM writes...

Uh, exactly what is wrong with: "Well. . .sort of, if by that you mean "out of the labs of a company that Pfizer bought, changed the name of to Pfizer, pillaged, and closed", then it's perfectly true."

Isn't that the classic model relied on by most entrepreneurs? The start-up takes the risks on the cutting edge technology, puts in the hours, brainpower, and creativity required to bring it to a point where the next investments are too high for a start-up, the founders cash in on the sale, and the majors' pipelines fill up. Every drug start-up I've ever seen plans for exactly that scenario.

Derek, sometimes your Pfizer obsession sounds almost like a whine. Of the firms I deal with, I far prefer Pfizer to, say, Wyeth.

Permalink to Comment

22. choagoodguy on August 9, 2006 7:07 PM writes...

Cho gave SUGEN SU5416 with 3 chemists SU6668 with 5 chemists SU11248 or SUTEN with 15 chemists all without NMR and LC/MS. From what I know, he did not own that company at all. After his departure, he did work with them to form a new venture in Taiwan. Cho made all the big pharma chemist look so "unproductive and uncreative". Cho was very creative in management. In one summer, he gave everyone two months to work out their ideas, freely. That produced many patents and one Met clinical candidate for Pfizer. I think Pfizer should give him a permanent contract. His contribution to SUGEN and Pfizer was hugely under appreciated. Or if he is in China, Pfizer shoudl make him the China president. Cho is the most creative person and always mentioned to break his own patents. You never know. He may be making SUTEN killer.

Permalink to Comment


Remember Me?


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

The Last Post
The GSK Layoffs Continue, By Proxy
The Move is Nigh
Another Alzheimer's IPO
Cutbacks at C&E News
Sanofi Pays to Get Back Into Oncology
An Irresponsible Statement About Curing Cancer
Oliver Sacks on Turning Back to Chemistry