Michael Ehlers to head Neuroscience discovery at Pfizer

This surprised the hell out of me. I have long been a big fan of Dr Ehlers’ work. As far as I’m concerned he has done as much as anyone to advance our understanding of the dynamics of dendritic spine plasticity and his work on golgi outposts has had a huge impact on how I think about scientific problems my lab approaches. I’ve met him a couple of times when he has given talks and let me tell you, dude can give a talk! Its an almost surreal experience too because he looks like he’s about 17 years old (don’t believe me, check the link above). He’s been a Hughes investigator for years and recently got an endowed position in neurobiology at Duke… pretty sweet spot to continue a nice academic career if you ask me.

Well that’s not going to happen. He’s moving to Pfizer to take a position as CSO of Neuroscience starting in August. The interview in Nature this week is quite interesting on many levels and I’d like to discuss some of them here in the context of what I’ve learned about industry drug discovery over the past years (basically since becoming a PI).

When asked what industry offers him he responds:

There is an enormous range of unmet medical needs in neurological and psychiatric diseases. For example, there are no good therapies for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. It will take a full suite of skills and knowledge to develop them. I am drawn to industry’s approach — synthesizing different aspects of basic and translational science to develop new innovative medicines. I think it is a significant intellectual challenge.

I couldn’t agree more with this. One thing that consistently amazes me is the tremendous amount of effort that industry is capable of bringing to bear on a problem in relatively short order. In academia doing this sort of thing requires setting up collaborations, bringing in funds and redirecting resources, all of which moves at a seemingly glacial time scale. In industry, units with technical expertise change direction much more quickly and the creation of research tools (mainly small molecules) moves quickly and efficiently in approaching a problem (albeit not always in developing a needed molecule). While pursuing all the parts that are needed to get moving on developing innovative medicines in academia is an interesting challenge in and of itself, I certainly see the attraction of pursuing these goals within the framework of big pharma capacities and it appears this is why he is doing it:

Industry is more dynamic than academia — programmes can change and positions disappear. But when I served on Pfizer’s neuroscience advisory panel, I was struck by the extremely high level of science there. The scientists have incredible dedication. They are passionate about developing medicines. I wanted to work on a larger scale, in a setting in which people are charged with collaborating in teams and there is strong incentive for that teamwork. People in academia talk about collaborating and occasionally do, but it is not as structured.

Agreed, but there is a key point here that is glossed over: “positions disappear”. Boy do they ever! And these have been the worst years for layoffs in pharma that anyone seems to be able to remember. Just a quick glance at some of Derek Lowe’s recent posts under his business and markets theme gives a quick overview of just how much upheaval has visited the ranks of pharma industry over the past 2-3 years. This makes me question whether a move like this is really a good idea at the present time (have to admit I wouldn’t do it, but no one is knocking down my door either). How long could you reasonably expect that your position will be in place (even as a CSO)? How much confidence can you have in the word of the business heads above you that you will be able to retain the scientists that you need to make your vision become a reality? One would assume that these are questions that he feels that he has good answers for but with how much salt was it taken? Personally, I would be more than a little skeptical at the present time.

Finally, i found this perspective pretty interesting:

There is a perception that industry doesn’t offer as much freedom, but the constraints or variables make drug development more intellectually challenging. I realize that I’ll need an end goal in mind and business will be based on opportunity and priorities, but I’ve got a broad range of interests and I think the full scope of my scientific curiosity will be occupied. One of my goals is to develop a culture of innovation and exploration.

This is the thing that I find most intriguing about working in industry. As a pharmacologist I am ultimately interested in how drugs work and as our understanding of drug-receptor interactions has advanced (seemingly exponentially in the past few years) drug discovery has become all that more interesting. One needs only take a quick glance at some recent reviews by Terry Kenakin to understand that the possibilities for developing new small-molecule-based therapeutics have become dizzingly complex. You can have agonist-directed trafficking, inverse agonists, protean agonists and the list goes on and on. Moreover, previously seemingly intractable targets have been solved in terms of small molecule targeting. In terms of creating new drugs for neurological diseases these routes of drug-receptor interactions are more or less untapped and as we continue to grow in our understanding of the mechanisms of neurological disorders the opportunities for discovery become even greater. I see this as perhaps the most interesting intellectual challenge in pharmacology and while doing it in the academic framework is an interesting challenge, the draw to pursue such goals in the industry paradigm of drug discovery is an alluring one.

Good luck to you Dr Ehlers. And here’s to hoping that the Big Pharma drug discovery business model is adaptive enough to give you a fighting chance to succeed.


5 responses to “Michael Ehlers to head Neuroscience discovery at Pfizer

  1. I’ve known him for many years, and the move does not surprise me. It also doesn’t surprise me that he suddenly told everyone in his lab that in three months or so they would need to seek other places to work. I guess being smart and ambitious can get you quite far.

  2. This move actually came on the tails of his planning on leaving duke for the new max planck in florida. allegedly, people in his lab were planning on moving there with him (some at least) and then he dropped the bomb about the Pfizer move. Word on the street is that they have been courting him for a long time, and perhaps now, the offer was sweet enough.

    It will be interesting to see how he does….he does very interesting work, but he is a cell biologist at heart. how will that work when studying these complicated mental disorders? Time will tell!

  3. I was surprised and not so surprised by this. Surprised because he’s still very young and I guess has only been independent for ~10 years (maybe I’m wrong about this), i.e. he still could contributed an awful lot in an academic setting. Not so surprised because he’s one of a string of successful US scientists who’ve jumped ship. Marc Tessier-Levigne, Morgan Sheng, Ira Mellman etc.
    I wonder why they do it – I don’t buy all that schtick about industry being exciting/new challenge etc. He was saying similar things about Florida back in February when it looked like he was going there. Nah. It must be the money, surely? Going to Pfizer he’s not going to be continuing his academic setup in the same way. If he had gone to Genentech then maybe. So it just must be too tempting an offer to turn down. Good luck to him and all that, but it’s academia’s loss isn’t it?

  4. Well, ’tis not a one-way street. Marc Tessier-Lavigne did something similar a while back, and his upcoming career move back to academia was recently announced – http://newswire.rockefeller.edu/?page=engine&id=1094

  5. Hi, is That about me, i need to know this personal developing thing
    Very important

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