Pfizer’s CNS exit takes the form of a biotech spinout


Pfizer’s plans to duck out of central nervous system R&D have come to fruition, with the creation of spinout biotech Cerevel Therapeutics.

The new Boston area company is taking over a sizeable chunk of the pharma giant’s neurosciences pipeline, and starts life with $350 million in startup funding provided by Bain Capital.

Spinning out pipeline assets into new companies is a fairly well-established strategy among larger pharma groups, but the latest deal from Pfizer is somewhat unusual in that it has opted to keep a 25% stake in the new company, and so retain an interest in the 10 or so development programmes it is transferring to the new venture.

Pfizer executives Doug Giordano, senior vice president of worldwide business development, and Morris Birnbaum, senior vice president and chief scientific officer of internal medicine, are joining Cerevel’s board alongside Bain Capital managing directors Adam Koppel and Chris Gordon.

The most advanced assets in the portfolio are a D1 partial agonist expected to start phase III testing next year in Parkinson's disease, and a phase II ready selective GABA 2/3 agonist which will initially be studied for epilepsy.

Following after is a drug for a psychosis indication and several preclinical projects targeting Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, epilepsy, schizophrenia, addiction and neuroinflammation, but conspicuous by its absence is Pfizer’s phase I BACE inhibitor for Alzheimer’s, which remains sidelined in light of numerous failures among other drugs in the class.

Last year, Pfizer took a similar tack when it transferred rights to a set of rare disease therapies to startup SpringWorks, a deal that was also backed in part by Bain Capital, and it has also agreed a number of smaller carve-outs, for example handing over its CAR-T assets to Allogene and transferring individual drugs to Biogen, Puma Biotech, Esperion, and others.

Pfizer said in a statement that it felt “placing this set of neuroscience assets…in a company with dedicated focus and expertise in CNS was the optimal next step.”

In January, Pfizer said it was planning to axe almost its entire neuroscience R&D programmes with around 300 job losses, but decided to retain a couple of late-stage projects including pain drug tanezumab and fibromyalgia therapy Lyrica (pregabalin). However, Cerevel has said it won’t be recruiting more than a handful of Pfizer scientists.

Along with the Cerevel spinout, Pfizer has also earmarked a quarter of its $600 million venture fund to investments in early-stage neuroscience companies.

The CNS category has proven so challenging in the past that many larger companies joined Pfizer in getting out of neuroscience drug development, including AstraZeneca, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline.

As a result, there were only 12 CNS therapeutics approved in the 2012-2016 period, down from 19 in the previous five years, according to Datamonitor, which notes that for comparison 50 cancer drugs were approved in 2012-2016.