"There was an opportunity to try to think differently about the relationship between industry and academia," he said. "Typically, industry partnerships had been at arms-length, and often at great distances, where you would try to fit a (university) research project in with your (full-time) job you had with the company."
The new collaborations allow scientists to spend more time on research and less on paperwork, Bluestone added.
"With the idea that we do this together, we don't have to worry about intellectual property and tech transfer and all that really early on," he said. "We can build in milestones and timelines that allow us to really make decisions along the way. ... It's really a different model."
Those arguments don't mollify Angell, who is now a senior lecturer at Harvard Medical School's Division of Medical Ethics.
Academic medical centers and teaching hospitals "have particular missions that justify their tax-exempt status," Angell said. "They're supposed to educate the next generation of doctors. They're supposed to be doing cutting-edge research, not just research on drugs ... and they're supposed to be taking care of the sickest and neediest people in society."
That public-service mission is "quite different from the mission of investor-owned companies. They're supposed to maximize profits."
In addition to its efforts in St. Louis and San Francisco, Pfizer has entered into similar research partnerships with the University of California at San Diego, Boston University, Harvard, Tufts, the University of Massachusetts and seven academic medical centers in New York City.
Neither Pfizer's competitors nor the university partners are standing idle.
Harvard also has a research deal with French manufacturer Sanofi-Aventis and Belgian drug maker UCB. The Yale School of Medicine has a multi-year cancer research collaboration with Gilead Sciences Inc., a California company that sells HIV treatments such as Atripla and Truvada. And the University of Pennsylvania has an umbrella agreement with Astra Zeneca PLC, whose U.S. headquarters are just down the road in Delaware.
Bluestone, a former Pfizer advisory board member, is aware of both the promise and the pitfalls of these partnerships. He called the truncated St. Louis effort "a great project" that fell victim to a shift in corporate priorities after Pfizer's 2009 purchase of rival Wyeth for $68 billion.
"We've gone into this thing with our eyes wide open," he said. "Some [experiments] may work, some may not. Some may disappear next year."
Pfizer Center for Therapeutic Innovation: http://www.pfizer.com/research/rd_works/centers_for_therapeutic_innovation.jsp
University of California San Francisco CTI: http://officeofresearch.ucsf.edu/ITA/CTI