MIT, Pfizer break ground on 610 Main

Speakers laud center’s significance

Monday morning, MIT and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer celebrated the official groundbreaking of a new research center right next to campus. MIT President Susan J. Hockfield opened the ceremony, whose speakers included Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Pfizer President of Worldwide Research and Development Mikael Dolsten. With a mighty heave — literally — they and other participants shoveled dirt and took the first step toward what Hockfield described as “the best way to support innovation in Cambridge.”

Located at 610 Main St. — an MIT-owned property — Pfizer will be close enough to MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences complex that researchers can walk between both “without wearing a jacket in winter,” said Rod McKenzie, head of Pfizer PharmaTherapeutics R&D. “It wasn’t enough to have a Cambridge zip code; we wanted to be right here.”

In September, Pfizer announced it had signed a 10-year lease with MIT for 180,000 square feet of space in a building to be constructed at 610 Main St. The project is managed by the MIT Investment Management Company.

One of the recurring themes at the ceremony was the idea of research collaboration. The company deliberately chose to move to Cambridge to foster relationships and discussion between MIT’s scientists and their own drug delivery researchers, Dolsten said. Pfizer will be working directory with some MIT groups and researchers from the Picower Institute for Learning and Memeory, McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and the Broad Institute.

Pfizer’s presence near the MIT campus will help break down the barrier between research in academia and engineering in industry, speakers said. “The center of why we’re here is to reshape the ecosystem of innovation,” said Dolsten.

Pfizer’s new center is the latest addition to the Kendall Square-area cluster of biotechnology firms. Kendall Square already houses over 150 biotechnology and information firms including biotech giants Biogen Idec, Genzyme, and Novartis. Governor Patrick remarked that this is part of an upward trend for Cambridge; in a bad economy, the city’s unemployment is already going down, and Massachusetts has moved to sixth place in CNBC’s rankings of top states for business.

By placing emphasis on companies like Pfizer, Cambridge will utilize what Governor Patrick calls “Cambridge’s best natural resource” — brainpower. “We are inventing and shaping our own future, and not waiting for chance,” he said.

The new Pfizer center in Cambridge will house the company’s Cardiovascular, Metabolic and Endocrine Diseases and Neuroscience research units. In February, Pfizer announced that it would be narrowing its research efforts to concentrate more heavily on these specialties.

Pfizer has high hopes for a future in biomedical sciences. According to Dolsten, the company’s ideal achievement would be a complete reference listing of links between genes and diseases — a sort of phonebook or yellow pages of biomedicine. Dolsten’s goal is an ambitious one, but he says the rate at which technology has advanced is extraordinary — just a decade ago, sequencing the human genome required a billion dollars and ten years; today, it can be done for $4,000 in a week.

“Imagine what our world will look like in 2021 if technology advances at the same rate,” he added.

McKenzie acknowledged that biomedical research is a difficult field. “For when the going gets tough, we have a quote [that we] put up around the laboratories: ‘Remember, the patient is waiting for us.’”

Allen Krieger ’62, a fellow of the American Physical Society, made the closing remarks at the ceremony. As someone who has been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s, he urged the importance of Pfizer’s mission. “If there’s anything I can do to keep the [Alzheimer’s] wolf away, I want to do it,” he said.

Pfizer predicts they will move into the new building when it is completed by the end of 2013.