Interview: Pfizer vaccine unit eyes adults, infectious disease

Emilio Emini, Vaccines Chief, WyethWhen Pfizer was searching for a major acquisition in 2009, it saw a lot it liked in Wyeth--including an established vaccine group that could jump-start its own efforts in that area. Pfizer had a nascent vaccine group was doing research but it didn't have any products on the market. After the buy, the world's largest drugmaker found itself with a pipeline of new vaccine candidates and another valuable asset: Dr. Emilio Emini (pictured), a noted vaccine researcher who spent 22 years at Merck doing HIV research and working on such blockbusters products as Zostavax, RotaTeq and Gardasil. After retiring from the company in 2004 to pursue nonprofit work, he joined Wyeth a year later to take charge of the company's vaccine research.

When Pfizer and Wyeth joined, Emini found himself at the head of the new vaccine division. The combined group now has "hundreds" of employees, and in excess of $3.6 billion in annual sales, roughly $2.4 billion of which comes from Prevnar-13. But the world's largest drugmaker has even bigger plans for its vaccine division.

"The primary focus right now is on bacterial diseases," Dr. Emini told FierceVaccines in an interview. "There are a large number of serious bacterial diseases, like strep and staph, that kill a lot of people." And antibiotic resistance only complicates matters. "Prevnar proved that if you go into the right population with the right vaccine, you will drive the infection out of that population." The company is hoping to repeat that success with its early-stage shot for Staphylococcus aureus, the leading cause of fatal disease in healthcare settings. The initial focus will be treating adults who are undergoing elective surgery, but Pfizer has its eyes on a big prize when it comes to vaccines in older adults.

"For years the focus of vaccines has been in pediatrics, then adolescence," explains Dr. Emini. "Now we can also envision another group of vaccines for adults--such as the herpes zoster vaccine for shingles, the pneumococcal vaccine, a whole series of vaccines for the prevention of infection in older adults." Theoretically, vaccines for the prevention of staph and other infections could be administered to all adults, with the expectation that most people undergo surgery at some point in their lives. Building up a patient's immune system to resist staph infections could significantly reduce the spread of the disease in a hospital setting. Pfizer has already filed for use of Prevnar-13 in adults--a market it estimates could peak at $1.5 billion in annual sales--and continues to conduct large efficacy studies of the treatment in that population.

Pfizer's vaccine pipeline also features a late-stage meningococcal serogroup B vaccine candidate. The other four serogroups of the disease are treated by existing meningitis shots, but no effective vaccine is available for serogroup B. The developer is gearing up to conduct Phase III trials of the product.

Pfizer also has a therapeutic vaccine in Phase II trials. Its Alzheimer's therapy elicits an antibody response that could prevent amyloid beta, a suspected culprit in the development of the disease, from depositing in the brain. "Theoretically, if one can eliminate Aβ, one could have an impact on disease progression," explains Dr. Emini. Pfizer is in the process of conducting a large, long Phase II trial of the vaccine.

The company, of course, has programs that haven't been publicly discussed yet. But Dr. Emini notes that another target for many vaccine developers is infectious diseases in emerging markets, such as China, India and Brazil. Vaccines targeting diseases that plague populations in emerging market countries--like adenovirus type 71 in China, Chagas disease in Brazil and Dengue fever--are a major focus for many developers.

"I think it's fair to say that the combined Pfizer/Wyeth vaccine division is greater than the sum of its parts. We took elements of both units to build a really first-class R&D operation," adds Emini. "Our goal is to move beyond being the Prevenar/Prevnar-13 company. We worked hard to build a vaccine research endeavor that puts us in the forefront of the field. Our objective is to become number one vaccine company in the world."