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Paul Levesque, President of Pfizer Canada talks with The Globe and Mail following his speech during a meeting of the Economic Club of Canada on Bay St., Toronto November 01, 2011. Photo by: Fernando Morales/The Globe and MailFernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail


Pfizer Inc., one of the world's biggest drug companies, is a huge spender on research and development. But with increasing pressure to get the most bang for the R&D buck, it is crucial that Canada present a strong case for performing some of that research here, says Paul Lévesque, the Quebecker who heads Pfizer Canada.

Why is it important for private companies like Pfizer to collaborate with universities on drug research?

We [the drug companies]are spending more dollars in research, and yet the number of new compounds that we are finding is low. When you face a situation like this, you tend to shut down your R&D facilities and consolidate, [then]reach out for additional expertise, wherever it is in the world. [We look for]places where the expertise is really top notch, and where you have a cluster of academia, biotech companies, and big pharmaceutical companies. The Boston area, Raleigh in North Carolina, Denmark and California have done it well. I want to make sure [Pfizer]partners with McGill and U of T and UBC because we've got great science. We just need to get our act together so we showcase it better.

Is there resistance from the academic community about collaborating with drug companies?

They know that Canada is falling behind when it comes to innovation [and]commercialization. [Research funding bodies]tell them to push their inventions all the way to commercialization, to create wealth for Canadians.

Partnerships will allow us to better understand the diseases up front, so that we can identify targets, and then [enter]the drug discovery phase faster and more efficiently.

Is there still room for pure research that doesn't have the goal of creating new drugs?

Absolutely. That will continue to be the main focus of academia. But 10 or 20 per cent [of research should focus on]commercialization.

What are the main strengths of Canada's research community?

Toronto has a very important angle on stem cell research, [and it is]very strong in genomics. Montreal is very strong on personalized medicine. [But]there is too much competition between Toronto and Montreal, and more collaboration is needed. We should work together, have projects together, and show what we are doing together to the rest of the world,

If we were to play [to our strengths] as opposed to competing with one another, when we go abroad and try to attract investments from big pharma [or from]any other companies, we would have a better story to tell.

Does your head office in New York have a hard time understanding the rivalry between Ontario and Quebec?

They are used to it, because [they've seen]the same rivalry in Europe, between Madrid and Barcelona, Milan and Rome. Many countries have these sort of things. But we do not want to be known for that. We want to be known for the expertise we have. We are making progress.

How do you sway the public feeling that brand name drug companies are making too much money, and generics are a better deal?

People have to understand that if you want innovation, you have to have investment. And you need to give a reward for that investment. The reward is the protection of intellectual property.

Where will we see dug breakthroughs in the coming years?

In lung disease, Alzheimer's disease, obesity and diabetes.

One reason we have a bit of a trough now [in new drug discovery]is that we are doing research in unchartered waters, in disease areas that we don't fundamentally understand. That's why we have to work with academia to better understand the diseases.

For example, we don't know enough about Alzheimer's. Until recently everyone was convinced that it would respond to cardiovascular medicine, because there is a vascular component to it. We used some heart drugs, but they don't work for Alzheimer's. We can't progress in a satisfactory manner until we better understand the disease.

Kidney cancer and lung cancer [are also]very difficult. But we will see leaps forward.

How long does it take to get a new breakthrough to market?

If today we had the beginning of a spark that could lead to a new medicine, We'd have a minimum of 10 years ahead of us, and we'd need a billion dollars. It is only big multinational companies that can do this.

Your company also promotes healthy living. Why do that?

Because we shouldn't only be known for treating sick people. We have a keen interest in making people healthy, and it starts by making people more intelligent about disease and what they should do to actually live well, for the longest period of time.

Does your own background in biochemistry help you do this job?

Absolutely. I would not feel comfortable [expressing]opinions on research, if I was not a biochemist.

I've got three teenagers and I am going to push them all to do science. Afterwards, if they want to do business or nutrition, they can do whatever they want. But having a degree in science ensures that you have that language and that level of comfort. It opens doors because you have mastered some fundamental concepts.



Title: President, Pfizer Canada Inc.

Personal: Born in Quebec City; 48 years old

Education: BSc in biochemistry from Laval University

Management diploma from McGill University

Career highlights: Joined Upjohn Canada in 1985

Moved to Pfizer Canada in 1992

Headed the marketing division for Pfizer in France from 2002 to 2007

Became president of Pfizer Canada in 2007