Pfizer CEO Says Alzheimer’s Advance Would Be Proudest Legacy

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Pfizer Inc.’s (PFE) research efforts target a range of diseases from asthma to schizophrenia, and it’s about to land dozens more experimental drugs by acquiring Wyeth (WYE).

But when Pfizer Chief Executive Jeffrey Kindler thinks ahead many years, the area of research he would be most proud of — if it yields an important treatment advance — is Alzheimer’s disease, the fatal, memory-robbing brain condition that mainly strikes the elderly.

"I think this is a horrible, devastating disease, as anybody who has had a relative experience it knows," Kindler said in a wide-ranging interview with Dow Jones Newswires in his office in Pfizer’s New York headquarters Wednesday.

"It’s an area where the science is, frankly, in a relatively early stage, which is both daunting and exciting," said Kindler, who is 53 years old and has been Pfizer’s CEO since 2006. "But it’s one in which we’ve committed a significant amount of resources to try to find, if not a cure, at least a [better] treatment."

It could be a long haul, and Kindler knows it. Soon after joining Pfizer as general counsel in 2002, he met a company researcher around his age, who had devoted his career to Alzheimer’s work. The researcher told Kindler there might not be a cure for Alzheimer’s in their lifetimes, but there could be significant advances, and someday there would be a cure.

Kindler compared such scientists to laborers who worked on great cathedrals for years but didn’t live to see the finished edifices.

On the prospects of advancing the treatment of Alzheimer’s, Kindler said, "I believe we have as good a chance of achieving that as anybody else does, and maybe better than many."

Pfizer already markets an Alzheimer’s drug called Aricept, but this and other current treatments typically only delay worsening of symptoms for up to a year. There’s no cure or drug that substantially halts or reverses the progress of the underlying disease.

Pfizer has given greater priority to Alzheimer’s research after deciding last year to exit early-stage research in certain areas like cardiovascular disease. The company has several experimental Alzheimer’s compounds in early- and mid-stage human testing.

Pfizer is poised to step up its Alzheimer’s research with its $68 billion cash-and-stock purchase of Wyeth, which has several compounds in human testing. The most advanced is bapineuzumab, which Wyeth is co-developing with Elan Corp. (ELN), and is in late-stage trials with more than 4,000 patients. If the studies are successful and the drug reaches the market, analysts think it has multibillion-dollar sales potential.

Several other drug makers are also pursuing new Alzheimer’s treatments, including Eli Lilly & Co. (LLY) and Merck & Co. (MRK).

Expanding Alzheimer’s research wasn’t the only reason Pfizer decided to buy Wyeth. Kindler said the deal, which is expected to close by the end of the year, would help make Pfizer a more diversified company, in both its product lineup and geographic reach.

The stock market hasn’t reacted so kindly to the deal, though. Pfizer shares, already approaching multiyear lows, plunged more than 30% in the weeks after the Jan. 26 merger announcement, hitting $11.62 on March 2. Investors were troubled by Pfizer’s plan to cut its dividend in half to free up cash, its weaker-than-expected 2009 earnings forecast, and the possibility the deal would encounter the same problems that have dogged drug mega-mergers in the past.

The stock has partly recovered, up about 16% since early March and trading recently around $13.50. Kindler said he has spoken to dozens of Pfizer shareholders, and most "fully support the strategic merits of the transaction" and think the price is right.

"Now, of course, it’s our obligation to execute," he said. "People want to see us achieve an effective integration of the companies and start executing against these plans, and that’s what we intend to do."

Pfizer plans to retain "a number of senior Wyeth leaders at various levels of the organization," Kindler said, but added it was too early to provide more details.

On other topics, Kindler said:

–"There’s a lot of logic" to Merck’s agreement to acquire Schering-Plough Corp. (SGP) for $41.1 billion, and he looks forward to competing against the merged entity.

–Biotechnology companies like Amgen Inc. (AMGN) and Biogen Idec Inc. (BIIB) are "admirable," and Pfizer considered "a lot of different possibilities" for acquisitions, but decided Wyeth would be the best fit.

–He froze his and other top Pfizer executives’ salaries and made other compensation changes in recognition of pain being felt by shareholders and employees

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