With the establishment of a visiting professorship, Yale and Pfizer are forging a relationship between University research and the drug industry.

Pfizer Global Research and Development awarded a visiting professorship to Nita Maihle, a professor in the Yale School of Medicine in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, launching a program intended to enhance interaction between the School of Medicine and the pharmaceutical company. Maihle’s position begins the partnership between Pfizer and Yale, bridging the gap between academia and industry and allowing these entities to better understand one another.

“Pfizer and Yale have developed a fantastic relationship,” Medical School Dean Robert Alpern said. “We each bring a different set of skills and talents to the table.”

Maihle said she will spend 12 weeks collaboratively researching with Pfizer in Groton/New London Labs, improving Yale faculty’s understanding of the drug discovery process. This joint effort seeks to improve Yale students’ education about career opportunities in the pharmaceutical industry.

Karen Houseknecht, a Pfizer researcher and president of the Women’s Leadership Network, said the professorship gives educators first-hand experience with the challenges of the pharmaceutical industry, which in turn allows students to be more informed.

“We’re hoping to better collaborate scientifically,” Houseknecht said. “Faculty can help counsel their students on the pharmaceutical industry and what it’s like to work and do science in a big company like Pfizer.”

She said Pfizer chose Maihle, a recent chairperson of the Women in Cancer Research Council of the American Association for Cancer Research, for her eminence as a scientist and devotion to her breast and ovarian cancer research. Pfizer also has interest in increasing the role of women in science, Houseknecht said.

Following the loss of her father to cancer in the 1970s, Maihle said she has dedicated herself to cancer research and focused her career on developing a better understanding of what causes the disease. Over the past two decades, Maihle and her colleagues have differentiated the signals that cause cancerous cells growth from those that elicit normal cell growth.

Pfizer is currently working to develop cancer treatment agents, and Maihle, having been on the research side of medicine, said the professorship is a unique opportunity to observe the industry side of medicine.

“People in academia need to partner with people in industry in order to bring their discoveries into the clinic,” Maihle said.

In addition to acting as a liaison for the University and Pfizer, Maihle will continue her research developing highly sensitive biochemical assays, which may eventually be useful in early detection of cancer cells. She said this new technology will allow physicians to use blood tests to identify a tumor before symptoms appear.

Plans are already underway between Pfizer and Merle Waxman, the associate dean of academic development at the School of Medicine, to name a candidate for next year’s visiting professorship.