We live in an age of instant electronic communication, but in some arenas there’s no substitute for face-to-face human interaction. That’s certainly the case in science, say the principals in a new research alliance between the medical school and Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc. (BIPI), the Ridgefield, Conn.-based division of the global German pharmaceutical firm.

Boehringer Ingelheim, a privately held business, is one of the world’s top 15 drug companies. BIPI’s portfolio of drugs is weighted toward treatments for cardiovascular, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases such as hypertension, asthma and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), so the expertise of School of Medicine scientists in the Section of Immunobiology and the Interdepartmental Program in Vascular Biology and Transplantation would be reason enough for BIPI’s drug discovery team to explore partnerships with Yale.

But Mikael Dolsten, M.D., Ph.D., Executive Vice President, Pharma Research, at Boehringer Ingelheim’s headquarters in Ingelheim, Germany, says that the unusually close scientific cooperation afforded by Yale’s proximity to Ridgefield sealed the deal.

“As a global company, we need to be successful in reaching out to networks on an international basis, but innovation is also happening to a very large extent in clusters,” Dolsten says. “The cluster is the more ‘vertical’ innovation where you can go in depth into biological processes. And Yale, with its excellence in immunology and cardiovascular research, offers a real opportunity for mutual benefit.”

In recent years there has been a growing realization that cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory processes and immune disorders are tightly linked, and Uwe Schoenbeck, Ph.D., vice president for cardiovascular disease research at BIPI, says that research may reveal many other new disease relationships.

“If you drive your drug discovery process in a very limited fashion toward the compound you’re looking for, you’re lacking on what’s left and right of the path,” Schoenbeck says. “It’s always very important to see what other pathways are affected. That’s something we can explore in this collaboration, where we have the expertise on the Yale side about the broad spectrum of pathways involved.”

In the alliance, which was formalized last July, BIPI will provide funds of approximately $1 million per year toward research projects at Yale, five of which are already under way.

Like Dolsten, Carolyn W. Slayman, Ph.D., the medical school’s deputy dean for academic and scientific affairs, believes that both parties stand to gain by the new partnership. “BIPI will draw upon Yale’s superb research strengths in immunology, inflammation and cardiovascular biology,” Slayman says, “while Yale investigators will have access to expertise and research materials from one of world’s most outstanding pharmaceutical companies.”

BIPI has been a loyal ally of Yale’s Science, Technology and Research Scholars (STARS) program, which provides academic support and research opportunities to minorities, women and physically challenged undergraduates majoring in the natural sciences or engineering. “The most important resource we have is people,” Paul Anderson, Ph.D., senior vice president for research at BIPI, says of STARS. “It’s very important for us to support students in the biological and physical sciences, because they’re the lifeblood of our future research.”

Dolsten is pleased with the present progress of the alliance. “The interaction with Yale has been very open and trustful and has already had a quick jump-start,” he says. “Yale has a very positive spirit on sharing of information and building on partnership, which are the hallmarks of a successful organization. From my experience with many universities, I’m very impressed.”

Schoenbeck agrees. “If you don’t have the communication, things will thin out over time and disappear,” he says. “If you keep your communication going—and that’s one of the strengths we have with the people involved in this alliance—you’ll have a long run.”