Mer­ck trig­gers a new round of lay­offs in R&D re­or­ga­ni­za­tion, push­ing more jobs in­to Cam­bridge, San Fran­cis­co

Mer­ck is con­firm­ing that it’s trig­gered a new round of lay­offs in its R&D group as it con­cen­trates and ex­pands its drug re­search work in two ma­jor biotech hubs, Cam­bridge, MA and San Fran­cis­co. The re­struc­tur­ing in­cludes adding a new lab in Cam­bridge, which will fo­cus on the fast-grow­ing mi­cro­bio­me field.

A spokesper­son for Mer­ck tells me:

“With­in Mer­ck Re­search Lab­o­ra­to­ries, we are mak­ing some or­ga­ni­za­tion­al changes with­in our dis­cov­ery, pre-clin­i­cal and ear­ly de­vel­op­ment area to en­able ear­li­er ac­cess to emerg­ing ex­ter­nal sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy to aug­ment our lead­ing dis­cov­ery and de­vel­op­ment ca­pa­bil­i­ties. These changes in­clude in­creas­ing our in­vest­ment in ex­plorato­ry bi­ol­o­gy in ar­eas where bio­med­ical re­search is con­verg­ing, specif­i­cal­ly in Cam­bridge, Mass. and the San Fran­cis­co Bay area, Calif.  Un­for­tu­nate­ly, these changes will re­sult in work­force re­duc­tions at our Ke­nil­worth and Rah­way, N.J. sites and our North Wales, Pa. screen­ing fa­cil­i­ty as we shift re­sources and per­son­nel.

“Ad­di­tion­al­ly, here’s some back­ground on Cam­bridge and the San Fran­cis­co Bay area sites:

“We are ex­pand­ing MRL’s ear­ly dis­cov­ery re­search ca­pa­bil­i­ties by in­vest­ing in new lab­o­ra­to­ries at our Cam­bridge, Mass. site. Re­search will fo­cus on emerg­ing sci­ence, ag­nos­tic of ther­a­peu­tic area. Ini­tial ex­plorato­ry re­search will in­clude host-pathogen in­ter­ac­tions and the role of the mi­cro­bio­me in dis­ease process­es. The site is sched­uled to open in late 2016.”

The spokesper­son de­clined to spec­i­fy ex­act­ly how many jobs are be­ing cut. “We’re not pro­vid­ing a break­down of the changes or spe­cif­ic num­bers at this time, as it will in­clude sep­a­ra­tions and moves,” she not­ed.

Mer­ck’s move fol­lows a ma­jor trend in bio­phar­ma R&D, as the biggest com­pa­nies con­cen­trate more and more of their work in the big hubs. And vir­tu­al­ly all of the ma­jor play­ers have down­sized at one time or an­oth­er.

Close to three years ago, Mer­ck trig­gered a ma­jor re­or­ga­ni­za­tion in its R&D ranks, as the then new R&D chief Roger Perl­mut­ter set in mo­tion a plan that in­volved 8,500 lay­offs, all of which were piled on a re­struc­tur­ing ef­fort that was an­nounced ear­li­er.

Those lay­offs fol­lowed a years-long gap in sig­nif­i­cant new drug ap­provals and a string of clin­i­cal set­backs. Since then, though, Mer­ck land­ed a land­mark ap­proval of Keytru­da, now the num­ber two check­point in­hibitor on the block­buster can­cer mar­ket, along with an OK ear­ly this year for its hep C com­bo, Zepati­er, which is be­ing sold in a ri­val-in­fest­ed field.

Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline, a close­ly fol­lowed blog that has fre­quent­ly been a leader in flag­ging scut­tle­butt about R&D re­or­ga­ni­za­tions, was the first to spot­light ru­mors of a move. He re­port­ed:

The North Wales, PA site is be­ing closed (the screen­ing op­er­a­tions there are mov­ing to Ke­nil­worth). New Jer­sey dis­cov­ery chem­istry (Ke­nil­worth and Rah­way) is be­ing cut by 20%, and Rah­way’s med-chem is en­tire­ly mov­ing to Ke­nil­worth over the next few months. Dis­ease area bi­ol­o­gy in Ke­nil­worth is shut­ting down (not sure what the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of that one might be). I’m told that some peo­ple will be of­fered a chance to move to the Boston or Bay area sites, and all of these de­ci­sions will be made by the end of Sep­tem­ber. And ap­par­ent­ly they’ve al­so told every­one that more changes will be com­ing in the next few weeks, so I’m sure that’s calmed every­thing down as well.

Brian Kaspar. AveXis via Twitter

AveX­is sci­en­tif­ic founder fires back at No­var­tis CEO Vas Narasimhan, 'cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly de­nies any wrong­do­ing'

Brian Kaspar’s head was among the first to roll at Novartis after company execs became aware of the fact that manipulated data had been included in its application for Zolgensma, now the world’s most expensive therapy.

But in his first public response, the scientific founder at AveXis — acquired by Novartis for $8.7 billion — is firing back. And he says that not only was he not involved in any wrongdoing, he’s ready to defend his name as needed.

I reached out to Brian Kaspar after Novartis put out word that he and his brother Allen had been axed in mid-May, two months after the company became aware of the allegations related to manipulated data. His response came back through his attorneys.

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An em­bold­ened As­traZeneca splurges $95M on a pri­or­i­ty re­view vouch­er. Where do they need the FDA to hus­tle up?

AstraZeneca is in a hurry.

We learned this morning that the pharma giant — not known as a big spender, until recently — forked over $95 million to get its hands on a priority review voucher from Sobi, otherwise known as Swedish Orphan Biovitrum.

That marks another step down on price for a PRV, which allows the holder to slash 4 months off of any FDA review time.

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Martin Shkreli [via Getty]

Pris­on­er #87850-053 does not get to add drug de­vel­op­er to his list of cred­its

Just days after Retrophin shed its last ties to founder Martin Shkreli, the biotech is reporting that the lead drug he co-invented flopped in a pivotal trial. Fosmetpantotenate flunked both the primary and key secondary endpoints in a placebo-controlled trial for a rare disease called pantothenate kinase-associated neurodegeneration, or PKAN.

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We­bi­nar: Re­al World End­points — the brave new world com­ing in build­ing fran­chise ther­a­pies

Several biopharma companies have been working on expanding drug labels through the use of real world endpoints, combing through the data to find evidence of a drug’s efficacy for particular indications. But we’ve just begun. Real World Evidence is becoming an important part of every clinical development plan, in the soup-through-nuts approach used in building franchises.

I’ve recruited a panel of 3 top experts in the field — the first in a series of premium webinars — to look at the practical realities governing what can be done today, and where this is headed over the next few years, at the prodding of the FDA.

ZHEN SU — Mer­ck Serono’s Se­nior Vice Pres­i­dent and Glob­al Head of On­col­o­gy
EL­LIOTT LEVY — Am­gen’s Se­nior Vice Pres­i­dent of Glob­al De­vel­op­ment
CHRIS BOSHOFF — Pfiz­er On­col­o­gy’s Chief De­vel­op­ment Of­fi­cer

A premium subscription to Endpoints News is required to attend this webinar. Please upgrade to either an Insider or Enterprise plan for access. Already have Endpoints Premium? Please sign-in below. You can contact our Subscriptions team at help@endpointsnews.com with any issues.

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Ver­sant-backed Chi­nook gets a $65M launch round for its dis­cov­ery quest in a resur­gent kid­ney field

Versant is once again stepping off the beaten track in biotech to see if they can blaze a trail of their own in a field that has looked too thorny to many investors for years.

The venture group and their partners at Apple Tree are bringing their latest creation out of stealth mode today. Born in Versant’s Inception Sciences’ Chinook Therapeutics is betting that its preclinical take on kidney disease can get an early lead among the companies starting up in the field.

Sir An­drew Dil­lon, NICE's first — and on­ly — chief ex­ec­u­tive to step down next year

Using a laptop borrowed from his former employer, South London’s St George’s Hospital, Sir Andrew Dillon set about establishing NICE — launched by the then health secretary Frank Dobson — in 1999.  On Thursday, the UK cost-effectiveness watchdog said its first and only chief executive — Dillon — is stepping down in March 2020.

Back in the day, decisions about which drugs and interventions were funded by the National Health Service (NHS) were made at the local level, but this ‘postcode prescribing’ system was fraught with skewed healthcare deployment making the structure unsustainable. A national system was deemed necessary — and NICE was formed to bridge that gap.

Eight weeks be­tween each HIV treat­ment? GSK notch­es PhI­II win as it chas­es OK for long-act­ing reg­i­men

GSK has cleared another test in its grand plan to topple Gilead’s HIV dominance by offering alternative treatments that consist of fewer drugs and last longer. A year after scoring positive Phase III data on a four-week course of cabotegravir and rilpivirine, its ViiV subsidiary now says that an eight-week regimen seem to work just as well.

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Finch grabs a $53M round de­signed to take their ‘break­through’ mi­cro­bio­me treat­ment through a po­ten­tial­ly piv­otal tri­al

With a breakthrough designation in one hand and a fresh $53 million in venture backing in the other, Somerville, MA-based Finch Therapeutics is taking a shot at a one-trial pathway to a possible FDA OK for their new treatment for preventing recurrent C. difficile infections.

The funding brings their total raise for the microbiome company to $130 million, CEO Mark Smith tells me — enough money to pave a runway past the FDA approval they’ve sketched into the most optimistic version for their near-term future. 

Bob Smith, Pfizer

Pfiz­er is mak­ing a $500M state­ment to­day: Here’s how you be­come a lead play­er in the boom­ing gene ther­a­py sec­tor

Three years ago, Pfizer anted up $150 million in cash to buy Bamboo Therapeutics in Chapel Hill, NC as it cautiously stuck a toe in the small gene therapy pool of research and development.

Company execs followed up a year later with a $100 million expansion of the manufacturing operations they picked up in that deal for the UNC spinout, which came with $495 million in milestones.

And now they’re really going for it.

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