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.

BiTE® Plat­form and the Evo­lu­tion To­ward Off-The-Shelf Im­muno-On­col­o­gy Ap­proach­es

Despite rapid advances in the field of immuno-oncology that have transformed the cancer treatment landscape, many cancer patients are still left behind.1,2 Not every person has access to innovative therapies designed specifically to treat his or her disease. Many currently available immuno-oncology-based approaches and chemotherapies have brought long-term benefits to some patients — but many patients still need other therapeutic options.3

Pfiz­er’s Doug Gior­dano has $500M — and some ad­vice — to of­fer a cer­tain breed of 'break­through' biotech

So let’s say you’re running a cutting-edge, clinical-stage biotech, probably public, but not necessarily so, which could see some big advantages teaming up with some marquee researchers, picking up say $50 million to $75 million dollars in a non-threatening minority equity investment that could take you to the next level.

Doug Giordano might have some thoughts on how that could work out.

The SVP of business development at the pharma giant has helped forge a new fund called the Pfizer Breakthrough Growth Initiative. And he has $500 million of Pfizer’s money to put behind 7 to 10 — or so — biotech stocks that fit that general description.

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Ken Frazier, AP Images

Why Mer­ck wait­ed, and what they now bring to the Covid-19 fight

Nicholas Kartsonis had been running clinical infectious disease research at Merck for almost 2 years when, in mid-January, he got a new assignment: searching the pharma giant’s vast libraries for something that could treat the novel coronavirus.

The outbreak was barely two weeks old when Kartsonis and a few dozen others got to work, first in small teams and then in a larger task force that sucked in more and more parts of the sprawling company as Covid-19 infected more and more of the globe. By late February, the group began formally searching for vaccine and antiviral candidates to license. Still, while other companies jumped out to announce their programs and, eventually and sometimes controversially, early glimpses at human data, Merck remained silent. They made only a brief announcement about a data collection partnership in April and mentioned vaguely a vaccine and antiviral search in their April 28 earnings call.

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Gilead re­leas­es an­oth­er round of murky remde­sivir re­sults

A month after the NIH declared the first trial on remdesivir in Covid-19 a success, Gilead is out with new results on their antiviral. But although the study met one of its primary endpoints, the data are likely to only add to a growing debate over how effective the drug actually is.

In a Phase III trial, patients given a 5-day dose of remdesivir were 65% more likely to show “clinical improvement” compared to an arm given standard-of-care. The trial, though, gave little indication for whether the drug had an impact on key endpoints such as survival or time-to-recovery. And in a surprising twist, a 10-day dosing arm of remdesivir didn’t lead to a statistically significant improvement over standard of care.

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Len Schleifer (left) and George Yancopoulos, Regeneron (Vimeo)

Eyes on he­mo­phil­ia prize, Re­gen­eron adds a $100M wa­ger on joint de­vel­op­ment cam­paign with In­tel­lia

When George Yancopoulos first signed up Intellia to be its CRISPR/Cas9 partner on gene editing projects 4 years ago, the upstart smartly ramped up its IPO at the same time. Today, Regeneron $REGN is coming back in, adding $100 million in an upfront fee and equity to significantly boot up a whole roster of new development projects.

And they’re highlighting some clinical hemophilia research plans in the process.

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Mark Genovese (Stanford via Twitter)

Gilead woos fil­go­tinib clin­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tor from Stan­ford to lead the charge on NASH, in­flam­ma­to­ry dis­eases

With an FDA OK for the use of filgotinib in rheumatoid arthritis expected to drop any day now, Gilead has recruited a new leader from academia to lead its foray into inflammatory diseases.

Mark Genovese — a longtime Stanford professor and most recently the clinical chief in the division of immunology and rheumatology — was the principal investigator in FINCH 2, one of three studies that supported Gilead’s NDA filing. In his new role as SVP, inflammation, he will oversee the clinical development of the entire portfolio.

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Bris­tol My­ers Squib­b's just-launched MS drug Zeposia makes the cut in key ul­cer­a­tive col­i­tis tri­al

In March, Zeposia became the third oral S1P modulator to secure US approval for multiple sclerosis. Now, the drug has succeeded in a key ulcerative colitis study.

The immunomodulator, akin to others in its class, controls lymphocyte trafficking by limiting the white blood cells to the lymphatic system, in the lymph nodes, and thwarting their ability to jam up lymph nodes — precluding their ability to penetrate the bloodstream and the central nervous system.

Stephen Isaacs, Aduro president and CEO (Aduro)

Once a high fly­er, a stag­ger­ing Aduro is auc­tion­ing off most of the pipeline as CEO Stephen Isaacs hands off the shell to new own­ers

After a drumbeat of failure, setbacks and reorganizations over the last few years, Aduro CEO Stephen Isaacs is handing over his largely gutted-out shell of a public company to another biotech company and putting up some questionable assets in a going-out-of-business sale.

Isaacs —who forged a string of high-profile Big Pharma deals along the way — has wrapped a 13-year run at the biotech with one program for kidney disease going to the new owners at Chinook Therapeutics. A host of once-heralded assets like their STING agonist program partnered with Novartis (which dumped their work on ADU-S100 after looking over weak clinical results), the Lilly-allied cGAS-STING inhibitor program and the anti-CD27 program out-licensed to Merck will all be posted for auction under a strategic review process.

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Hill­house re­casts spot­light on Chi­na's biotech scene with $160M round for Shang­hai-based an­ti­body mak­er

Almost two years after first buying into Genor Biopharma’s pipeline of cancer and autoimmune therapies, Hillhouse Capital has led a $160 million cash injection to push the late-stage assets over the finish line while continuing to fund both internal R&D and dealmaking.

The Series B has landed right around the time Genor would have listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange, according to plans reported by Bloomberg late last year. Insiders had said that the company was looking to raise about $200 million.

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