The Twitterverse was buzzing with activity late last week about a possible shakeup at Merck as Roger Perlmutter takes control as its new head of R&D. As many of you may know, Perlmutter used to work at Merck but left to become Amgen’s Executive VP of R&D when Peter Kim, the now former Head of Merck’s R&D, was hired several years
Kim’s tenure at Merck was rife with missteps, misdirection and drug approval failures. So, when Amgen replaced its CEO and Merck fired Kim, Perlmutter saw an opportunity to return to the fold with Merck now under the tutelage of CEO Ken Frazier (the man who engineered the company’s Vioxx legal strategy).
Fierce Biotech substantiated the Twitter rumors that a major shakeup may be underway at Merck. According to an article published early on Friday, a Merck spokesperson confirmed that Perlmutter is indeed shaking things up and reorganizing Merck’s R&D infrastructure.
The spokesperson said
“I can confirm that some members of management, but not all Franchise leadership, are leaving the company but are working to ensure a smooth transition.”
The departure of several senior leaders was later confirmed by the Wall Street Journal. While not confirmed, rumors suggested that Rupert Vessey will lead Merck’s Discovery and Early Development programs.
While Merck spends close to $8 billion annually on R&D, its late stage development pipeline is thin and Perlmutter was hired to strengthen it. Changes at the top usually mean that other changes will take place among the rank and file. That said, stay tuned for possible additional layoffs among Merck R&D personnel.
Ask any pharmaceutical industry pundits about the “next big thing” in life sciences R&D and most will invariably say neuroscience indications like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson Disease and the like. Curiously, despite these prognostications, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) today announced that it would lay off 50 employees involved in neuroscience R &D.
The affected workers, all of whom are scientists working on late stage clinical development at various sites throughout the US, were first notified about the layoff on Valentine’s Day (nice gift). Interestingly, a GSK spokesperson was quick to point out that other neuroscience employees including marketing and sales would not be affected by the layoffs. Hm mm, I always thought you needed scientists to discover the drugs that will ultimately be marketed and sold by a company? In any event, no GSK operations outside of the US were affected by this round of layoffs.
The reason why the layoffs only affected clinical scientists is because GSK scaled back its investment into early stage research. And, according to the GSK spokesperson this means that “there’s not as much coming through that needs later stage clinical trials.” Also, last year, after GSK released fiscal 2009 results, the company announced it would “cease discovery research in selected neuroscience areas, including depression and pain.” I guess most of the layed off scientists worked on depression and pain (two emotions that layed off workers frequently suffer).
In case you haven’t noticed (because you spend too much time in the lab and on Facebook), most major pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have slashed their investments into new drug discovery and development. This means that the demand for R&D scientists (in the US anyway) is much lower than ever before. Consequently, as I have stated numerous times in the past, now may be the time for graduate students and postdocs considering industrial R&D careers to re-evaluate their plans (unless R&D careers in emerging markets like Brazil, Russia, India and China are attractive).