Boehringer axes small-molecule discovery ops as R&D focus shifts to immuno-oncology

A new immuno-oncology unit will be set up in Connecticut next year.

Boehringer Ingelheim is slashing its head count by about 244, with the bulk of the cutbacks affecting its small-molecule discovery operations in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

The German drugmaker says it has taken the "difficult decision" to focus small-molecule discovery functions—such as medicinal chemistry—at two sites in Biberach, Germany, and Vienna, Austria. That means that 120 researchers in Ridgefield are facing the chop, along with 60 other staff at the site, while another small-molecule facility in Milan, Italy, is also due to close. Meanwhile, Boehringer says it has also reduced the size of its U.S. sales force by around 64.

News of the shake-up comes just one year after Boehringer announced it was reducing its internal R&D spend in the coming years to free up resources to in-license pipeline candidates, trimming its investment from €2.7 billion a year to around €2.5 billion.

There is some movement in the other direction jobs-wise, however, as the company says it intends to set up a new immuno-oncology research unit at the Ridgefield site next year. Once up and running that should provide 35 new positions, according to Boehringer spokesperson Erin Crew. 

"In order to continue to deliver on our research strategy, we must create a leaner global discovery research organization," she added.

Boehringer is a relatively new player in oncology, starting R&D programs in the therapeutic category in 2006 and launching its first cancer therapy—Gilotrif (afatinib) for brain cancer—just three years ago. Its current products are all targeted cancer therapies but it has made cancer immunotherapy a core R&D focus, recently cutting deals with Amgen and oncolytic virus specialist ViraTherapeutics.

Boehringer's decision to downsize comes at a time when medicinal chemists in pharma companies are facing considerable job insecurity and high rates of unemployment, in part due to recent declines in new drug approvals and higher rates of outsourcing to low-cost providers

"We are sympathetic to the impact this decision will have on Boehringer Ingelheim employees and their families," said Crew. "We will support affected employees in a number of ways, including severance, outplacement services, and identifying other employment opportunities within the Boehringer Ingelheim network."