Novo Nordisk to set up £115M R&D center at Oxford University

Novo Nordisk has committed £115 million ($144 million) to set up a Type 2 diabetes drug discovery center at the University of Oxford. When operational, the research center will employ 100 Novo Nordisk researchers at a new facility on the campus of the university.

The £115 million commitment will support the creation of the Novo Nordisk Research Centre Oxford at the university's biomedical campus in Headington and its first 10 years of operation.

Over that time, Novo Nordisk hopes its researchers will work with their neighbors at the university to discover new targets and other early-stage advances with the potential to improve treatment of Type 2 diabetes and its complications. To facilitate such cooperation, Novo Nordisk will provide funding for collaborative research that bridges the industry-academia divide.

The academic excellence at Oxford was central to Novo Nordisk’s decision to add the city to its small network of research centers—its only other European site is in Denmark—and the U.K. aims to make more of such strengths in the coming years. In doing so, the U.K. hopes to reverse years of Big Pharma withdrawal from drug discovery in the country.

“We once had 11 companies doing early-stage discovery research in the U.K. and now we have just two or three. I think we can get that back to six or seven, making use of Britain’s world-leading strengths in the life sciences,” Sir John Bell, Oxford’s professor of medicine, told the Financial Times.

Bell is unusually well placed to realize that ambition. As head of a group working to strike a deal with the government to improve the competitiveness of the life science sector in the U.K., Bell is positioned to reshape the industry in the wake of Brexit. Finding ways to attract Big Pharma R&D investment is one of the government’s goals for the coming months, and the Novo Nordisk-Oxford deal provides a possible blueprint for how to leverage the U.K.’s academic capabilities.

Yet, while the strongly pro-remain industry is increasingly talking up the opportunities presented by leaving the European Union, the Novo Nordisk investment is happening despite—rather than because—of Brexit.

"Obviously we think the Brexit decision was unfortunate. That being said, Oxford University has been around for 800 years so the academic excellence and our company's ability to turn that into medicines hasn't really changed," Novo Nordisk CSO Mads Thomsen told the BBC.

Novo Nordisk joins Alnylam and GlaxoSmithKline on the list of drugmakers to make notable investments in the U.K. since the vote to leave the EU.