Merck's Perlmutter shares plans for R&D reboot, likes and dislikes

Merck R&D chief Roger Perlmutter

If you are a scientist at Merck ($MRK), you likely track every utterance from the company's new R&D boss Roger Perlmutter, who has been tasked with turbocharging the company's legendary R&D engine--and cutting research jobs along the way.

Perlmutter has granted a few interviews this month with journalists and analysts, providing some clarity on how the immunologist plans to reshape how Merck prioritizes research of new medicines. In interviews with Forbes' Matthew Herper and The Wall Street Journal's Peter Loftus, Perlmutter shed light on why he is shedding layers of bureaucracy in the company's $8 billion research organization.

"What I always loved about Merck was there was this reservoir of technical expertise," Perlmutter said, as quoted by Herper. "Fine chemistry reaches its apotheosis at Merck. I used to say if I could just scrape off the top five layers of management, including myself, it would just get better. And that technical reserve, that content expertise remains very much in evidence."

In Herper's account, Perlmutter says he wants researchers to be willing to bet their jobs on a program rather than playing it safe in managerial roles. He wants to back the kind of science that led to the discovery of the company's MRK-3475, a potential blockbuster cancer immunotherapy, which targets the programmed cell death-1 (PD-1) receptor to unleash immune responses against tumors.

Perlmutter, who inherited an R&D pipeline from his predecessor Peter Kim, sounded less enthusiastic about the massive 30,000-patient program to study the experimental anti-cholesterol drug anacetrapib. As Loftus reported, Perlmutter plans to let the expensive multiyear program play out, yet he wants to avoid such costly experiments in the future.

Yet any upheaval in the R&D mission at Merck is likely stirring angst in the ranks of researchers whose jobs are on the line. There's talk of reducing research spending, cutting programs and layers of management, and some jobs have already been axed since Perlmutter's arrival at Merck in April. And even the new boss acknowledged his concerns on how such uncertainty impacts researchers.

Loftus discussed the situation with Pfizer's ($PFE) former R&D chief John LaMattina, who noted that reorganizing research distracts scientists.

"When that happens, people at the water coolers aren't talking about the latest issue of [scientific journals] Science or Nature," LaMattina, who retired from Pfizer in 2007, told Loftus. "They're talking about, 'Are we next?'"

- check out the WSJ article (sub. req.)
- and the post from Forbes