Managing Merck's challenging R&D makeover
Name: Roger Perlmutter
Title: President, Merck Research Laboratories
After Roger Perlmutter returned to Merck ($MRK) last year as head of R&D, he later told analysts he was surprised at the layers of bureaucracy that had been built into the company's R&D division, a global behemoth that was consuming more than $8 billion a year while inching along with a problematic pipeline. So it wasn't much of a surprise to see him peel away a layer off the complex organization chart.
But that was nothing compared to what was about to happen.
Merck CEO Ken Frazier's trust in the grand tradition of R&D at the company was rewarded with a 7-year stretch without a new approval for a blockbuster therapy. And even a casual observer could detect the malaise. Some of the late-stage products in development, like suvorexant, faced uncertain futures trying to carve out a space in an increasingly competitive pharma world. So Merck finally joined the industry-wide trek to reinvent itself as an ultimate collaborator.
The whole game plan had to be rewritten. Now it's up to Perlmutter to make it all work--reducing spending, narrowing the R&D focus and spotlighting the winners that can be shoved through late-stage development.
Perlmutter had an ace handed to him on his arrival. Merck's PD-1 therapy was just ready to go prime time when he arrived. The reorg has left MK-3475 at the top of the pipeline, giving the R&D chief a chance to demonstrate what fast and furious drug development means. Backed with the FDA's breakthrough drug designation, he plans to capitalize on the agency's open-door policy with a rolling application that will be completed in mid-2014. If he's successful, Perlmutter can help shake off Merck's reputation for glacial progress, restoring confidence in the company.
But there's more than that at stake. Old timelines for cancer drug development are being rewritten. New, shorter schedules for oncology programs are becoming expected, helping to shake up the field, offering some big consequences to patients--as well as payers. Perlmutter may well find himself at the forefront of that movement.
-- John Carroll (email | Twitter)
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