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Hal Barron touts new drive to improve GSK’s research output

'Consensus-led' research being replaced with bold decision-making

GlaxoSmithKline’s research and development leader Dr Hal Barron says he has swept away a longstanding consensus-led and risk-averse approach to developing drugs at the company – and is hoping to see a new bold approach pay dividends.

Barron was speaking to the Financial Times (subscription required) ahead of the company’s Q2 results today, where investors will be eager to hear of progress from the company’s newly reinvigorated leadership team, headed by chief exec Emma Walmsley.

The company has set itself the goal of doubling its hit rate in drug discovery and development, but will have to overturn years of internal culture at the firm, and investor scepticism.

Like all its big pharma peers, GSK is focused on trying to improve its R&D productivity, with the industry average at just 10% of drugs entering clinical trials reaching the market.

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Hal Barron

“We’re all human, so if what companies reward is the team that takes their molecule all the way, and penalises the teams that fail, then you can imagine that subtly influences people’s interpretation of data,” he told the FT.

Decision on which molecules to advance into later stage developments are now in the hands of individuals, who are entrusted to follow the science, and are even able to disregard the views of more senior colleagues.

Barron said: “If we can get the probability to go from 10% to 20% . . . we would have a very transformational effect on the company and probably the industry.”

Since starting work at the firm in January 2018, Barron has also shifted the company’s research focus away from its traditional areas of respiratory medicine and back towards oncology – having to reverse a disinvestment made in the therapy area by previous CEO Sir Andrew Witty.

Among the big strategic moves was the $5.1bn acquisition of US biotech Tesaro, which has brought with it parp-inhibitor contender Zejula, plus a late-stage immunotherapy candidate.

In February it also signed a major $4.2bn in-licensing partnership with Germany’s Merck, centred on a potential ‘next big thing’ in oncology, bispecific antibodies.

Another promising late-stage molecule is GSK2857916, an antibody-drug conjugate, which will jostle with other BCMA-targeting molecules to be the next generation of treatment in multiple myeloma.

GSK won’t be able to catch up with immunotherapy leaders, such as Merck & Co’s Keytruda and BMS’ Opdivo, but Dr Barron still sees opportunities in developing the next generation of therapies which will work in combination with these drugs.

He also indicated GSK’s interest in cell and gene therapies – another reversal on previous strategy, where the company had sold off its Strimvelis gene therapy in early 2018.

Article by
Andrew McConaghie

24th July 2019

From: Research

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