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Former Amgen R&D head Perlmutter to lead research at Merck & Co

Returns to US pharma firm after more than a decade away

Merck & Co Roger Perlmutter

Amgen's former R&D chief Roger Perlmutter will take the helm at Merck & Co's R&D operations on April 15, re-joining his former employer after an absence of more than a decade.

The appointment marks a return to the frontline for Perlmutter, who was formerly R&D chief at big biotech Amgen until he retired in February 2012 in the midst of a management reshuffle. Before joining Amgen, Perlmutter formerly headed Merck's basic research and preclinical development activities.

He replaces Peter Kim, who has served as executive vice president and president of Merck Research Laboratories since 2003 but has decided to retire in August.

Perlmutter's appointment could signal a shift towards a more outward-looking research operation at Merck, which has been renowned for years as a company that played its R&D cards very close to its chest.

"With his deep knowledge of the ongoing changes in the industry's external environment and their implications for how we use R&D resources, Roger is ideally suited to lead Merck's global R&D," commented the group's chief executive Kenneth Frazier.

Kim and Perlmutter will work together during a transition period, with Kim acting as an advisor until he retires, said Merck.

The change at the top comes at a time when Merck is struggling to achieve a good return on its R&D investment dollars, with spending currently running at more than $2bn a quarter.

Investors have criticised what they perceive as sluggish adoption of new enabling technologies, including an overly slow push into biologics, at a time when Merck is suffering like many of its peers from loss of patent protection for blockbuster brands such as asthma drug Singulair (montelukast).

After a buoyant R&D period marked by the launch of first-in-class products such as cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil, Isentress (raltegravir) for HIV and Januvia (sitagliptin) for diabetes, Merck has suffered a number of setbacks in its late-stage pipeline in recent years and its new product momentum seems to be slowing.

The company recently dropped cholesterol drug Tredaptive (extended-release niacin/laropiprant) after disappointing results in a trial, which showed it was no more effective than statins but increased the risk of side effects, and has delayed osteoporosis candidate odanacatib while it checks out an unidentified "safety signal". 

It also pulled development of a combination cholesterol therapy based on Januvia (sitagliptin) and atorvastatin; abandoned another cholesterol drug based on Zetia (ezetimibe) and niacin; and suffered a regulatory setback when the FDA declined to approve MK-0653c, a fixed-dose tablet based on ezetimibe and atorvastatin.

The expense of these large-scale cardiovascular studies with little to show in return has contributed to the pressure placed on Frazier to slash R&D spending, something that he has resisted while other big pharma companies have wielded the axe.

8th March 2013

From: PME

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