EMD Serono Staging Battle Against Multiple Sclerosis in Boston, Chief Says

6/8/09

If you don’t already count EMD Serono among the leaders in research of multiple sclerosis treatments in the Boston area, perhaps you haven’t talked to EMD chief executive Fereydoun Firouz. For EMD Serono—the U.S. affiliate of German chemical and drug powerhouse Merck KGaA and its Swiss biotech unit Merck Serono— the Boston area is home to a multi-pronged effort to develop new drugs for multiple sclerosis as well as other neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, and fertility-related conditions.

Yet there’s reason to pay extra attention to EMD’s focus on MS drug research. Merck Serono in late April revealed impressive data on a pill form of Cladribine, which could become the first oral MS drug approved in the U.S. Oral drugs for MS are a potential alternative to the current standard treatment, injections of interferon beta. German Merck (not to be mistaken for Whitehouse Station, N.J.-base drug giant Merck & Co. (NYSE:MRK)) markets an interferon beta product marketed as Rebif, which is a rival to Cambridge, MA-based Biogen Idec’s (NASDAQ:BIIB) version, Avonex. Biogen is also developing an oral MS drug, which is in late-stage clinical trials, hoping to compete with EMD in that business as well.

To understand how vital the MS drug market is to German Merck, one only has to look at the company’s balance sheet. Rebif was the company’s No. 1 pharmaceutical product last year with about $1.8 billion in sales, which accounted for about 17.5 percent of the company’s total revenue.

Firouz tells Xconomy that he’s quite aware of EMD’s Boston-area competitors in MS drug research, but he emphasizes that his company is focused on advancing research in the field more than besting rivals. Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease in which the immune system attacks the fatty tissue that protects nerve fibers, resulting in uncontrolled movements, numbness, and paralysis. About 400,000 Americans have MS. EMD, which employs about 650 people in Massachusetts, revealed in March the opening of a lab in Cambridge to house 50 researchers focused on MS and neurodegenerative diseases. The lab happens to be in Kendall Square, the same section of town where Biogen is headquartered. Genzyme (NASDAQ:GENZ), which is developing Campath for MS, has its corporate home there too.

EMD hasn’t decided whether Kendall Square is a long-term address for the company, Firouz says. Next year, the company plans to complete an expansion of its research labs in facilities under construction north of Boston in Billerica, MA, to accommodate 100 new scientists. (The firm also has a protein drug plant in Billerica and its main research and corporate facility in Rockland, MA, south of Boston.)

We caught up with Firouz recently to discuss the firm’s MS research strategy. The following are some excerpts from that conversation:

Xconomy: How strongly does the Boston area factor into your growth plans?

Fereydoun Firouz: On the research side, we are building … Next Page »

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