Roger Perlmutter Returns to Merck, Looks to Biotech Future (Again)

3/7/13Follow @xconomy

Roger Perlmutter is heading back to Merck, after a decade away. This time around, he’s got a lot more experience knowing how to build a pharmaceutical pipeline.

The Whitehouse Station, NJ-based pharmaceutical giant (NYSE: MRK) said today it has hired Perlmutter as executive vice president and president of Merck Research Laboratories, starting April 15. He replaces Peter Kim, who had held that role since 2003 and will stay with the company until he retires in August, the company said in a statement.

Perlmutter is best known in the biotech industry as the guy who labored to rebuild Amgen’s R&D pipeline over the past decade. Over his 11-year run at the leading biotech company (NASDAQ: AMGN), Perlmutter oversaw the development and introduction of Amgen’s denosumab for osteoporosis and cancer, a promising antibody now in development for lowering cholesterol, and a pipeline that had 44 different drugs in development by the time he left in February 2012.

Before joining the pharmaceutical industry, Perlmutter was an immunology researcher, and served as chairman of immunology at the University of Washington. He left the UW in 1997 to become a senior vice president at Merck, where he stayed through 2000, until leaving for the new opportunity to run Amgen R&D. His first stint at Merck was apparently an unhappy one, he recently told Forbes’ Matt Herper, as he thought the company needed to move more quickly beyond its historic franchise with small-molecule chemical drugs to embrace newer biotech drugs made through genetic engineering.

Merck, after all those years, is still struggling to find its footing in the world of biotech drugs. The company spent $1.1 billion in 2006 to acquire Sirna Therapeutics for expertise in RNA interference, with little to show for it today. By 2008, the company made a well-publicized move to get into making “biosimilar” copies of some established hit biotech drugs, with plans to invest $1.5 billion and introduce six or more biosimilars between 2012 and 2017, according to the In Vivo Blog. But the company closed its Merck BioVentures group last year and merged it into Merck Research Labs. In 2009, the $41 billion mega-merger with Schering-Plough was supposed to beef up Merck’s biotech drugmaking capabilities, but the company’s pipeline is still struggling, and worldwide sales declined 2 percent last year.

Merck has been talking about the biotech future for a long time. Former chief strategy officer Merv Turner acknowledged in a January 2011 interview with Xconomy that eight of the world’s top-10 pharmaceuticals in 2014 were forecast to be biotech products.

Perlmutter didn’t tip his hand on what he intends to do in today’s statement. But if his past comments are any indication, he will likely embrace Merck’s strong history of small-molecule chemistry while pushing harder to move the organization into a more serious player in biologics. As he said in an Amgen exit interview with me in February 2012, he sought to transform Amgen into something more than just a biotech-only company—not just a place with hammers that made every problem look like nails. He sought to make Amgen a more diverse drug developer that could make small molecules, like Merck, or biologic molecules, like Amgen had historically done.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

“I thought we needed to be modality independent,” Perlmutter said, about his first impressions on arriving at Amgen in 2001. “I was uncomfortable with what was happening at a majority of the major companies at the time. Often, medicinal chemistry was something seen in isolation, and a lot of attention was focused on the tool and not the task. I wanted a R&D organization that was focused on the task.

“If I’m proud of anything in my 11 years, it’s that—creating an organization that’s comfortable with fitting the tool to the task. You start by asking, what are we trying to achieve with this drug? It could be a protein, a peptide, an antibody, a small molecule. I don’t care what the tool is you use, I want to focus attention on the task. That was a very useful way of describing our activities, and it attracted an impressive group of research scientists. Amgen isn’t really unique in that respect, but for a time we were.”

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  • Custus Georgius, Col.

    tanks roger roger