Merck to open £1bn London research centre with plea for government support of industry

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Merck’s research chief has called on the UK government to make the country more welcoming to pharma companies, ahead of the US-based drugmaker breaking ground on a £1bn research centre in London next week. 

Dean Li, president of Merck’s research laboratories, praised the UK’s scientific talent and expertise, hoping that the investment in King’s Cross will help researchers at MSD, known as Merck in the US, work closely with academics to do the early science necessary for creating new treatments for huge unmet needs in areas such as neurology. 

“We’re still very bullish on the discovery side, but there becomes a cap as to how far you advance your investment based on the broader ecosystem,” he said. 

He said chancellor Jeremy Hunt and the health department should address conflicts with the pharmaceutical industry over drug prices and hurdles to running clinical trials in the NHS. He warned that the UK has to compete with other countries such as Belgium that are also trying to attract life sciences investment from groups such as MSD.

“We hope that the UK Government and the UK people and the UK ecosystem make the appropriate investments such that MSD sits there and say, ‘Yes, we were right to build it’,” he said, adding he understood why some pharma companies had turned down opportunities to invest in the UK. 

MSD’s investment comes as other drugmakers have warned they are being discouraged from doing so. AstraZeneca said in February it had chosen to open a $360mn factory in Ireland, rather than in the UK, because of a “discouraging tax rate”, while German drugmaker Bayer said last year that it had cut staff in the country. 

While the UK government is trying to make the country into a life sciences superpower, drugmakers have become frustrated that this plan does not include paying more for medicines.

They have condemned a large rise in the clawback tax that the NHS requires them to pay on drugs and are locked in negotiations for a new voluntary agreement on prices due to be completed by the end of the year. 

With the new building, MSD plans to bring together scientists scattered at several sites around the King’s Cross area and more than double the number of its researchers in London. The company collaborates with researchers at the Francis Crick Institute, a biomedical research centre, and hires from nearby London universities. 

MSD helped transform cancer care with its drug Keytruda, which harnessed the immune system to tackle tumours. Scientists at the new site will be focused on the intersection of neuroscience, inflammation and immunology, hoping to use the latest technologies such as 3D printing of cells to better understand the brain and create new drugs. 

“We need to invest in neuroscience because there’s a screaming need for it,” Li said.

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