GlaxoSmithKline's Canadian operations possess formidable R&D strengths that could increase in wake of recent merger

Guest Contributor
January 29, 2001

The Canadian arm of the newly merged GlaxoSmithKline plc is hoping that the combination of the two companies will create a powerful lure for attracting new corporate funding into its growing R&D operations and expanding partnerships with universities, the biotechnology sector and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Armed with a combined R&D budget of approximately $110 million, GlaxoSmithKline Canada (GSK) intends to expand its pharmaceutical development and clinical research operations, although it has no plans in the short term to establish an in-house basic research capability.

"With the two companies now together, we're going to go forward with an energetic drive for pushing up these R&D figures. There are tremendous opportunities," says Dr Kevin Fehr, GSK's director of external scientific affairs. "The discovery of new medicines in the coming years will be very different, with rapid evolution, rapid change and new opportunities. That means bigger and better projects for Canada."

Glaxo Wellcome Canada's R&D operation was much larger than that of SmithKline Beecham Pharma Inc, prior to the merger which cleared its final regulatory roadblock in the US last December. In 1999, Glaxo Wellcome spent nearly $90 million on R&D, with the majority of its activity centred at its $250-million headquarters in Mississauga ON. That included a large clinical trials operations, as well as pharmaceutical development which is closely integrated with a substantial manufacturing operation. In contrast, SmithKline Beecham spent just $20 million in 1999, nearly all in the area of clinical trials.


Yet globally, SmithKline Beecham has been an early adapter of genomics, with considerable research strength at its UK and Philadelphia operations. For GSK that means a stronger emphasis on genomics and pharmacogenetics that either company was capable of on its own. Fehr says the Canadian operations haven't had enough opportunity to look at SmithKline Beecham's R&D portfolio in any detail, but she agrees that the future of medical and health research lies in adapting to the approaches offered by genomics.

"SmithKline Beecham has an emphasis on functional genomics while Glaxo has an emphasis on clinical genetics. But we'll be looking hard for opportunities in universities and biotechnology, especially in the areas of genomics, proteomics, functional genomics and early-stage invention and developments," she says, adding that ongoing collaboration with the Networks of Centres of Excellence and the prospect of collaboration with Genome Canada also hold great potential. "We have submitted a couple of proposals to Genome Canada and we're talking with investigators in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. We hope to interact with one of their nodes (regional centres). Cooperative research expands the critical mass of research efforts and provides a broader interface to interface with these groups."

GSK will conduct more than 200 clinical studies in Canada each year representing 10% of the new firm's global clinical trials program. That compares to the Canadian operation's share of global R&D in total, which is approximately 2%. "Canada is way over represented for clinical trials," says Fehr. "That reflects our efficiency in data management, patient monitoring, which has given us a very good reputation within the company."


The process of merging the two R&D operations may also be delayed somewhat with the recent resignation of Dr Michael Levy, Glaxo Wellcome's VP research and chief medical officer (see page 7). Fehr says Levy responded to a fantastic opportunity and that the kind of challenge posed by his departure is almost normal in an industry that has experienced several years of consolidation. She says all firms, including GSK, have a succession planning process that eases the disruption any departure like Levy's may cause.

Glaxo Wellcome has a long history of R&D activity in Canada, including extensive collaboration with the university community. Since the changes to Canada's patent protection laws in the late 1980s, its operations have grown from 20 people devoted to R&D in 1987 to more than 400 today. Many of those scientists are engaged with university-based researchers across the country, with the largest collaboration to date slated for announcement within weeks. Among the universities Glaxo is collaborating with are Univ of Toronto, McGill, Univ of Ottawa, Dalhousie Univ, Univ of Waterloo and Univ of British Columbia.

"Universities have expertise or technology or insight that we don't have in-house, but complements what we do in-house," says Fehr. "We're looking for ways to effectively mine the country to discover where those gems are."

Another method of flushing out research with potential is through a series of Centres of Excellence in Drug Discovery (CEDDs). There are currently six CEDDs which are being positioned to parallel institutes within the CIHR. Fehr says that given the wide focus that CIHR is taking towards health research, it has huge potential as a collaborators and to help with needs assessment.

Perhaps the most famous teaming was with Dr Lorne Tyrrell, dean of medicine at the Univ of Alberta (U of A) and a central player behind the development of lamivudine, the compound discovered by BioChem Pharma and the basis of the 3TC drug for treatment of HIV and hepatitis B. To accommodate Tyrrell and his team of 20 researchers, Glaxo established the Glaxo Heritage Research Institute on U of A's campus in 1992, helping refine what became one of the world's most successful AIDs drugs.

More recently, Glaxo has developed a Path Finders program to foster greater corporate-university interaction. Started two years ago, Fehr says there are plans to roll it out across Canada by establishing a series of research chairs with medical schools.

"We want to tap into the new Canada Research Chairs program by contributing to endowments and funding investigators. Researchers will work in areas of interest to the international group," she says. "We're still rolling this out and there will be three new endowed chairs in 2001."

"Following the introduction of Bill C-22, Glaxo decided to establish a pharmaceutical group in Canada to do formulations of new drugs," says Fehr. We don't see a change from that model although it would be lovely to have it (a basic research capability) in the long term. If we have a strong portfolio of university collaborations, it will raise the profile of Canadian scientists."


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