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EMD Serono Opens New Research Hub in Boston

EMD hopes people and technology will be key to idea generation.

By Kevin Davies

March 29, 2011
| Following in the footsteps of other big pharma companies, EMD Serono recently opened a new research facility in the Boston suburb of Billerica.

Steve Arkinstall, EMD Serono’s senior vice president of global technologies and site head for U.S.-based research operations, says the discovery program will focus in three main areas: oncology, neurodegeneration and fertility research. Particular areas of strength and focus include cancer immunotherapy, blocking activated signaling pathways in tumorigenesis; new drugs for nerve repair in multiple sclerosis and programs in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease; and new treatments to ease the burden of in vitro fertilization. .

Last month, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick opened EMD Serono’s new laboratory building providing more than 200,000 square feet of space supporting a long-term goal of 350 researchers. The building sits on 47 acres, including conservation land, which Arkinstall calls “an amazingly attractive environment.”

“This is a prime area for hiring the best people,” says Arkinstall. “Being successful in research is not just about money and headcount but getting exactly the right person for the job. Being situated in the Boston area provides rich pickings for finding the best-of-the-best talent.”

Two years ago, EMD Serono decided to transfer its neurodegeneration research from Italy to Boston. Why? “It’s about the people,” explains Arkinstall. “Look at the stats. If you look at the leading neuroscience centers in the world, 40% are in the north east of America. Then consider other companies who have had major neuroscience initiatives but are pulling out [of brain research]. Then this was an ideal situation for us to hire a good team.”

Rather than wait for the Billerica site to be completed, in early 2009 EMD Serono opened some research space in the center of Cambridge, Mass., to hire neuroscientists and to get a team up and running before moving to Billerica.

Tried and Trusted

EMD Serono’s new research hub spans molecular screening, biology and target identification up to in vivo pharmacology. “We have a state-of-the-art laboratory with scientists with broad technological background and capabilities working, eating, and relaxing together. This close interaction is the secret to idea generation and innovation,” says Arkinstall. The new research headquarters will focus on some “tried and trusted” technologies—chemistry based discovery and high-throughput screening; protein engineering, expression and purification; and disease biology.

Arkinstall defends the focus on these technologies as “the bread-and-butter” of drug discovery, but within that framework there are some areas of particular strength and innovation. In cell-based screening, for example, Arkinstall believes that “phenotypic screening is going to be foundational for some of the diseases we work in. In multiple sclerosis, for example, we’re looking for new molecules to help us drive repair of the nervous system. We’re running complex biological screens to find molecules to drive neuron repair. We’re investing in very complex cell-based assays, including a screen with neurons growing with oligodendrocytes, and we can follow the myelination [of neurons] in an HTS format.

Another global strength of EMD Serono’s is protein structure. “We invest quite heavily in drug targets, deriving 3D protein structures and protein modeling, including predictive computer-based modeling,” says Arkinstall. Analyzing the 3D structure of many popular membrane-bound drug targets is very tough. “We see that for all pharma,” says Arkinstall. EMD Serono is focusing on external collaborations, particularly with the academic sector. “That’s where the ground-breaking work is being done in this area,” he says.

“Structurally, we’ve also done a few strategic alliances to do protein-based antibody discovery against transmembrane proteins. That’s also traditionally very difficult. We’ve invested in external partners who have technologies that enable you to express a transmembrane protein outside a regular mammalian cell environment.”

Overall, Arkinstall is optimistic about EMD Serono’s new direction, which he points out has invested in new infrastructure in North America during a difficult economic period. “We’ve got the investment from the company, which has been undaunted to its approach to the U.S.—that was rare,” he says. “In addition, we’ve hired best people in the U.S., skilled, well connected, with great energy.

“If we can’t make it work, we don’t have any excuses.” •

This article also appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Bio-IT World Magazine. Subscriptions are free for qualifying individuals. Apply today.

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