GSK Shakes Up R&D Units During High-Profile Review

After an overhaul of its research and development three years ago, GlaxoSmithKline (NYS: GSK) has wrapped up a review this month of the 38 Discovery Performance Units (DPUs) that were created as nimble and highly focused R&D groups. And there have been at least a couple of casualties of the review, which took place over the past several months to see whether the DPUs were on track to deliver the goods, Bloomberg reported Wednesday.

Many people in the biopharma world are watching GSK's big R&D experiment, which aims to boost overall productivity at the company and steer clear of the inefficient ways of the past. Rather than keeping a centralized R&D structure typical of Big Pharma companies, Andrew Witty and his top brass set out to break up the 6 disease-focused groups at GSK into the smaller DPUs after he took over as chief executive in 2008, Bloomberg reports. For the first time since the shake-up, those focused DPUs underwent a major review in which heads of the groups went to bat to defend their progress and, apparently, their jobs.

For instance, Roberto Solari, previously head of one of the DPUs focused on asthma, has been knocked down to a lesser role after the review, according to the Bloomberg article. "One or two we've stepped down, they didn't quite meet expectations," Patrick Vallance, Glaxo's head of medicines discovery and development, told the news service. "One of them is doing a brilliant job in another capacity now and may well find himself stepping back up again."

The big question is whether GSK's new model -- which mimics some of the ways biotech groups operate -- is panning out for the London-based drug giant. It's way too soon to measure its success by the number of new drug approvals, given the 10-year time frame for taking a drug to market. Bloomberg's report cites some very real shifts in the R&D culture, however, and R&D head Moncef Slaoui told the news service that scientists "live or die with their projects," suggesting that there's a greater sense of urgency among researchers than in the past.

Like biotech start-ups, the DPUs compete for funding, and there are no promises that the groups will continue to exist if they fall short of expectations.

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