Merck Nabs Harvard Scientist To Replace Rosetta Founder as Oncology Research Head

Merck is consolidating its cancer research in Boston, and now it has landed an academic research star from Harvard to run the place. The pharmaceutical giant said it has hired D. Gary Gilliland, a renowned Harvard cancer researcher, to be its new senior vice president of Merck Research Labs in charge of its oncology franchise.

Gilliland, 54, has spent 20 years on the Harvard faculty, where his work has won a number of awards, including the William Dameshek Prize from the American Society of Hematology, and support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Gilliland’s research has explored the genetic basis of leukemia and other malignancies of the blood and bone marrow. His hiring “may raise the competitive juices of other big drugmakers that, like Merck, have stepped up their own pushes into cancer treatments,” says the Wall Street Journal’s Health Blog.

Gilliland will replace Stephen Friend as Merck’s cancer research boss. Friend joined the company in 2001 after he sold the startup he led, Rosetta Inpharmatics, to Merck for more than $620 million. Merck said in October, as part of sweeping cutbacks that include 7,200 companywide layoffs, that it plans to close down the 300-person Rosetta operation in Seattle. The Rosetta division uses computing techniques to try to predict how patients with certain genetic profiles will respond to drugs in development. The company plans to keep doing the work in a more comprehensive cancer research center in Boston, the company has said.

Friend is leaving later this year to help build an open-access database system that will allow scientists to better collaborate, Merck said in a statement. “Merck has been and will remain a key supporter of Dr. Friend on his ambitious and promising endeavor,” the company said in a statement.

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