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Delayed GlaxoWellcome-SmithKline Merger Slows Plans to Expand Bioinformatics Team

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Delays in completing the merger of GlaxoWellcome and SmithKline Beecham have made hiring more bioinformaticists extremely difficult because people do not want to join a company where the future path is unclear, executives said.

That is one reason the two London-based companies can’t wait until the deal closes – which they expect to happen by year’s end, said Allen Roses, vice president and worldwide director of genetics at GlaxoWellcome.

Glaxo and SmithKline said in September that the planned merger, which was announced in January, had been postponed because the US Federal Trade Commission had requested additional information on the companies’ smoking-cessation products.

In the merged company, which will be known as GlaxoSmithKline, David Searls will direct bioinformatics and will report to Roses, who will oversee genetics research and have ultimate responsibility for bioinformatics.

Searls is currently SmithKline’s vice president of bioinformatics. Searls, who will remain based in Upper Merion, Pa., has organized the next level down according to functions and areas of responsibility.

Roses said that the combined bioinformatics department will have a few hundred people and be one of the larger of such groups in the pharmaceutical industry.

However, a SmithKline source estimated that the total would be closer to 150 because the two companies each have about 70 or 80 bioinformaticists.

Roses said that he does not anticipate problems in integrating the bioinformatics and research methods of the two companies, given that both companies are very familiar with genomics research.

“The hardest part to get used to right now is just waiting for the merger to come because everybody’s raring to go,” said Roses.

Roses said that replacing bioinformaticists has become difficult as well. “There’s some temporary rather suddenly appearing areas where we’ve become tight on personnel. But I expect those to be quickly resolved once the company merges,” he said.

Glaxo and SmithKline normally don’t have much difficulty finding bioinformaticists. “The problem is that during the merger it’s difficult to recruit because the situation isn’t crystal clear. But other than that it’s not been a real problem,” Roses said.

He cited SmithKline’s and Glaxo’s respective locations near London and Philadelphia as helping to attract bioinformaticists and other scientists. However, the drawback is that many competitors are also there, which intensifies the poaching of a rival’s employees.

As soon as the merger is complete, Glaxo and SmithKline have plans to enlarge the bioinformatics staff “considerably,” said Roses, who declined to be more specific. Bioinformatics staff at senior and middle levels will be needed next year for projects in discovery, pre-clinical, and other research areas, he noted.

Roses said the expansion will be a key to supporting GlaxoSmith-Kline’s expected 16,500 research and development employees.

The combined company will look to get more involved in what Roses called pharmacoinformatics - a combination of bioinformatics and cheminformatics. Because it will be tough to find people with those skills, the company plans to train informatics staff to work with in vitro and in vivo systems to study the effect of pharmaceutical compounds.

The company wants to develop systems to track data resulting from experiments on how a particular molecule or a modification in that molecule changes the parameters of the in vitro or in vivo testing the company plans to do, said Roses.

“We’re interested in working in the area of predictive toxicology,” said Roses.

Roses said the research focus and the size of the combined company’s staff are attractive to bioinformaticists because they will be able to choose from a variety of research projects. Biotech companies can’t offer such a range, he added.

—Matthew Dougherty

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