Monday, September 23, 2019

Merck Works To Treat Patients With ‘Molecules’

By on November 19, 2018

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Nov. 8-14, 2018, issue of Caribbean Business.

Seventy years ago, Merck established operations in Puerto Rico, growing from a company that merely brought medications to the island, to a global research and pharmaceutical manufacturing firm.

With more than 500 workers and 10 clinical studies in 30 research centers, Merck is focusing on bringing “molecules” to the market to treat targetable forms of cancer, creating vaccines to prevent dengue fever, Ebola virus, HIV and other diseases, as well as improving the lives of diabetes patients.

After closing facilities several years ago in Barceloneta and Arecibo, which were sold to Merial and American Industrial Acquisition, respectively, Merck continues to have a commercial office in Carolina and a manufacturing plant in Las Piedras.

Wendy Perry, general manager of Merck since 2016, which was the first time a Puerto Rican native took over the pharmaceutical firm, says the firm contributes to the island in three areas. First is its Las Piedras manufacturing operations, which is one of Merck’s two worldwide plants.

“We are there developing molecules that are still being researched…. It is a stable plant that produces nine products that are sent to 50 countries. Those are our operations and they are sustainable,” she said. When Hurricane Maria hit the island, in fact, the head of the [U.S. Food & Drug Administration,] Scott Gottlieb, kept in touch with pharmaceutical companies, such as Merck, to ensure global supplies of important medications would remain available to the rest of the world. Perry said the Las Piedras plant continued to operate after the hurricane by using power generators and is now planning to install solar panels.

Merck also contributes to Puerto Rico in the area of clinical research, with 10 studies running concurrently in 30 research centers across the island. “We have a team who chooses local researchers to work with us on our investigations,” she said.

The commercial office in Carolina leads the effort with insurers and physicians to make sure its medications reach the public.

The pharmaceutical company is pushing to find more efficient medications and vaccines to treat cancer, diabetes and infectious diseases. Following the recent death of former Popular Democratic Party President Héctor Ferrer of esophagus cancer, Perry confessed that a cure for cancer remains elusive. “When you talk about cancer, you have to see it tumor by tumor. The therapy responds to the tumor for which it is indicated,” she said.

Merck has developed immunotherapy medications to treat cancers of the lungs, head, neck, gallbladder as well as breast cancer and skin cancer. “Not only Merck but the industry [as a whole] is focusing upon developing molecules to target specific cancers. We are giving people more time and more quality of life,” she said.

Merck has 11 of the 17 vaccines required by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention to fight such diseases as measles and human papilloma virus (HPV), including those that are responsible for certain types of cancer. She revealed that Merck recently applied for permission to use the HPV vaccine on individuals up to age 45. The vaccine is currently prescribed for individuals between the ages of nine to 26.

Looking toward next year, Merck hopes to be able to develop a vaccine against dengue fever, Ebola and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The pharmaceutical company also recently launched new and better medications to lower glucose levels for diabetes patients.

Regarding the manufacturer’s future in Puerto Rico, Perry said the pharmaceutical firm is not going anywhere but is working with the government to ensure competitiveness. Through Act 154, firms like Merck pay a tax that represents a huge portion of the government’s budget. “More than taxes. We need certainty, in that the rules of the game are not being changed,” she said.

Regarding a lawsuit filed by Espacios Abiertos (see CB Online Nov. 7, 2018) that seeks to make public various types of documents, including tax decrees, Perry said the pharmaceutical industry will not respond as a sector, but each individual company will decide for itself what it is willing to share. “We are for-profit companies and there is information there that is competitive…that we cannot share,” she said. “Each company is looking into [the lawsuit] and will decide what to make public so as to not put their operations at risk.”

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