GlaxoSmithKline is consolidating its drug research and discovery operations worldwide in two large hubs: one in Upper Providence Township, Montgomery County; the other in Stevenage, England, outside London.
The U.K.-based drugmaker, which employs 5,000 in the Philadelphia area, is spending about $250 million to build out four floors of new labs - called "smart" labs because they have updated technology, movable electrical modules that dangle from ceilings, and scientist "benches" on wheels.
While some biologists and chemists toil on individual experiments, others work in teams. Huge robotic machines sift more than 1,500 chemical compounds at once to scour for pharmaceutical activities.
These brightly lit labs are open spaces with few walls. Scientists who used to work in cubicles now sit in the open. They share desks and labs, and when not working, store their belongings and computers in lockers.
The aim is to increase collaboration and conversation, and bring a flood of new medicines to patients faster and more effectively, the company says.
By 2018, nearly 40 percent of GlaxoSmithKline's global pharmaceutical research and drug development workforce will be based at the company's Collegeville site in Upper Providence Township.
Scientists from other GSK locations in Upper Merion and Research Triangle Park, N.C., will transfer to Upper Providence, where the head count will double from about 1,600 to 3,200 over the next year and a half.
The 1.4 million square feet of labs, offices, and manufacturing space in Collegeville will focus on oncology, infectious disease and antibacterial research, immuno-inflammation, cardiovascular and metabolic disorders, and dermatology.
After the $70 billion merger in 2000 of predecessor companies Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham, the new GSK inherited a footprint of scattered R&D sites.
With scientists in far-flung locales, "over time we realized that's not the most effective way of delivering innovation of the future," said John Lepore, senior vice president for the R&D pipeline.
GSK is retrofitting part of its 281-acre campus in Collegeville.
"We're not building new buildings, but we are very substantially renovating the buildings that we have," Lepore said. "Gutting and redoing them with the most modern labs probably in the industry."
Like other large pharmaceutical companies, GSK is grappling with patent expirations on top-selling drugs such as Avandia for diabetes and Advair for respiratory problems. The company is always on the hunt to replenish the product pipeline.
In 2014, GSK sold its marketed oncology drugs to Novartis (and purchased Novartis' vaccines business), but kept its early-stage oncology research, which includes some promising new approaches that Axel Hoos, head of immuno-oncology R&D, believes could be at the forefront of the next generation of cancer therapies.
"Our focus has shifted to three new areas of science around immuno-oncology [harnessing the body's immune system to destroy cancer tumors], cancer epigenetics, and cell and gene therapy," Hoos said. "This is cutting-edge stuff."
The cancer work is based in Upper Providence.
Recently, GSK launched Strimvelis, a stem-cell gene therapy approved in Europe to treat a rare disease - ADA-SCID, sometimes dubbed "bubble boy syndrome." Children born with the disorder have no effective immune system to fight off everyday infections.
"This is effectively a cure," Lepore said. "You give the child a bone-marrow transplant with bone marrow that's been genetically corrected, and they are able to live, so far, normal lives."
The cell and gene therapy research will be conducted in Upper Providence and the U.K.
"We are hiring some staff in that particular scientific area," Lepore said.
GSK also is participating in two projects announced by Vice President Biden in June to speed research and cancer treatments as part of the White House's cancer "moonshot" initiative.
One effort is a collaboration with government, industry, and nonprofits to identify and validate "biomarkers," or biologic measures that predict whether a cancer therapy will work or not.
The other initiative involves the Department of Energy, the National Cancer Institute, and GSK in use of high-performance computing and data to accelerate drug discovery and bring new cancer therapies to human trials faster. The goal is to accomplish in five years what would have taken 10 in advancing cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and care, he said.
"One of the reasons why we are investing in this facility in Philadelphia is because of the proximity to Penn, Wistar, Temple, etc., the academic institutions that are so strong in the area," said Lepore, who works in Upper Providence.
"But also there's a growing nexus of biotech excellence in the Philadelphia area, and we want to be proximal to that. We frankly want to attract talent from the area and attract collaborative work and be at the forefront of the kinds of science going on," Lepore said. "We look at Philadelphia as a very fertile place to be."