Novartis doubles plan for Cambridge

Swiss drug company to hire up to 300 more

Novartis AG’s global research operations are already headquartered on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. Novartis AG’s global research operations are already headquartered on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Casey Ross and Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / October 27, 2010

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Pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG will disclose today that it is doubling the size of a planned office and lab complex in Cambridge, spending $600 million to bolster its research operations and strengthen partnerships with local universities and biotechnology start-ups.

Already Cambridge’s largest corporate employer, the Swiss firm expects to hire an additional 200 to 300 employees over the next five years, bringing its total workforce in the city to around 2,300. Novartis’s global research operations are already headquartered in Cambridge, across Massachusetts Avenue from the site of the new four-acre campus.

“People have found this area to be one of the most exciting places to do this work in the world,’’ said Mark Fishman, the president of the company’s Institutes for Biomedical Research. He said Novartis is developing drugs to treat adult blindness, muscle weakness in the elderly, and sev eral forms of cancer. It is also expanding its research into how cells grow and multiply abnormally, to help physicians better select medicines that will be more effective, and have fewer side effects, for individual patients.

The 400,000-square-foot Novartis complex is the latest example of how the Boston area, particularly Cambridge, has become a magnet for international pharmaceutical companies looking for access to cutting-edge drug research at MIT and Harvard University, and seeking to forge alliances with early-stage biotechnology companies.

French drug maker Sanofi Aventis SA last summer unveiled a $65 million expansion in Cambridgeport that will serve as a joint headquarters for a new cancer division. The firm would also add 300 jobs. Others include AstraZeneca PLC and GlaxoSmithKline PLC of Great Britain, Shire PLC of Ireland, and New York-based Pfizer Inc.

“If you look at Kendall Square, it’s just a hotbed of activity,’’ said Harry Glorikian, managing partner at Scientia Advisors, a life sciences consulting firm in Cambridge. “It’s the talent, it’s the concentration of all the parties who are working on new technologies and new capabilities. The big pharma companies are always doing partnerships and deals. By coming here, it makes it a whole lot easier for them to be part of the conversation.’’

The new Cambridge complex would be built on property owned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that is now mostly parking lots and a vacant industrial building. It would include new retail stores and a courtyard to link with MIT’s campus. Presuming it receives approvals from the city of Cambridge, Novartis said it would like to begin construction in the first half of 2011.

Novartis has scheduled a public announcement of the project at an event this morning, which Cambridge Mayor David Maher and Governor Deval Patrick are expected to attend.

“This will mean new construction jobs and permanent jobs,’’ Maher said. “And it will fill in a section of Massachusetts Avenue that needs some urban renewal.’’

As the first global pharmaceutical company to put a major research presence in Cambridge, in 2003, Novartis already has several well-established ventures with local institutions. One is a $65 million, 10-year deal with MIT to fund research aimed at revolutionizing drug manufacturing. Another 10-year pact is with Dana Farber Cancer Institute on cancer research. Novartis also collaborates with Harvard on research of systems biology and several different disease areas.

Fishman himself was hired away by Novartis from Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was chief of cardiology and director of its cardiovascular research center.

In an interview in Boston last May, Novartis chairman Daniel L. Vasella said his decision to base the company’s research headquarters in Cambridge rather than in Europe was sharply questioned by others at its Basel, Switzerland, home offices.

“They became second-class citizens in their minds,’’ Vasella said of how Novartis’s Cambridge employees were viewed in Switzerland. “But that has completely vanished now,’’ he said, and Novartis has since intensified research collaborations across the Atlantic.

Fishman said the research underway in Cambridge focuses on five areas: oncology, cardiovascular diseases and metabolism, ophthalmology, infectious diseases, and muscle strength. The new facility on Massachusetts Avenue will allow the firm to add employees in all those areas. It will also enable Novartis to consolidate many of the operations that are now split among 10 different locations in the city.

And while Novartis has expanded in Switzerland and in Shanghai, where it is building a $1 billion complex of offices and labs, the Cambridge labs are the leading edge of the company’s many different research efforts. The company is trying to develop a pipeline of more than a dozen drug compounds and vaccines, including one for the treatment of rare auto-inflammatory disorders such as Muckle-Wells Syndrome, in which the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues.

The Cambridge site also leads Novartis’s pursuit of a new way of researching and developing drugs: understanding the so-called molecular pathways between and among cells, in essence mapping the fundamental biological connections in the body to better understand how diseases form and grow within human tissue.

“It’s the new grammar of drug discovery,’’ said Fishman. “The process that causes disease in one tissue is closely related to those that do so in others.’’

Casey Ross can be reached at, Robert Weisman can be reached at