Takeda’s Millennium buy a boost for both

By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / April 12, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — The mission statement displayed in the lobby of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, surrounded by a curtain of origami cranes, is as stirring as it is straightforward: “We Aspire to Cure Cancer.’’

But when Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. bought Millennium for $8.8 billion in 2008, many in the Boston area feared that mission — along with Millennium’s local presence — would be subsumed into the bowels of a global biopharmaceutical Goliath.

Three years later, those fears have proved unfounded. Millennium, officially renamed Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Co., has added 314 jobs, boosting its workforce by roughly 30 percent to about 1,300, including about 1,100 here in Cambridge. In addition to its six legacy cancer research programs, it has been given oversight for 14 others that had originated at, or been managed by, Takeda.

This month, Millennium is taking over leadership of a trio of Takeda’s early-stage cancer drug discovery labs in California and Japan. It is also negotiating with a half-dozen US clinical research centers to launch trials using so-called novel novel combinations of two or more experimental drugs. Under the initiative, dubbed Project Perseus, different patients in the same clinical trial would get different combinations of therapies depending on their genetic makeup.

“If you think about our vision to cure cancer, you’ve got more shots on that goal,’’ said Millennium chief executive Deborah Dunsire. “And there’s definitely more resources available in a very large global company to invest.’’

Millennium’s experience under Takeda’s umbrella may resonate in the Boston area in the aftermath of French drug maker Sanofi-Aventis SA’s $20.1 billion buyout of Cambridge-based Genzyme Corp., the state’s largest biotechnology company, which took effect last week.

While the Genzyme takeover has similarly set off jitters in the local life sciences community, Sanofi, like Takeda, has said it wants to use Genzyme as a research and development engine and growth platform — in Genzyme’s case, for rare genetic disorders. (Sanofi previously established its own cancer research lab here.)

“For better or worse, these investments have been a boost to jobs here in Massachusetts,’’ said Robert Coughlin, president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, citing Takeda’s purchase of Millennium and the takeover of local companies by Germany’s Merck KGaA and Ireland’s Shire PLC. “They’re not buying these companies to bring them somewhere else. They’re investing in these companies so they can be part of the best place in the world for innovation.’’

The acquisition model pursued by Takeda, which Sanofi may be trying to imitate, is investing in a “center of excellence’’ that has the specialization and pipeline of products to drive the acquiring company’s growth, said Harry Glorikian, managing partner at Cambridge life sciences consulting firm Scientia Advisors. In other deals, Glorikian said, a buyer may simply pull the acquired company’s drugs into its own sales channel and then strip down the company to conserve cash.

“If there is a core competency at the company being acquired, it can attract further investment,’’ Glorikian said. “That’s what you’ve seen at Millennium. The other thing Millennium has going for it is the Boston area. It’s a good place for Takeda to be. It’s a place to attract talent.’’

Takeda spent $3.5 billion on research and development last year, tops among global biopharmaceutical companies, according to Scientia. Though it ran its own cancer research programs on both sides of the Pacific, the Japanese company set its sights on Millennium specifically to strengthen its cancer-fighting franchise worldwide.

“They wanted that anchor to accelerate their presence in oncology,’’ Dunsire said. “So their coming-in position was always that this would be the core and it would grow in time to support the oncology [research] for Takeda globally. And they’ve been absolutely true to that.’’

Dunsire, who was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in South Africa, has a track record in bringing cancer drugs to market. Working for pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG in Basel, Switzerland, she helped launch the blockbuster drug Gleevec to treat chronic myeloid leukemia. At Millennium, where she became chief executive in 2005, she pushed successfully for broader regulatory approval for Velcade, a blood cancer therapy, which continues to be tested for potential new uses.

After the merger, Millennium was handed responsibility for selling Lupron, a Takeda drug to treat prostate cancer. It also has licensed SGN-35, an experimental drug to fight Hodgkin lymphoma, from Seattle Genetics Inc.; the partners have applied for drug approval in the United States and are readying a European application. And it is in late-stage clinical trials with TAK-700, another Takeda prostate cancer drug.

Dunsire and her colleagues have grown closer to their parent company through visits, teleconferences, and employee exchanges over the past three years. So the recent earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan has been hard for many Millennium employees.

While all Takeda workers were accounted for, and none of the company’s sites is in hard-hit northeastern Japan, the Cambridge business made a donation to the Japanese Red Cross and many employees here made contributions through one-time payroll deductions.

“It feels more real and more personal because you really know people who are potentially affected,’’ Dunsire said. “Every person we interact with is just more determined to make the business work. My sense is they feel they’ve got to do their part to help Japan recover.’’

Robert Weisman can be reached at