Weight loss drug gets positive opinion – GSK tax questioned – And Merck KGaA targets €300m in efficiency

PHARMACEUTICAL – A US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) committee has voted in favour of approving weight loss drug lorcaserin from US drug maker Eisai and biotech Arena. The move makes it likely that the FDA will approve the drug, which would become the first weight loss drug to get onto the market in about a decade. Obesity and diabetes are attractive treatment areas for drug companies owing to the large and rapidly growing patient populations in both developed and developing countries. But they have struggled to get new drugs past regulators, who in recent years have become spooked by a string of instances in which once promising weight loss drugs revealed harmful side effects after approval. Lorcaserin was previously turned away by the FDA in October 2010 on account of its safety profile, and, in the intervening period, Eisai and Arena have generated more data to support their application.

CHEMICAL – The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ‘applauded’ the work of chemical companies in creating alternatives to nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), widely used surfactants with a range of industrial applications and commonly found in consumer products, such as laundry detergents. Once in the environment, NPEs degrade into nonylphenol (NP), which tends to build up due to poor water solubility. This is problematic as NP is associated with toxicity and reproductive abnormalities in fish and other aquatic wildlife. NPEs have recently been the focus of environmental groups that have campaigned for big name brands, such as Nike and Adidas, to move to alternatives. The EPA report identifies eight safer alternatives to NPEs that meet the EPA criteria for safer surfactants.

CHEMICAL – The European Environment Agency has warned consumers about the dangers of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in many household products. It has highlighted in particular a ‘cocktail effect’ – whereby a complex mixture of chemicals leads to harmful outcomes that are greater than those of the isolated chemicals. This makes it difficult to establish safe thresholds for exposure. The agency says: ‘It would be prudent to take a precautionary approach to many of these chemicals until their effects are more fully understood.’ Its report looks at the last 15 years of scientific evidence.

CHEMICAL – Chemical giant BASF is getting together with the German government to launch a €5 million (£4 million) investigation into the long-term effects of nanoparticles in the lungs. The company will collaborate with the Federal Ministry for the Environment and the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health on a range of tests planned to run for four years. Environment minister Norbert Röttgen said that, with the ‘unique’ collaboration, Germany would assume the global leadership in safety research for nanomaterials. The researchers will look at, among other things, chronic effects in the low dose range which relates in particular to the workplace as well as the wider environment.

PHARMACEUTICAL – The BBC has gone after GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in a recent documentary about tax. It says that GSK avoided a potential £34 million in corporation tax by channelling its cash through Luxembourg, a well known tax haven, where it attracted a tax rate of less than 0.5% instead of the 28% rate the UK would have used. There is no question of legality – the clever tax tricks, devised by accountancy firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, fall within the rules. GSK said in a statement: ‘GSK is a global company with 95% of its sales outside the UK, however 20% of the company’s tax bill is in the UK. In total, over the period covered in the broadcast, GSK paid around £1billion in UK corporation and business taxes, plus an additional £1.3bn through income taxes of its UK employees.’ But the move is likely to prompt questions about the relationship GSK has with the UK. In recent years, the government has proposed several measures to make the business environment in the UK more palatable to companies in general, but in particular companies such as GSK that generate much of their income from intellectual property. In return, GSK has promised significant manufacturing investment in the UK.

PHARMACEUTICALMerck KGaA has added further detail to its previously announced restructuring drive. The German healthcare and chemical company said in April that it was looking to close its Serono site in Geneva, Switzerland, and cut 580 jobs. To this it has now added that the closure is part of a drive to find €300 million in annual cost savings by 2014. The closure should return €120 million in cost savings – the rest will come from efficiency gains in commercial operations at Merck Serono, the pharmaceutical wing of the group.

Andrew Turley

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