Drugmaker Novo Nordisk bets $145 mln on post-Brexit UK science

Novo Nordisk, the world's largest maker of diabetes drugs, has invested millions in a new research centre in the UK. [Shutterstock]

Novo Nordisk, the world’s top maker of diabetes drugs, is investing 115 million pounds ($145 million) in a new research centre in Britain, undeterred by Brexit.

The Danish company said on Monday it would invest the money over 10 years in the centre based at the University of Oxford, which will employ 100 scientists hunting for new ways to treat type 2 diabetes.

The decision is likely to be welcomed by Prime Minister Theresa May, who last week highlighted life sciences when she laid out a new industrial strategy designed to rebalance Britain’s heavily services-based economy after it leaves the EU.

Oxford medicine professor John Bell said the new set-up, which will allow for daily interactions between academic and industrial scientists, underlined the importance of sharing research and cutting-edge science across boundaries.

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has raised concerns in the life sciences sector, with academics fretting over a potential gap in funding currently provided by the EU and drugmakers concerned over future medicine regulation.

The European Medicines Agency – based in London for now, but likely to move after Brexit – currently offers a one-stop-shop for drug approvals, smoothing the sale of pharmaceuticals across borders.

Given these challenges, some drug company executives have warned that Britain could lose its appeal as a centre for research and manufacturing. However, Britain’s two biggest drugmakers are still committed to new investments.

AstraZeneca is finishing a $500 million headquarters and research centre in Cambridge, while GlaxoSmithKline pledged $360 million to expand manufacturing in the United Kingdom in July, just five weeks after the Brexit vote.

Novo Nordisk has built a booming business over the last two decades by focusing on diabetes, which is a growing problem worldwide, driven by obesity and sedentary lifestyles. More recently, however, it has struggled with squeezed prices in the key U.S. market.

It said James Johnson, currently a professor at the University of British Columbia, had been appointed head of the Novo Nordisk Research Centre Oxford. Johnson is an expert on pancreas biology, insulin action and diabetes.

Since the Brexit vote last June, several EU countries have been vying for the chance to host the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which is based in London and one of the EU's most influential agencies.

Italy and Spain have been the most enthusiastic but Denmark and Sweden have also made their interest public. France was the last country to join the race.

Italy and Spain lead the fight to conquer UK-based EU agencies

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, Rome and Madrid are leading the race to gain the right to host influential EU agencies, while Croatia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia could remain empty-handed.

Subscribe to our newsletters