Merck's Strategic Agreement with Heavy Water Board Boosts Local Manufacturing for Deuterated Compounds in India

26 January 2024 | Friday | Interview

Jean Charles Wirth, Executive VP of Science & Laboratory Solutions, Discusses Merck's Commitment to Make in India and Advances in Life Science Industry


In a recent interview with BioPharma APAC, Jean Charles Wirth, Executive Vice President of Science & Laboratory Solutions at Merck, sheds light on the company's transformative five-year agreement with the Heavy Water Board (HWB) in India. This strategic partnership aligns with Merck's expansion plans in the country, focusing on the local manufacturing of deuterated compounds. Wirth discusses the potential impact of this agreement on the life science industry, emphasizing Merck's dedication to supporting India's "Made in India" vision and fostering growth in the pharmaceutical and diagnostic sectors. Additionally, Wirth outlines Merck's broader initiatives, including collaborations with educational institutions and contributions to addressing health challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic. The discussion also delves into Merck's commitment to sustainability and responsible practices in the manufacturing of deuterated compounds, highlighting the company's participation in the Responsible Care Global Charter. Wirth concludes by sharing Merck's vision for advancing scientific research globally, emphasizing their focus on innovation, partnerships, and digital solutions in the life science sector.



The recent agreement with the Heavy Water Board reflects Merck's commitment to the Make in India initiative and the local manufacturing of deuterated compounds. From your perspective, how does this agreement contribute to the potential of the life science industry, particularly in the context of diagnostics, and what impact do you foresee on the broader scientific community?



Merck has recently signed a five-year strategic agreement with the Heavy Water Board (HWB), which aims to provide a steady supply of heavy water for the manufacturing of deuterated compounds. 


This partnership is part of Merck's strategic expansion plans in India that includes D-labelled compound processing capabilities. These deuterated compounds will be produced in our manufacturing site in Jigani. With the establishment of the local manufacturing capability in India, we hope to encourage the development of domestic chemical, pharmaceutical, and diagnostic sectors in the country. 


Working with our customers, we will be developing customized raw materials that cater to their diagnostic manufacturing needs of high-purity components for increased accuracy. 


Capitalizing on India's existing capabilities in small molecule and contract manufacturing, this development significantly supports the country’s” Made in India” vision. Additionally, Merck will provide substantial regulatory assistance and knowledge transfer to local Indian companies. 


Merck has invested in establishing a state-of-the-art infrastructure at its Jigani facility for the production of deuterated products. Could you share insights into the growth plans for Merck's life science division, and how the company aims to maintain a strong presence across markets, including any specific strategies for the Asia-Pacific region?



Operating since 2003, Merck’s 40,000 sqm manufacturing plant in Jigani is built with cutting-edge infrastructure, best-in-class customized synthesis and catalog production yields. Merck India is prepared to play a critical role as a significant export center for deuterated products to markets such as the United States and Europe.


Merck aims to enhance our presence in high-growth potential markets. The investment represents Merck’s dedication to establishing a strong local presence, catering to niche markets, and adding value to India's manufacturing sector. 


Market fundamentals overall in the Asia Pacific region continue to look strong with an acceleration of growth expected in the long-term. For the life science business, we firmly believe in impacting life and health with science, together with our customers.


As the Executive Vice President, Head of Science & Laboratory Solutions, you oversee Merck's stable isotopes capabilities. Can you elaborate on the significance of Merck's stable isotopes footprint in the industry and how it positions the company as a key player in providing solutions to scientific challenges?



Merck has a rich history of market leadership in stable isotopes, having acquired Isotec-Stable Isotopes in 2001, a brand which remains familiar to many of our customers. It all started by securing a pivotal milestone in 1979, approval by the U.S. Supreme Court to utilize Stable Isotopes in research and development, specifically for medical and industrial applications. 


Merck was the first to commercially introduce an FDA approved Stable Isotope diagnostic Urea-13C, designed for customers developing the diagnostic test of Stomach ulcers. 


Merck maintains a prominent position supplying products, services and technical support for the development of multiple investigational drugs, designed to enhance the understanding and diagnosis of cancer through innovative imaging techniques. Currently 18 hospitals are globally actively engaged in clinical trials employing this groundbreaking approach to unravel the complexities of cancer metabolism. These efforts are made possible through collaborative initiatives with academic, industrial and government institutions worldwide. This collaborative initiative reflects our dedication to pushing the boundaries of innovation in medical diagnostics, with the aim of addressing pressing health challenges on a global scale. 


We supported with deuterated materials the first FDA approved Deuterated drug in 2017. We also forged strategic collaboration with industry leaders leveraging the unique properties of He-3 and Deuterium gas, to develop new technologies around Energy and Sustainability. 


The focus on India is evident through the recent agreement and investments in the Jigani facility. Are there any additional or upcoming India-related investments or initiatives that Merck is planning to undertake to further enhance its contributions to the scientific and life science landscape in the region?



In addition to our collaboration with the Heavy Water Board, Merck has actively pursued additional strategic partnerships and initiatives that contribute to advancements in the pharmaceutical and life science sectors.  Highlighting a few notable endeavors:

Merck Life Science-CSIR-IMTech High-End Skill Development Centre, Chandigarh: Merck's Life Science business created a talent development center in 2020 in conjunction with the Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTech), which is part of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Located in Chandigarh, this center is aligned with the Indian government's goal of improving life sciences human resources. Over 15,000 young Indian scientists have been trained in this facility in fields like drug development, economic healthcare, diagnostics, and plant biotechnology. 


BioMonitoring & Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) Collaboration: The Microbiology applications lab of our BioMonitoring team has finished its first year of operation. Through a long-term memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), we've established a Microbiological Analysis Test center. This collaboration focuses on providing training in the field of microbiological testing, contributing to enhanced food safety and quality standards.


Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay for Covid-19 Research: Merck has demonstrated its commitment to addressing pressing health challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic. We've donated 194 k€ over two years to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, in support of their efforts to develop clinical tests for assessing Covid-19 disease severity. 



India's pivotal role in the global pharmaceutical industry is poised to grow in the coming decade. India holds significant importance for Merck, with tremendous opportunities to venture into new domains. Through these strategic partnerships and initiatives, the company actively contributes to the growth and advancement of the life science landscape in the country.


This sector is expanding rapidly for us, with interesting new prospects coming. We are enthusiastic to play a part in advancing India's development, evident in our partnerships with government entities, educational institutions, pharmaceutical companies, and various local stakeholders. Furthermore, we are dedicated to expanding our presence and activities in the region.


The collaboration with the Heavy Water Board aligns with Merck's commitment to sustainability and innovation. How does Merck balance the pursuit of scientific advancements with environmental and ethical considerations, especially in the context of manufacturing deuterated compounds, and what steps is the company taking to ensure responsible practices in its operations?

Merck is a signatory to the Responsible Care Global Charter adopted by the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA). The charter and the Responsible Care program both aim to continually improve performance by the chemical industry with regard to product safety, environmental protection, health, plant safety, and security. Within the scope of this voluntary initiative and of the resulting guidelines of certain local Responsible Care programs, we have committed ourselves to focusing on voluntary cooperation with government bodies and other stakeholders that goes far beyond complying with statutory regulations. 


Beyond the specific agreement with the Heavy Water Board, could you shed light on Merck's broader vision for addressing scientific challenges and supporting advancements in the life science industry? Are there upcoming projects or initiatives that demonstrate Merck's dedication to advancing scientific research and innovation globally?



Our purpose is to impact life and health with science, together with customers. Our vision is to create a world where our innovative products, services and digital offerings help create solutions for people across the world and a sustainable future for generations to come. We work in partnership with our customers and people to progress life-saving therapies, diagnostics and preventative solutions, driving scientific breakthroughs with the global scientific community.

We have been significantly investing into our growth areas all over the world. That includes for instance our recent opening of a new Life Science Services facilities in Darmstadt and Hamburg, Germany, making Merck the first and only company to provide full end-to-end integrated services for mRNA.

Some recent launches also demonstrate how we support customers to navigate emerging fields like viral vector production, next-generation sequencing and autologous cell therapies -- like Ultimus® Single-Use Process Container Film offering superior strength and leak resistance in single-use assemblies.

From nanomaterials enhancing battery performance to optimal media culture for producing lab-cultivated meat, the breadth, and depth of our portfolio highlights how life science innovation improves important aspects of our daily lives.

One important driver for business innovation is digitalizing the lab of future, with workflows through AI, machine learning, automation, and other solutions. 

For instance, our recently launched AIDDISON™ drug discovery software is the first AI-powered software-as-a-service platform that bridges the gap between virtual molecule design and real-world manufacturability. It combines generative AI, machine learning, and computer-aided drug design to speed up drug screening. 

Another example is ChemisTwin™, a breakthrough online digital reference materials platform that now provides quality control labs with digital records of physical reference materials.

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