Growing Merck Durham Site Reflects Huge Legacy of Maurice Hilleman

Merck has just disclosed plans to expand its hiring in Durham by 100 more employees in the next few years to hike output of a bladder cancer drug.  

Merck logo

As you walk through the imposing glass front entrance at Merck’s Maurice R. Hilleman Center for Vaccine Manufacturing in Durham, one of the first things you notice is a display highlighting the accomplishments of the site’s namesake.

Maurice Hilleman, Ph.D., probably wouldn’t be impressed. 

He had little interest in taking credit for his achievements, according to Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a long-time friend and collaborator. But – Fauci told the British Medical Journal – “If you look at the whole field of vaccinology, nobody was more influential.”

Maurice Hilleman, Ph.D.
Maurice Hilleman, Ph.D. -- Merck photos

Hilleman, a 30-year veteran of Merck who died in 2005, is considered by many to be the father of modern vaccines. He developed more than 40 of them. It’s a record unequaled by anyone in his field, anywhere. He’s credited with saving more lives than any other medical scientist of the 20th century. And his vaccines continue to save millions of lives today.

Hilleman’s productivity was – in a word – amazing, particularly when you consider the difficulty of creating even one successful vaccine in a career. According to Merck, new vaccines can take up to 20 years to develop and involve tens of thousands of patients in safety and efficacy trials. Only about 6% make it all the way from early stage development to patients.

Durham site a tribute to Hilleman, key to Merck vax strategy

The Hilleman Center is a tribute to Maurice Hilleman’s past accomplishments. And it’s key to Merck’s future as one of the world’s powerhouse vaccine manufacturers. 

“The Durham plant plays a tremendous role in controlling the global spread of preventable diseases,” said Bill Bullock, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s senior vice president for economic development and statewide operations. “It’s an impressive example of the strength and diversity of this state’s biotechnology and pharmaceutical sector.”

Merck's Hilleman Center vaccine factory in Durham
The growing Maurice R. Hilleman Center for Vaccine Manufacturing in Durham.

Merck broke ground for the high-tech manufacturing plant in 2004 on 262 acres in Treyburn Corporate Park on the north side of Durham. Four years later, the company completed the first construction phase at the site and named it for Hilleman. 

Today – after several more expansions and a total investment of close to $1.6 billion – the Hilleman Center is one the newest, largest and most innovative vaccine manufacturing facilities in the world. Its 900,000-plus square feet of real estate houses the production of several Merck pediatric, adolescent and adult products, including the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine Hilleman originally developed. More growth is on the way.

A new $650 million, 225,000-square-foot addition – announced a year ago – will manufacture the active ingredient for Merck’s recombinant human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. 

Initial regulatory approvals for HPV manufacturing at the site are targeted for 2024, according to Durham site leader Amanda Taylor. The new facility will eventually add about 400 jobs to the plant’s current workforce of more than 800. 

Company to expand production of cancer drug

An off-site manufacturing facility nearby employs more than 100 Durham-area residents. It’s one of the few remaining global producers of TICE Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG), a medicine to treat certain forms of bladder cancer. The site was acquired in Merck’s 2009 merger with Schering-Plough. 

Merck unexpectedly became the only manufacturer of BCG for patients in many countries in 2012. The company said increased global demand has exceeded current manufacturing output.

It has just announced plans to build a new facility as part of the Hilleman Center that will produce TICE BCG. When it’s fully operational, it will triple current manufacturing capacity and eventually add 100 new jobs locally. Construction is expected to take five to six years to complete. 

“As demand for this medicine has increased over the last several years, we recognized the need to do more,” said Julie Gerberding, M.D., Merck’s executive vice president and chief patient officer. “We look forward to the day when we can meet the needs of all patients whose physicians have prescribed TICE BCG for them.”

Volume, tech, people make Hilleman Center unique

Amanda Taylor
Amanda Taylor

One of the things that make the Hilleman Center unique is the sheer volume of vaccines it produces. This year, Taylor said, the site will supply close to 50 million doses to global markets. And that’s before HPV manufacturing comes on line.

Vaccines from Durham find their way to patients in more than 80 countries. That means multiple compliance and safety inspections at the site each year by regulatory authorities from around the world, Taylor pointed out.

The facility also is extensively computerized. And it’s run by a diverse and highly skilled workforce. Durham uses more than 80 different automation systems to handle everything from planning through production and product testing, all in a virtually paperless environment. 

Taylor said the highest priority, always, is workplace safety. The site is good at it. That’s been particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’ve focused on keeping all our employees safe, while we continue to operate in a COVID-19-constrained climate,” she added. “And we’ll produce as much, if not more vaccines this year than we have in the past.”

The strength of diversity

One of the topics Taylor most likes to discuss is the diversity of the Durham workforce. “We really value the wide multiplicity of cultural backgrounds and viewpoints our employees bring to the site,” she noted. “It’s those different perspectives – and our colleagues’ engagement – that help make Durham successful, as well as a great place to work.”

It’s no accident the site views diversity as one of its strengths. Taylor said Durham supports all 10 of the company’s Employee Business Resource Groups – or EBRGs. These organizations promote workforce diversity and encourage community service. 

More than a third of Durham’s employees are members of at least one EBRG. They support the site’s various ethnic and minority populations, the LGBTQ community, veterans, the disabled and a number of faith-based groups. Their presence is a win for everyone, according to Taylor. 

“Employees who feel they belong are much more likely to develop a personal connection to their jobs and to be more productive,” she explained. “Since the makeup of the Durham workforce reflects the community at large, we all build a better understanding of the customers and patients we serve.”

The EBRGs also help promote volunteerism in the community. The Durham workforce spends, on average, several thousand hours each year volunteering with local service organizations. And Merck’s annual “Neighbor of Choice” grants have provided close to $1.5 million to various non-profits in the area since 2011. The Hilleman Center also supports the local business and educational community. 

“We believe we have an important role to play, both by producing the vaccines to help keep people healthy and by supporting the Durham community,” Taylor pointed out. “Dr. Hilleman was known as someone who got the job done. We want to continue to build on his legacy.” 

Bryant Haskins, NCBiotech Writer
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