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Senior EU research official to join Merck & Co.

Ruxandra Draghia-Akli, deputy director general for research, in surprise move to US pharma group in June

Ruxandra Draghia-Akli
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A senior research official at the European Commission, Ruxandra Draghia-Akli, is leaving to join US pharmaceutical company Merck & Co.’s global vaccines division on June 1 as its vice president for public health and scientific affairs.

The move comes as a surprise, with Draghia-Akli less than one year in her job, having been appointed deputy director-general last September.

In that position, her duties included supervising health research, among other fields. EC regulations  generally prohibit departing staff from lobbying the EU on issues they used to handle.

But in response to an email query from Science|Business, Draghia-Akli said of her new role with US-based Merck & Co.: “This position at Global Vaccines and the focus on global vaccination and public health is not what I am/was doing at the Commission, but is related with my previous work in the US.” She added that her decision to leave Brussels is also motivated by family issues.

France’s Jack Metthey, who entered the Commission in 1988, succeeds her as acting deputy director general for research and innovation. The department now has three deputy directors general – one for administration, one for open science and innovation, and a third – Metthey’s group - overseeing specific research programmes. Metthey has previously served in a variety of positions in the executive, including as director of the European Research Council executive agency.

Draghia-Akli has been an unusual Commission staffer: A medical doctor with extensive start-up company experience in the US, and a rare woman at the top of the male-dominated science and technology hierarchy in Brussels.

Prior to joining the Commission in 2009, Draghia-Akli spent nearly 20 years as a medical doctor and a researcher in Romania, France and the US. She has a PhD in human genetics from the Romanian Academy of Medical Sciences and the University Carol Davilla in Bucharest, from which she also obtained an MD. She was a post-doc and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine in the US. 

Then she spent several years as start-up company researcher – for instance, leading a team that developed a new gene technology to increase the fertility of sows in pig-breeding. She led gene therapy and vaccine research as vice president at one start-up, ADViSYS Inc. in Woodlands, Texas  – and then, after its merger with VGX Pharmaceuticals in 2007, became vice president of research for that firm until she left for Brussels two years later.

In the Commission, the Romanian official initially served as head of the health directorate of DG Research and Innovation, running a team of some 150 people and a budget of €1.3 billion annually. There, she was a supporter of industry cooperation with public sector research organisations, through broad public-private programmes such as the EU’s Innovative Medicines Initiative and through specific research areas such as precision medicine. 
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In October 2016, the Science|Network of universities, companies and innovation organisations gathered in Brussels to debate the future of EU R&D programmes. The result: A profusion of ideas, recommendations and warnings for the future of EU research and innovation.