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GlaxoSmithKline to close Sirtris unit in Cambridge

Company to absorb a few staffers

While other major pharmaceutical companies are scrambling for a spot in Kendall Square’s hotbed of biotechnology, GlaxoSmithKline is closing the Cambridge headquarters of its Sirtris Pharmaceuticals Inc. subsidiary.

Glaxo bought Sirtris for $720 million in 2008 to acquire research that captured the imagination of many as a potential high-tech fountain of youth. Now Sirtris’s research — and a handful of its employees — will be folded into Glaxo’s research and development operations in Philadelphia, spokeswoman Melinda Stubbee said Tuesday.

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“The research they’ve done has been highly successful,” Stubbee said. “Because of that, the company has a real need for the expertise and resources we have to have to offer from GSK as a whole.”

Sirtris scientists believe a group of enzymes, called sirtuins, are capable of fighting age-related diseases by playing a key role in vital cell processes like DNA repair and programmed cell death.

Just days ago, Sirtris cofounder David­ Sinclair released a study supporting his discovery of the anti-aging effects of a red wine chemical called resveratrol, which he says is one of the compounds that can activate the age-defying sirtuin enzymes.

Sinclair’s claim has sparked a contentious debate in the science community for the last decade, but Glaxo said the red wine chemical is not a major focus moving forward.

“Interestingly enough, we aren’t really pursuing resveratrol at all,” Stubbee said. “We bought Sirtris not for their resveratrol research, but for all the scientific knowledge they had around sirtuins, which has great potential.”

Stubbee said Glaxo is instead interested in developing Sirtris’s research on other compounds that could activate sirtuins.

Much has not been published yet, she said, but the company hopes to develop drugs to treat disorders including Type 2 diabetes, inflammatory disease, and cancer.

“We’re excited to take this research to the next stage of drug development,” she said. “We hope to move this to the clinic within two to three years.”

The Cambridge office employs about 60 staffers. But Glaxo said only a core group of employees will be reassigned to Philadelphia.

Stubbee said Glaxo has appointed Sirtris’s vice president of preclinical research, Jim ­Ellis, to lead research in Philadelphia. Chief executive George Vlasuk is also likely to take on a new role, she said.

Though the move is expected to leave no Glaxo employees in Cambridge, Stubbee said the company hopes to continue its connection to the Boston area.

“We still have quite a few good, strong relationships with the tech community in Boston, and we’re committed to continuing that presence through our work with Harvard and our office in Waltham,” she said.

Alyssa Edes can be reached at alyssa.edes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alyssaedes.
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