More than 200 infectious disease researchers from the Boston area converged at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard last week to swap business cards and drug discovery ideas and talk about the biggest medical challenges ahead.
But as they gathered, two biopharmaceutical companies working on anti-infective treatments, Merck & Co. and AstraZeneca PLC, were preparing to shed about 200 employees from research and development labs in Lexington and Waltham.
The Merck and AstraZeneca moves, part of a wave of research cutbacks rippling through the industry, have alarmed scientists, who fear a slowdown in experimental therapies on many fronts. Whether it is just a blip, or a signal that Boston's biotech industry is cooling, remains to be seen.
For the infectious disease researchers, the specific concern was how to develop antibiotics for new drug-resistant "superbug" infections, which kill an estimated 23,000 Americans each year.
"This is hugely disruptive," said Harvard Medical School professor Michael S. Gilmore, who runs a microbiology lab in Boston and helped organize a three-year-old group called the Boston Area Antimicrobial Research Network, which sponsored the Broad event in Cambridge.
"There are few places focused on this [anti-infective] problem in a significant way," he said. "As companies have given up the fight or have been taken over, you break that continuity."
The retrenchment follows a series of recent mergers and acquisitions in the life sciences industry, but not all of it stems from consolidation. Anglo-Swedish drug maker AstraZeneca has conducted several rounds of job cuts in recent years to narrow its research focus.
In the latest case, the company said it will shut its Infection iMed unit in Waltham and lay off 95 people by the end of April. But it also will hire 20 to 30 workers at a wholly owned spin-off that will continue working on anti-infective drugs on a more limited scope.
"There's no denying that there's this pending epidemic of serious bugs," said Alita Miller, head of microbial genetics and genomics at AstraZeneca, who hopes to be working on infection medicines at the new stand-alone company. "We need to get new drugs to patients."
To be sure, scientists and investigators being let go should be in demand in a biotech hub teeming with startups working on drugs to combat infections and other conditions.
"These are talented people who know that space well," said Evan Loh, president and chief medical officer at Paratek Pharmaceuticals Inc., a Boston company working on new antibiotics. "When the opportunity presents itself, I'd definitely like to talk with them."
But the research cuts have renewed concerns about the impact of mergers in a rapidly consolidating industry, underscoring the potential for disruption to research programs.
"If we've learned anything, [it's] that the whole corporate ethos is no longer compatible with anti-infective development," said Gilmore.
Merck moved to pare anti-infectives research, eliminating 120 jobs, shortly after completing its $9.5 billion takeover of Lexington-based Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc.
Cubist had been a leader in bringing antibiotics to the market over the past decade as many drug giants abandoned the field or scaled back in favor of more lucrative chronic disease treatments. Unlike drugs for cancer, heart disease, or multiple sclerosis, which can provide companies with dependable long-term sales, most antibiotics are taken for two weeks or less.
Some promising early-stage programs will be moved from Cubist's labs to Merck's research center in Kenilworth, N.J. Merck continues to review Cubist's clinical research programs, which still employ hundreds of scientists and investigators. They are testing the effectiveness of antibiotics in treating pneumonia and shepherding several experimental treatments through clinical studies.
Merck "remains committed to anti-infective research and development," company spokeswoman Lainie Keller wrote in an e-mail. "By combining our strengths [with Cubist], we are focused on maximizing the potential and reach of our medicines."
Other drug companies have also trimmed research jobs when digesting acquisitions in Massachusetts and beyond.
Amgen Inc., which paid $10.4 billion for cancer drug maker Onyx Pharmaceuticals Inc. in 2013, last week disclosed it was laying off 300 workers and shutting down Onyx's campus outside San Francisco.
French drug giant Sanofi SA, which purchased Genzyme Corp. for $20.1 billion in 2011, last month said it would eliminate about 100 jobs in Massachusetts. The jobs, mostly in Cambridge, include 30 at a small cancer research unit that will be folded into Sanofi's main research organization. In both cases, the cuts were focused on research and development.
On the bright side, more startups and newly public companies have been entering the anti-infective drug business, including Paratek, Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals of Watertown, Spero Therapeutics of Cambridge, and NovoBiotic Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge.
"It's a better time for people in this field," said Aileen Rubio, director of in vitro biology at Cubist, who will be losing her job in the cutback. "There's more companies doing this work."
Longtime industry watchers say the latest cuts mirror actions of the past, when researchers were displaced by big drug company mergers but landed at other firms and continued to pursue drug discovery in their fields. Indeed, Loh and some of his Paratek colleagues are veterans of Wyeth, a drug company acquired by Pfizer in 2009. "There's been a dearth of Big Pharma innovation in antibiotics," said Loh. "The innovation has fallen on the shoulders of the smaller biotechs, and we're excited about it."