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UPDATE 2-U.S. drugmaker Merck's research chief Roger Perlmutter to retire

(Adds details on Perlmutter and his successor)

Oct 2 (Reuters) - Merck & Co Inc’s Roger Perlmutter, a force behind the success of blockbuster cancer drug Keytruda, will retire after seven years at the helm of the company’s research and development division, the U.S. drugmaker said on Friday.

The 68-year-old pharma veteran, who steps down on Jan. 1, 2021, is currently president of Merck Research Labs and, under his watch, Keytruda has received approvals to treat newly diagnosed forms of advanced lung cancer, while eclipsing the sales of Bristol Myers Squibb Co’s rival drug, Opdivo.

Merck rehired Perlmutter from Amgen in 2013 at a time when its most important experimental drugs were suffering from a series of setbacks.

“Since rejoining the company seven years ago, Dr. Roger Perlmutter has had a profound impact on Merck and the patients we exist to serve,” Merck Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Frazier said in a statement.

“During his tenure as its President, Merck Research Laboratories have made historic breakthroughs in immuno-oncology and other fields of medicine that have both transformed clinical practice and vastly improved patient outcomes.”

Merck acquired Keytruda in its 2009 acquisition of Schering Plough, but only after competitor Bristol Myers started to have some success with its own immuno-oncology drugs did the company step-up development.

Merck said it had received more than 100 regulatory approvals for its medicines and vaccines globally, since Perlmutter took charge of its highly respected laboratories.

Dean Li, who joined Merck’s R&D team in 2017, will take over from Perlmutter. He has co-founded multiple biotech companies based upon research conducted in his laboratory at the university, Merck said. (Reporting By Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru and Michael Erman; Editing by Shailesh Kuber; Editing by Anil D’Silva)

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