GW Pharmaceuticals to build $100m medical cannabis site in Kent

The new owner of a British-based pharmaceuticals company that makes cannabis-based treatments is to invest $100 million in a manufacturing facility in Kent.

Jazz Pharmaceuticals, which agreed a $7.2 billion takeover of GW Pharmaceuticals a year ago — understood to be the largest takeover of a UK-based biotech — is to begin construction of the 60,000 sq ft factory at its existing site at Kent Science Park in Sittingbourne.

It is set to create more than 100 “highly skilled” jobs after it opens in 2024 and signals a boost to attempts by the government and industry to rebuild Britain’s drug manufacturing capabilities. Chris Tovey, head of Europe and International at Jazz Pharmaceuticals, said that the investment was “far and away the largest capital investment in the organisation’s history” and would result in more than 500 staff at the site, the largest in the combined group.

GW was founded in 1998 when it secured a licence from the Home Office to grow cannabis in southern England. It floated on the Alternative Investment Market in 2001 before listing on Nasdaq in the United States in 2013.

It made a breakthrough in 2018 when the US Food and Drug Administration approved its lead product, Epidiolex, a cannabis-based treatment for severe childhood epilepsy. The active ingredient used in Epidiolex is cannabidiol, a part of the plant that does not make users high. The site in Kent, formerly owned by Shell, has been occupied by GW since the company’s creation and was chosen because it had a leading research glasshouse. GW’s cannabis is grown commercially at secret locations across the country.

The site manufactures the extract, the active pharmaceutical ingredients and the formulated drug products. Its expansion will increase capacity for Epidiolex and Sativex, its first product, which treats symptoms related to multiple sclerosis. Jazz is seeking to secure approval for Sativex in the US.

The new facility will support the manufacturing of cannabinoid medicines under development from a pipeline that includes nabiximols, which is in phase III trials as a treatment associated with multiple sclerosis. It also has earlier-stage product candidates for other neuroscience disorders, including autism spectrum disorder.

Jazz, which acquired GW last May in a cash and shares deal, is valued at $9.8 billion on Nasdaq and is focused on neuroscience and oncology. It is domiciled in Dublin and has sites across North America and Europe, including in Oxford, Cambridge and London. About a third of Jazz’s 3,000 employees are based in the UK.

The expansion of the Kent site is designed to increase group revenues to $5 billion in 2025 from $3 billion last year. Bruce Cozadd, chairman and chief executive of Jazz, said it would ensure R&D activities were not “crowded out”.

George Freeman, minister for science, research and innovation, said that the investment was a “big sign of confidence in the UK life science ecosystem . . . [and] of UK expertise in cannabinoid science and medicines”. Ministers have expressed a commitment to ensuring that Britain rebuilds its drugs manufacturing infrastructure, following an industry shift towards using offshoring and contract manufacturers, and officials have been given the task of working with the NHS to identify manufacturing requirements.

The group has not received government support as part of the investment but Tovey, 56, said that it was “very reliant on government leaning into everything that it says it’s going to do about continuing to create a really rich talent pool for the technical staff that we require on site”.

GW’s product approvals have helped to attract employees and distinguish the company from “cloudier” parts of the cannabis industry, he said. “What Covid has taught us is that if a medicine is involved it doesn’t matter how desperate things are, people still prefer regulatory-approved medicines.”

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