Axovant CEO David Hung quits after Alzheimer’s drug failure

Last month the biotech Axovant was rocked by the failure of its star drug intepirdine in Alzheimer’s disease – and the fall-out is still being felt, with CEO David Hung deciding to walk out.

In a statement Axovant said that Hung had “resigned to pursue other opportunities”, although he will stay on as scientific advisor to the Roivant family of companies, led by CEO Vivek Ramaswamy.

The news follows a separate announcement from Roivant, of which Axovant is a subsidiary, that it is to invest in a development deal with Poxel over a diabetes drug.

Hung had been in charge of Axovant for less than a year, after taking over last April from its founder Ramaswamy.

At the time Hung was a highly sought-after leader, having sold cancer biotech Medivation to Pfizer for $14.3 billion.

The team of former Medivation managers that joined Axovant along with Hung has also quit – chief operations officer Marion McCourt, and directors Kate Falberg, Patrick Machado and Tony Vernon.

Replacing Hung as CEO is Dr Pavan Cheruvu, who has worked with Roivant since 2015, and was appointed to its executive leadership team last year.

Cheruvu is a doctor who qualified at Johns Hopkins Hospital and continued training in a clinical fellowship in cardiovascular medicines at the University of California in San Francisco.

Dr Roger Jeffs, former president and co-CEO of United Therapeutics, and George Bickerstaff, former CFO of Novartis Pharma, have also joined Axovant’s board of directors.

Failure

It’s no surprise that Hung has decided to walk out – the results from intepirdine announced early last month were disastrous, suggesting that in some cases it actually worsened dementia symptoms compared with placebo.

The Basel-based biotech had bought rights to intepirdine from GlaxoSmithKline for just $5 million, but decided to axe development after the results from the phase 2b HEADWAY trial.

Axovant then compounded the error by wrongly reporting a “p-value” from a separate trial in Lewy body dementia and Parkinson’s involving another drug, nelotanserin.

The company wrongly said the “p” value in an assessment of positive symptoms showed a statistically significant improvement – but in fact the value instead showed only a numerical improvement that was as likely to have been caused by chance than by the effect of the drug.

This proved highly embarrassing for Axovant as it tried to make a good impression on investors at the JP Morgan healthcare conference in San Francisco, where biotechs begin the year by trying to drum up funding for their drugs.

Axovant now has only two drugs left in its pipeline – nelotanserin and RVT-104, an early-stage combination therapy for Alzheimer’s and dementia with Lewy bodies.

Hung said in a statement: “I have appreciated the opportunity to lead Axovant and have enjoyed working with the teams at both Roivant and Axovant.

“I hope to continue to assist these teams as a scientific advisor to the Roivant family of companies.”

Vivek Ramaswamy, who is CEO of Roivant Sciences and still chair of Axovant’s board of directors, said: “I would like to thank David for his commitment to Axovant over the past 10 months, and we wish him well in his future endeavours.”

Life may also be tough for those left at Axovant, which Ramaswamy said will have to act as a “lean, entrepreneurial organisation” in the near-term.

Trading had halted in Axovant prior to the announcement, which provoked a strong reaction on twitter.

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