AZ’s chief medical officer leaves for small biopharma firm

AstraZeneca’s (AZ) chief medical officer (CMO) Briggs Morrison is leaving the company after three years, saying he will take the top job at a small, unnamed biopharma company.

US citizen Morrison – who also serves as head of development at AZ – will leave the company in a matter of weeks, according to the company. His development responsibilities will be taken over by chief executive Pascal Soriot on an interim basis, with the company’s head of cardiovascular and metabolic drug development, Elisabeth Björk, taking on the CMO role.

The abrupt departure has come as a surprise given his relatively short tenure at AZ and the pivotal role he has played both in implementing Soriot’s pipeline-regenerating programme and defending the company from an unwanted takeover by Pfizer last year.

Despite his senior role, AZ has not released an official statement on Morrison’s departure on the grounds that he is not a member of the company’s board of directors. The company says he is leaving the company on good terms to take on a CEO role.

Shares in AZ dipped a couple of points on news of the resignation, but have been regaining ground amid recognition that AZ has senior figures ready to step into the breach, including Soriot’s other 2012 hires Mene Pangalos and Bahija Jallal.

Nevertheless, the revelation comes at a difficult time for the company as it tries to fulfil the promises made to investors at the height of the Pfizer interest, including a pledge to increase sales to $45 billion by 2023, a sizeable increase on the $26 billion it made last year.

Since taking over, Soriot has implemented a major campaign of acquiring and licensing new projects – particularly in cancer and specifically immuno-oncology – to complement its in-house R&D activities and help restore and exceed historical growth rates eclipsed by patent expiries on blockbuster products such as gastrointestinal therapy Nexium (esomeprazole) and cholesterol-lowerer Crestor (rosuvastatin).

The company has identified six growth platforms – oncology, respiratory therapies, diabetes, antiplatelet drug Brilinta (ticagrelor), the resurgent Japanese market and emerging markets – that it believes will help it meet its ambitious sales goals.

At last count it had more than a dozen new products in phase III trials and slated to reach the market in the next few years, including lung cancer drugs MEDI4736 and AZD9291, selumetinib for uveal melanoma and tremelimumab for mesothelioma, among others.

The company has suffered a couple of setbacks of late, however, such as Amgen’s decision to hand back rights to psoriasis candidate brodalumab, while a recent trial of Brilinta for the secondary prevention of atherothrombotic events in heart attack patients showed the drug was effective but had a worrying level of bleeding risk.

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