Ex-Novartis CMO John Tsai pops up at Forcefield

John Tsai

Novartis’ former chief medical officer John Tsai has returned to a senior position in biopharma, taking the role of chief executive of UK start-up Forcefield Therapeutics.

Tsai left Novartis last year – four years after joining the company from Amgen – amid a major restructuring drive implemented by CEO Vas Narasimhan, aimed at trimming $1 billion off its cost base and preparing for a leaner structure following the divestment of generics unit Sandoz, due next month.

In the interim, Tsai has been working as an executive partner at life science investment group Syncona, a seed investor in London-based Forcefield, which uncloaked last year with a mission to develop therapeutics to protect heart function following an acute myocardial infarction (AMI).

Forcefield’s R&D is founded on the work of Professor Mauro Giacca of King’s College London, whose team discovered three naturally occurring cardioprotective proteins that, in preclinical testing, have been shown to protect cardiac tissue after an AMI.

Studies in animals suggest they can preserve cardiac function and interrupt the cascade of events that can lead to heart failure. If the approach works, it could end a decades-long lack of pharmacological progress in therapies for post-AMI patients.

Tsai replaces Richard Francis, who took up the role of president and CEO of Israeli drugmaker Teva Pharmaceuticals at the start of this year.

He will be tasked with ushering Forcefield’s programmes into clinical testing, as well as overseeing the further development of its FunSel (Functional Selection) platform for drug discovery, created when Prof Giacca was working at the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) in Trieste, Italy.

FunSel is described as being “gene and mechanism of action agnostic,” seeking out candidates based on the physiology of the organ and disease in question.

“Despite advancements in healthcare, patients still have a 50% chance of death after an acute heart attack,” said Tsai.

He added that current standard of care treatments for heart attacks fail to prevent cell death and progression to heart failure, leading to death and loss of quality of life, and pose a significant economic burden to healthcare systems globally.

“The Forcefield team has identified a lead candidate protein which has been shown in preclinical models to be cardioprotective and to arrest the loss of heart cells following a heart attack. This has the potential to create a paradigm shift in helping people survive and maintain quality of life after an attack," Tsai commented.