GSK must continue to improve R&D, says CEO Walmsley

GSK's Emma Walmsley

It’s been two and a half years since Emma Walmsley took over as CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, and at the time was seen as the protégé of her predecessor Sir Andrew Witty.

Coming from the consumer side of the business, many people assumed that Walmsley would continue on the trajectory plotted by Witty, focusing on over the counter medicines and the company’s vaccines business.

But Walmsley told the FT Global Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Conference in London that even during the selection process for the top job it became clear that GSK's R&D needed a major revamp.

The company's profits were propped up for years by the respiratory drug Advair, which had remained unchallenged by generics in the US even though its patent expired in 2010.

But the generics are finally on the US market after rivals such as Mylan produced the trial data required by the FDA, meaning the pressure is on GSK to find new products to make up for the lost sales.

She told the conference in an interview with the FT’s pharmaceuticals editor Sarah Neville: “GSK needed to improve its track record on shareholder returns.”

After taking over in April 2017, Walmsley has completely reconfigured GSK’s R&D operation, and decided to spin out the company’s consumer business into a joint venture with Pfizer.

The company’s senior management team has also been revamped, with perhaps the most eye-catching appointment being that of chief scientific officer Hal Barron, whose illustrious career in pharma includes a stint as chief medical officer at Roche.

Walmsley has also refocused the company’s R&D efforts in cancer, something that was deprioritised under Witty, who decided to give the company’s portfolio of approved oncology drugs to Novartis in a complicated swap deal with a group of vaccines coming the other way.

Under her leadership GSK has acquired the cancer biotech Tesaro and its PARP-class cancer drug Zejula (niraparib), which competes against AstraZeneca’s Lynparza.

This continued focus on research is vital, not just for GSK, but the entire industry as it struggles to improve the way it is perceived by the general public said Walmsley.

“The most important thing we do is innovate. We (GSK) spend £4 billion plus on R&D a year,” she added, saying that the industry as a whole must demonstrate to the public the societal benefits that it creates.

“We have to do a better job at communicating that,” said Walmsley.

Another key feature of the revamped GSK is “single point accountability” in R&D decision making, instead of the structure in place under Witty where research was conducted by lots of small competing units.

Walsmley took the view that these competing mini-biotechs were not delivering the necessary results and moved to a more traditional structure with Barron taking responsibility for the big calls in R&D.

But Walmsley suggested that the appointment of Hal Barron will be crucial, adding that the revamped R&D approach he is spearheading has been "uncomfortable" for some people in the company but has already created an improvement in “speed and quality and accountability."