Novartis oncology CEO quits after less than a year

Novartis has appointed Susanne Schaffert to lead its oncology division after incumbent CEO Liz Barrett decided to leave for another job.

Barrett only joined Novartis in January from Pfizer but said that she is unwilling to relocate to Basel where Novartis’ oncology headquarters is based, and has instead accepted a leadership role at a US biotechnology company.

Novartis Oncology Liz Barrett

Liz Barrett

She said: “After much personal reflection, it became clear that my family would be unable to relocate to Basel where the oncology headquarters is based.

“Therefore, I decided to accept a new role as CEO of a US-based biotech. I want to thank [CEO Vas Narasimhan] for the opportunity to work at this great company and to everyone in oncology for their commitment to transforming cancer for patients and their families. I am confident that under Susanne’s leadership, Novartis will continue to expand its impact in oncology.”

Although Barrett is leaving for personal reasons, the timing of the announcement is not ideal for Novartis, which is making a huge investment to get its complex and expensive CAR-T cancer cell therapy Kymriah (tisagenlecleucel) to patients.

After working at Pfizer where she oversaw the successful launch of the company’s blockbuster breast cancer drug Ibrance (palbocilib), Barrett had been leading the launch of Kymriah.

But marketing Kymriah has proved difficult. A complex therapy manufactured from a patient’s own T-cells, the cancer drug has got off to a slow start after US approval last year because hospitals in the US simply don’t have the expertise and capacity in place to administer it.

Barrett told pharmaphorum in an interview last month that the company is looking to cut manufacturing costs by moving it closer to the clinics where patients are treated.

While Kymriah costs $475,000 per patient, Novartis has won plaudits for a novel pricing model that reimburses hospitals when the drug does not work, and the pharma company has worked closely with UK hospitals to get the drug to NHS patients within weeks of European approval in the autumn.

Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan said: “I would like to thank Liz for her leadership and her contributions to our business and our patients this past year. She made a significant positive impact on the organisation in a relatively short time and I wish her the very best in her future endeavours.”

Susanne Schaffer, currently president of Advanced Accelerator Applications (AAA), a pharma company specialising in nuclear medicine that Novartis acquired at the beginning of the year, will take over as CEO of Novartis Oncology on 31 December.

She joined Novartis more than 20 years ago and has led several of the company’s oncology businesses over the last six years, including region head of Novartis Oncology Europe.

She was appointed president of AAA earlier this year after Novartis bought it for $3.9 billion, helping to launch radioligand therapy Lutathera.

Schaffert was also “instrumental” in integrating several oncology drugs bought from GlaxoSmithKline into Novartis, the company said, and served on the board of the joint venture between the two companies until early 2018.

Schaffert said: “Becoming CEO of Novartis Oncology is a great honour and I am humbled to be given the opportunity to lead one of the top-tier oncology businesses in the world. There is still much work to be done to help people with cancer live longer and better lives and I am excited to reimagine medicine together with my colleagues at Novartis.”

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