Activists want Ariad's CEO out the door, report says

Sarissa Capital Management founder Alex Denner

A year after taking a seat on Ariad Pharmaceuticals' ($ARIA) board, activist investor Alex Denner is looking to oust CEO Harvey Berger, CNBC reports.

Denner's Sarissa Capital, the company's largest shareholder, has stayed quiet over the past year, but with Berger up for reelection this year, the firm wants to see a change, according to CNBC. And Ariad can avoid a public proxy fight if it's willing to strike a deal with Denner's group, CNBC's sources said, possibly spelling the end for Berger, the company's founder known for his bullishness and public bluster.

Denner first got involved in Ariad in 2013 when escalating safety concerns over the drug Iclusig sent it on a value-raiding downswing.

The tablet, which treats a form of chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), is Ariad's sole marketed asset, and the company has been slowly working to rebuild its platform after a safety issue forced it off the market for a few months, taking a $2.5 billion bite out of its market cap. The FDA eventually relented, paring back Iclusig's indication to cover only CML patients with the T315I mutation who had failed on other therapies and amending its label to include warnings about Iclusig's risk of blood clotting and heart failure.

Ariad has since been scrambling to create value, selling off Iclusig's Asian rights to Japan's Otsuka in exchange for $77.5 million and flipping some R&D technology to Bellicum Pharmaceuticals ($BLCM) for $50 million.

Now Ariad's R&D operation is back at work on expanding Iclusig's indications, running mid-stage studies in stomach, lung, thyroid and blood cancers associated with certain gene mutations. AP26113, the company's other clinical asset, is in the midst of a Phase II study in non-small cell lung cancer patients.

Denner was the head of healthcare for famed corporate raider Carl Icahn before he struck out on his own with Sarissa in 2011, and he has since found his way into spats with Otsuka and Vivus ($VVUS). Earlier this month, Sarissa took up a 5.8% stake in the troubled Aegerion Pharmaceuticals ($AEGR).

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