AstraZeneca hires R&D executive to lead breast cancer research, $7B Daiichi drug pact

AstraZeneca's new Cambridge, U.K. R&D center and global HQ - 2nd floor
This comes after AstraZeneca has shaken up its R&D and commercial units amid departures and new hires. (AstraZeneca)

The R&D executive shake-up at AstraZeneca continues apace as it hires academic cancer researcher Dr. Sunil Verma to run its breast cancer work.

Formally, Dr. Verma becomes the U.K. Big Pharma’s vice president and head of breast cancer strategy and global clinical leader in oncology R&D.

In practical terms, Dr. Verma will lead the team for its $7 billion Daiichi-partnered drug trastuzumab deruxtecan (aka DS-8201), an antibody-drug conjugate (ADC) with an FDA breakthrough tag, as well as the strategy of AZ’s overall breast cancer portfolio. He will come on board this summer, and AZ tells FierceBiotech it is a new role within the company.

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This comes amid departures, rejigs and new hires across its R&D and commercial units, which earlier this year saw it hire controversial scientist José Baselga to run a newly formed cancer-focused unit.

Baselga was the target of critical pieces from ProPublica and The New York Times last year, alleging he had been getting paid by pharma companies for work but had not been disclosing it properly.

He had been physician-in-chief at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, but was forced out last fall over the allegations—something he later took full responsibility for, although this didn’t save his job.

At the same time, Mene Pangalos, who was previously responsible for the company’s Innovative Medicines and Early Development Biotech Unit, took the helm at another new unit, the R&D unit for BioPharmaceuticals, which focuses on research for cardiovascular, renal and metabolism and respiratory—most of its work outside cancer.

This came after the loss of Dr. Sean Bohen, its former chief medical officer and EVP of global medicines development, which followed closely in the exiting footsteps of Bahija Jallal, Ph.D., former head of its biologics arm MedImmune, now CEO of Immunocore, as well as portfolio strategy chief Mark Mallon.

RELATED: AstraZeneca puts $6.9B on the table for a Daiichi Sankyo cancer drug

Verma comes to AZ from leading the Department of Oncology at the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. He also served as the medical director for Tom Baker Cancer Centre, Alberta Health Services.

AZ will tap Verma’s expertise, as he has been the lead investigator for the first ADC to be approved for breast cancer and solid tumors, and helped shape clinical trials in CDK4/6 inhibitors, immuno-oncology therapies.

Baselga said of Verma’s hiring: “AstraZeneca is delighted to welcome Dr. Verma, a proven leader in the development of innovative therapies in breast cancer, notably in the field of HER2-positive disease including antibody drug conjugates.

“His expertise will bring enormous value as we continue to develop trastuzumab deruxtecan, an ADC which we believe has the potential to become a transformative new medicine for patients with unmet need. Our ability to attract globally-recognized talent and further strengthen our industry-leading bench in oncology speaks to the strength of our science and our pipeline.”

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