Atara hires ex-Genentech SVP to lead global R&D

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Berger joins Atara at a time when the second iteration of the biotech is reaching maturity. (Pixabay)

Atara Biotherapeutics has named Dietmar Berger, M.D., Ph.D., as its global head of R&D. Berger joins after seven years at Roche’s Genentech, during which time he had a hand in the approval of drugs including PD-L1 checkpoint inhibitor Tecentriq.

Genentech hired Berger late in 2011 to oversee HER2 breast cancer programs and promoted him to the position of SVP, global clinical development for its oncology and hematology group a couple of years later. The positions gave Berger a role in many of the cancer drugs that have come down the pipeline at Roche in recent years, including Alecensa, Gazyva and Tecentriq.

Berger inherits a different set of challenges and priorities at Atara, which is closing in on a European approval of cytotoxic T lymphocyte ATA129 while putting the drug through a clutch of clinical trials. But Berger’s new employer thinks the experience he gained at Genentech will translate to Atara.

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“His deep experience building high-performing teams and strategic leadership of cancer immunotherapy development will help us shape the future of our innovative T-cell immunotherapy pipeline and technology platform,” Atara CEO Isaac Ciechanover, M.D., said in a statement. 

Berger joins Atara at a time when the second iteration of the biotech is reaching maturity. Atara spun out of Amgen, where Berger began his career, in 2012 and made a kidney disease candidate its top priority shortly thereafter. That plan went awry in 2015 when the kidney candidate flunked a midphase study, forcing Atara to shift gears and step up its focus on oncology.

Two years later, the switch has begun to pay off as development of ATA129 has entered the endgame. Full phase 3 readouts are still to come but Atara thinks it can package up the data generated to date to support a filing for conditional approval in Europe this year.   

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