Bristol-Myers fires off a lawsuit to sideline R&D defector headed to rival AstraZeneca

Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) is the leader right now in immuno-oncology and checkpoint inhibitors and it clearly is willing to get aggressive about defending that early edge. In a move that shows just how competitive this blockbuster field has become, the big biotech wants to force one of its ex-R&D leaders in I/O to sit out the next year rather than go to work for a major league rival.

David Berman

The subject of the suit is David Berman, a researcher who spent the last 10 years in the ranks of Bristol-Myers Squibb's cancer drug R&D division, rising to one of the top roles in the development of new checkpoint inhibitors. But he quit last week, and Bristol-Myers believes that the insights and knowledge he gained could threaten Bristol-Myers' multibillion-dollar game plan in cancer if he passes them on to AstraZeneca ($AZN).

Late last week Bristol filed suit against Berman, a researcher who it now believes is busily at work in AstraZeneca's MedImmune division, which has been steering a new PD-L1 checkpoint inhibitor ahead in the clinic. The lawsuit, which was reviewed by FierceBiotech over the weekend, offers a glimpse into the highly competitive world of immuno-oncology drug development--where a new wave of products worth potentially tens of billions of dollars are being readied for commercialization.

In addition to a standard noncompete, which Bristol-Myers says prohibits Berman from sharing any of the knowledge he gained for 12 months, the biotech adds that Berman also confirmed his commitments when he accepted an equity package including bonus shares of company stock.

Berman abruptly resigned May 26, according to the claim, shrugging off the noncompete, and Bristol fired off its lawsuit two days later. Bristol alleges:

"Berman's position at AstraZeneca will be very similar to his role at BMS; he will be working for a direct competitor of BMS concerning products that compete directly with BMS, in some cases will be contracting and cultivating relationships with the same I/O thought leaders and medical leaders he met through his employment at BMS. Furthermore, Berman will be directly involved in the research and development of products that compete with Yervoy and Opdivo and other earlier stage BMS I/O pipeline products and combinations thereof. It will be impossible for Berman to perform these roles without (even unknowingly) drawing upon the vast knowledge and experience regarding I/O that he obtained at BMS--I/O's industry leader."

And to back up its leadership role, AstraZeneca quotes a couple of news outlets, including a story from FiercePharma.

Bristol-Myers is particularly worried by a strategic I/O threat that AstraZeneca poses through its collaboration work underway with Celgene. And it cited AstraZeneca's rival PD-L1 drug MEDI4736 and tremelimumab. 

"The competition is especially fierce between BMS and AstraZeneca because BMS was able to get its drugs to market faster," the suit adds. And it now wants Delaware's Court of Chancery to stop him from starting his new job at AstraZeneca/MedImmune.