Mikael Dolsten set to leave Pfizer, sparking search for CSO successor

Mikael Dolsten, M.D., Ph.D., ⁠told Fierce Biotech back in February that his professional approach is to be "open to change." Now, after 15 years at Pfizer, including a career-defining pandemic period, the chief scientific officer will leave the Big Pharma once the drugmaker finds his successor.

Dolsten joined Pfizer when the company closed a megamerger with Wyeth in 2009. Pfizer made Dolsten president of worldwide R&D the following year. The executive has stayed at the top of Pfizer’s R&D tree ever since, culminating in him gaining additional responsibilities and taking the title of CSO, president, research and development as Pfizer rejigged in response to its Seagen merger in 2023. 

Now, Dolsten is heading toward the exit. The executive is staying put in the near term and will assist Pfizer in its external search for his successor, a process that the company said “is expected to last several months, probably through early next year.” 

Pfizer won approval for more than 35 drugs and vaccines during Dolsten’s tenure, the company said, but one product stands out. Comirnaty, the COVID-19 vaccine Pfizer developed with BioNTech, played a lead role in an immunization campaign that saved an estimated 14.4 million lives in its first year and helped end the pandemic. Pfizer was rewarded with sales that totaled around $75 billion across 2021 and 2022.

Before Dolsten’s era, the idea that Pfizer would be one of the drug developers that responded fastest to the pandemic may have seemed ridiculous. But, under a series of CEOs, Dolsten worked to make Pfizer’s R&D organization faster, more nimble and less bureaucratic. Dolsten drew a direct line between the work to reshape the R&D group and the pace of the pandemic response.  

“This didn’t just happen by pure chance. We have been working on building an R&D organization for the future for more than a decade, and this has included sharpening our focus on several areas, including vaccines, and working with the best and most innovative partners, like BioNTech,” Dolsten told Fierce Biotech in 2021.

While Pfizer was one of the pandemic success stories, it largely missed out on the checkpoint inhibitor party and at least the first wave of blockbuster GLP-1 weight loss drugs. The company made a push into gene therapy only to then sell its preclinical portfolio to AstraZeneca and offloaded assets to Cerevel Therapeutics and Telavant that later attracted multibillion-dollar buyouts. 

Pfizer’s statement about Dolsten’s departure makes no mention about where the executive will land after he leaves the company. Plenty of options could be open to Dolsten, including the well-trodden path from the Big Pharma boardroom to a VC firm.