Ex-Novartis Oncology CEO Liz Barrett joins UroGen

UroGen Pharma CEO Liz Barrett (Novartis)

Ex-Novartis Oncology CEO Liz Barrett has joined UroGen Pharma. Barrett is taking over as CEO of the uro-oncology specialist at a time when it is working on a rolling NDA that could lead to its first drug approval.

Barrett ended a 10-month stint as CEO of Novartis Oncology shortly before Christmas after deciding that her family would be unable to relocate to Basel, Switzerland. At that point, Barrett revealed she would land at a biotech but kept mum about the identity of her new employer. Now, UroGen has revealed it has pulled off a coup and secured the services of the ex-Novartis Oncology CEO.

As CEO of UroGen, Barrett will oversee the rolling FDA submission of lead candidate UGN-101, a formulation of mitomycin that uses the company’s reverse thermal gel technology to treat low-grade upper tract urothelial carcinoma. 

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With UGN-101 on track to win approval in 2019, one of Barrett’s tasks is to build a small commercial organization to support the anticipated launch. In parallel, Barrett will work to identify additional applications of the reverse thermal gel technology—which increases body cavity dwell time to boost efficacy—and bring other technologies and assets on board.  

“There's nothing that we've seen so far that makes us think that you can't use this [gel] technology across many molecules. You can attach it to chemo. You can attach it to target therapies. You can attach it to large molecules,” Barrett said. “We are talking to companies about collaborations for potentially partnering on taking some small molecules and using them with the technology.”

Greater use of the gel technology is one way UroGen may expand its pipeline under Barrett’s leadership beyond the urothelial carcinoma, bladder cancer and overactive bladder assets currently in clinical testing.

The other way is to bring in uro-oncology assets unrelated to the gel technology. Barrett is open to entering into partnerships, collaborations and licensing deals to bring in assets that deliver on her plans to position UroGen for sustainable, long-term growth.

The fact Barrett can envisage strategies that will have a huge effect on the future of UroGen is part of the appeal of the new role. After spending almost nine years at Pfizer and 13 years at Johnson & Johnson earlier in her career, Barrett had an eye on moving away from Big Pharma when the Novartis job became available. At UroGen, Barrett will get to scratch that biotech itch.  

“It’s the attraction of being able to build something from scratch and really have an impact versus dealing frankly with a big company where you can have an impact ... but it's a lot harder when you go through all the governances. It's difficult to move a big ship,” Barrett said.  

Barrett has experience of life at a smaller organization from her time at Cephalon, where she built the oncology unit a little more than a decade ago. That gave Barrett a taste for the extent to which it is possible to move the needle at a small company. Cephalon wasn’t big in oncology when Barrett joined in 2006. By 2011, two years after Barrett left, Cephalon had a fast-growing, $400 million-a-year cancer drug that helped it land a $6.8 billion buyout bid from Teva. 

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