Gilead lures Riva from Novartis to lead oncology team

Gilead has filled the gap at the top of its oncology team by persuading Alessandro Riva to leave Novartis. Riva joins a unit that was rocked by clinical setbacks and the departure of a key executive in 2016, but has a M&A war chest that could support the rapid rebuilding of its pipeline.

Going into 2016, oncology looked like an area Gilead could find growth to offset the forecast fall of its hepatitis C franchise, but the year turned out worse than expected. Philippe Bishop left his post as head of the hematology and oncology unit 15 months after arriving from Genentech. Six studies of Zydelig were halted amid safety concerns. And the year drew to a close with the release of less-than-stellar phase 3 data on momelotinib.

Responsibility for improving the fortunes of the unit will now fall on Riva, who joins Gilead after spending 12 years heading up global oncology development at Novartis. On Riva’s watch, Novartis wrapped up a pivotal trial of CDK 4/6 drug LEE011 early, took a CAR-T program to the cusp of FDA approval and secured regulatory nods for products including Farydak, Odomzo and Zykadia.

Perhaps as importantly given doubts about the strength of Gilead’s cancer pipeline, the Novartis oncology unit wheeled and dealed during Riva’s stint at the helm, although it has been most active in adding preclinical assets. In recent years Novartis has padded its pipeline by penning pacts with biotechs including Surface Oncology, Xencor and Xoma.

Statements made by Gilead management prior to the hiring of Riva suggest the identification of opportunities for the Big Biotech to put its cash to work will be at the top of the new executive’s to-do list.

“Management had mentioned that they would expect the new heme/onc head to make an immediate impact on prioritizing, assessing and swiftly acting on the abundance of external oncology opportunities that exist in the market,” Jefferies Brian Abrahams wrote in a note to investors.

Other people will need to step up and manage those tasks at Novartis, which has faced upheaval of its own over the past 12 months. The folding of the cell and gene therapy team into the larger oncology group saw 120 people—including unit head Usman Azam—leave the company. And in September Novartis Oncology veteran Hugh O'Dowd left the company to take up the CEO post at Neon Therapeutics.