GW Pharma CEO jumps to the U.S., betting on epilepsy approval

Former GW CEO Justin Gover

U.K. drugmaker GW Pharmaceuticals ($GWPH) believes its cannabis-derived epilepsy treatment is on its way to Phase III success and FDA approval, moving its CEO to the U.S. as it builds a North American presence.

The company, headquartered in London, is sending CEO Justin Gover to Southern California and appointing Julian Gangolli, former head of Allergan's North American pharma business, to fill a similar role at GW Pharma. The idea is to lay the groundwork for a stateside commercial operation, the company said, looking ahead to the potential launch of its top prospect.

GW Pharma's lead drug, Epidiolex, is an orally administered droplet crafted from cannabidiol, a part of the marijuana plant that doesn't induce a high. The company is running a pair of Phase III trials to determine how well Epidiolex can reduce seizure rates for patients with Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndromes, two rare epileptic disorders. Over the past few months, GW Pharma's share price has surged on data from small, open-label studies in which the drug has helped prevent seizure, and the company is bullish about its prospects in placebo-controlled trials.

In his decade-plus at Allergan, Gangolli played a major role in the company's growth into a specialty pharma magnate, according to GW Pharma. And the U.K. biotech, pushing a pipeline of cannabis-based treatments, believes it can take a page from that playbook with Epidiolex as an anchor product.

"As Epidiolex nears its final stages of clinical development and as GW prepares for future U.S. launch, the time is right to start building our in-house U.S. commercial infrastructure," Chairman Geoffrey Guy said in a statement.

Despite the relocation of its chief executive, GW Pharma is keeping most of its capacity in the U.K., where it handles R&D and manufacturing. The biotech employs about 325 people in its home country, up for 190 workers two years ago, the company said.

GW Pharma has crafted a pipeline based around its proprietary cannabinoid development platform, anchored by the Bayer-partnered Sativex, which is approved in Europe to treat muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis patients. In the U.S., GW is working with Otsuka Pharmaceuticals to get the spray-delivered treatment FDA-approved to treat cancer pain.

- read the statement