Iannone walks out on troubled Immunomedics a year after taking CMO job

The cancer biotech poached its chief medical officer from AstraZeneca but will now need a replacement. (La Jolla Institute)

Last April, Immunomedics scored a former AstraZeneca cancer executive as its research lead; one year down the line, and Robert Iannone, M.D., is moving on as the biotech attempts to rebound from an FDA rejection and the loss of its CEO.

The troubled biotech—which saw a potential $2 billion deal with Seattle Genetics scrapped two years back in a whirlwind that also saw the biotech’s board ax its former president and CEO Cynthia Sullivan—brought in Iannone to help steady the ship and focus on its cancer pipeline.

Iannone brought more than 13 years of experience in clinical drug development, having most recently worked on immuno-oncology programs at AstraZeneca and its biologics arm MedImmune.

There, he oversaw the development of the company’s late  I-O offering Imfinzi, and was most recently senior vice president and head of I-O and global medicines development at the Britain-headquartered Big Pharma.

He joined AZ back in 2014, coming from rival Merck, where he was a development leader for PD-1 inhibitor star Keytruda and was a big get for the company at a difficult time.

According to the company, Iannone “has decided to leave the company to pursue a career opportunity close to his home in Pennsylvania.” We don’t know what opportunity that is yet, but he used the Scott Gottlieb defense, saying he wanted to be closer to home.

He explained: “I am proud to have been part of Immunomedics and have full confidence in the capabilities of the team to bring sacituzumab govitecan to patients in a timely manner and help patients with difficult-to-treat cancers across the U.S. and the world. My decision comes after careful consideration and is driven by my personal priorities and a desire to be close to my family after many years of having worked far away from home.”

Behzad Aghazadeh, executive chairman of Immunomedics, added: “We thank Rob for his service to the Company, and wish him well in his new endeavors. Over the past year, Rob has played a key role in establishing and executing Immunomedics’ clinical development and regulatory strategy. Rob has built a strong R&D organization with deep clinical experience in oncology drug development and managing global clinical trials.

“Over the coming period, Rob will work closely with Company management and his leadership team to ensure a smooth transition, and possibly provide additional counsel in the period thereafter. Rob will also continue to work with our new partners at Everest Medicines to ensure a robust launch of the partnership between our two development organizations.”

A search is on for a replacement, and the biotech said it has “identified consultants who will provide support during the interim period.”

This all comes after Seattle Genetics in May 2017 killed off a major breast cancer drug tie-up with Immunomedics after intense legal battles.

The troubles stemmed from a few months prior, when Immunomedics signed a potential $2 billion development and licensing deal with Seattle Genetics for its leading med IMMU-132, including a hefty $250 million upfront, only to have it placed on hold in March 2017 after a shareholder revolt.

Disgruntled investors, led by activist investor venBio, eventually forced through changes to the biotech’s board of directors.

The acrimonious battle centered on IMMU-132, aka sacituzumab govitecan, with venBio pushing to keep the drug in-house and calling the Seattle Genetics agreement “a rushed deal that does not deliver fair value to shareholders.”

It eventually won out when the deal was killed off, with Sullivan swiftly booted out the door. The ax also swung on David Goldenberg, the biotech’s founder, who stepped down as chief scientific officer and chief patent officer.

Things then got worse: One year seems to be the tolerance level for the C-suite, as CEO Michael Pehl, brought in early last year to lead the company, left in February this year for “personal reasons,” hot on the heels of the FDA rejection of sacituzumab govitecan as a third-line treatment for late-stage, metastatic triple-negative breast cancer.

The regulator cited manufacturing issues and other problems for its CRL; a predicted U.S. launch date has now been pushed back a year to 2021, according to a recent note from analysts at Jefferies, with a "worst case scenario" being 2022.

As soon as Pehl tendered his resignation, Immunomedics appointed venBio’s Aghazadeh as executive chairman to steady the ship, but the departure of its CMO is another headache it didn’t need.

It's is also at work on early- to midstage programs in colorectal cancers as well as acute lymphocytic leukemia and autoimmune diseases.

Analysts at Jefferies said: “His departure seems to be solely based on personal reasons - having been traveling for work for five years, now finding a position allowing to work closely to home and spend more time with the family.

“While appreciating the opportunity to work at IMMU, Dr. Iannone was proud about the development of in-house R&D infrastructure/capability for the past year since he joined the Co. He was very confident about the upcoming clinical progress and willing to provide any counsel to the Co as needed under consulting agreement after he leaves.”

The biotech was down 3.3% in early trading this morning.