Shake-Up at AstraZeneca PLC (AZN) as Two Cancer Leaders Leave

U.K.-based AstraZeneca (AZN) announced Monday that Robert Iannone would be heading its immuno-oncology drug development operations. This leadership role follows quiet changes by several of the company's leaders in the last month.

In late November 2014, Rachel Humphrey, former senior vice president and head of immuno-oncology, left the company for undisclosed personal reasons. At about the same time, Peter Emtage, who was part of AstraZeneca's MedImmune unit, left the company to take a senior position at West Palm Beach, Fl.-based Intrexon Corporation.

A spokeswoman for AstraZeneca says the departures are not related and the company's immuno-oncology business was unaffected. "It's business as usual," the spokeswoman said in a statement.

Last year marked a tumultuous year for AstraZeneca. The company is the target of a landmark class action lawsuit accusing the company of colluding with India-based Ranbaxy Laboratories to delay the rollout of generics.

According to the New York firm of Girard Gibbs, which is spearheading the suit, "This class action is brought on behalf of all consumers and third-party payers in the United States and its territories who purchased brand-name Nexium and/or its generic equivalents since April 14, 2008. Plaintiffs seek judgment that the 'pay-for-delay' agreements are unlawful under the Sherman Act and equitable relief for violations of various state antitrust, consumer protection, and unjust enrichment laws."

In short, the suit accused AstraZeneca of paying Ranbaxy to delay rolling out its generic version of Nexium, a so-called "pay-for-delay" deal. The case is still pending.

In May 2014 Pfizer Inc. (PFE) made a $119 billion bid for AstraZeneca, which fell apart. It was to be part of a tax inversion deal, where Pfizer would shift its domicile to the U.K. to decrease its corporate tax load. Changes in U.S. regulations made the deal less appealing. There was a regulated six-month cooling off period that ended in November.

Some analysts felt AstraZeneca was hasty in walking away from the original deal. The original bid by Pfizer was 46 pounds per share, eventually leveling out at 55 pounds per share. By November AstraZeneca's closing price of $73.54 (46.20 pounds) was roughly equivalent to Pfizer's bid, suggesting that AstraZeneca had plenty of value without being acquired.

The recent shakeup in AstraZeneca's immuno-oncology business reinforces the idea that the company wants to strengthen that area. In December, the company announced the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had approved Lynparza (olaparib) capsules as the first monotherapy for patients with deleterious or suspected deleterious germline BRCA-mutated advanced ovarian cancer.

"It is a much-needed new therapeutic option for patients with germline BRCA-mutated advanced ovarian cancer," said Briggs Morrison, executive VP, AstraZeneca's Global Medicines Development and chief medical officer in a statement. "Today's approval also marks the first of what we hope will be a number of indications in which this medicine had the potential to improve the lives of cancer patients."

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