Vertex CEO stepping down after banner year

Apparently, Matthew Emmens wanted to announce his departure from his CEO post at Vertex Pharmaceuticals ($VRTX) at what could be considered the pinnacle of his tenure at the company. Emmens, who was voted biotech's top CEO in a recent poll after a huge year at the Cambridge, MA-based drug company, plans to step down from his CEO post in February. Dr. Jeffrey Leiden, a Vertex board member and venture capitalist, has been tapped to be the company's next chief executive and will start work in that role on Feb. 1.

Emmens, who took the reins at Vertex in 2009, plans to stay on as executive chairman of the company through May 2012 and then remain on Vertex's board of directors, the company announced Thursday. A self-made success in the biopharma industry, Emmens has led Vertex through its most prosperous year of its 20-year history, with key approvals and a successful launch of the company's hepatitis C drug Incivek--a blockbuster in the making--and a potentially game-changing therapy for cystic fibrosis patients under FDA review. Yet the company faces some future challenges in the hep C market, with Pharmasset's ($VRUS) interferon-free treatment against the disease in late stage development. Pharmasset's drug could offer an effective treatment for the liver-damaging disease without the side effects of treatments on the market that rely on interferon like Incivek.

Emmens' successor, Leiden, has had front-row seats for the exciting times at Vertex as a member of the board since mid-2009. He comes to the CEO job after spending the past 5 years as a managing director of Clarus Ventures, which invests in early-stage drug developers and other life sciences companies. Leiden, 56, has a unique mix of commercial and scientific experience. Prior to becoming a VC, he was president and chief operating officer at healthcare giant Abbott Labs ($ABT), where he played a role in bringing the company's blockbuster TNF drug Humira and other treatments to market. A cardiologist and molecular biologist by training, Leiden spent previous years as a practicing physician an academic, with appointments at the University of Chicago, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital.

With the commercial success of Incivek at his back, Leiden has a big opportunity to keep building Vertex. The FDA has granted priority review and an April 18 action date for the company's cystic fibrosis drug Kalydeco, a potential first approved treatment that addresses the root cause of the disease, which causes the lungs to fill with sticky mucus and other symptoms that lead to premature death. The median predicted lifespan of a CF patient is 38 years.

"I am proud of the accomplishments we have made during my almost three years at Vertex and believe the company is well-positioned to bring forward additional innovative new medicines," Emmens said in a statement this morning. "Jeff brings significant and broad leadership experience to Vertex, and I am confident that his understanding of the company, combined with his unique blend of scientific, commercial and financial expertise, will help Vertex deliver on its goals in the future."

- here's Vertex's release