Activists get their way as Ariad CEO Berger steps down

Ariad Pharmaceuticals CEO Harvey Berger

Activist investor Alex Denner has called off his proxy fight with Ariad Pharmaceuticals ($ARIA), a cease-fire that appears to have cost Harvey Berger, the biotech's founder and CEO, his job.

Denner's Sarissa Capital, which called for Berger's "imminent retirement" in February, had said it was "disturbed" by the CEO's continued employment at Ariad and the "egregious terms" of his latest contract. Safety issues tied to Ariad's sole marketed product had bulldozed the biotech's value, leading Sarissa to agitate for change.

Now Berger has announced his impending retirement from his roles as chairman and chief exec, promising to resign as soon as Ariad picks his replacement or by the end of the year, whichever comes first. Denner is heading up Ariad's CEO search committee with plans to "work expeditiously to find a successor," the company said.

Berger's ouster will bring to a close his 24-year stint at the Cambridge, MA, company, a tenure that saw Ariad launch its first product in the cancer treatment Iclusig only to see it yanked from the market in 2013 over some serious safety concerns. The FDA relented a few months later, paring back Iclusig's indication and amending its safety label, but the setback cost the company billions in value and allowed Sarissa to take a major stake.

With Berger headed out the door, Sarissa has withdrawn its proposed slate of new director nominees for Ariad's coming annual elections, setting aside its challenge to lead independent director Wayne Wilson. Ariad has appointed one of Denner's former nominees, Mersana Therapeutics CEO Anna Protopapas, to a vacant seat on the board.

Now Denner, who took a seat on Ariad's board last year, believes the biotech can get back on track under new management.

"I am excited to work with the board members to optimally position Ariad as it embarks on its next stage of development," Denner said in a statement. "I believe Ariad's loyal and dedicated employees will be able to significantly increase the value of our assets, especially Iclusig and brigatinib, which both hold great promise for cancer patients."

- read the statement

Special Report: The 25 most influential people in biopharma 2012 - Alex Denner