UPDATED: AstraZeneca R&D chief Briggs Morrison makes an unexpected exit

Briggs Morrison

Briggs Morrison, the executive vice president for R&D at AstraZeneca ($AZN) and a major player in the pharma company's turnaround attempt over the past three years, is leaving the pharma giant and taking the helm of a private pharma company, FierceBiotech has learned.

Staffers were buzzing this morning that Morrison's abrupt departure was left unexplained, as CEO Pascal Soriot spread the word that he would be stepping in to run late-stage R&D in the interim. A spokesperson confirmed the exit this morning, saying that colleagues were notified earlier today. 

According to AstraZeneca, Morrison is taking a job as CEO of a "small, privately-held pharmaceutical company." A spokesperson declined to name the company and Morrison did not immediately return a message from FierceBiotech. "It's a great opportunity for him," she added. Soriot will take on Morrison's responsibilities for global development at AstraZeneca until a successor is named.

Morrison was named one of three key executives to be put in charge of R&D at AstraZeneca at the beginning of 2013, just after Soriot stepped in in the wake of David Brennan's exit and booted Martin Mackay from the top spot. Soriot eliminated the old title of president of R&D, naming Morrison, Mene Pangalos in the U.K. and Bahija Jallal, head of the big MedImmune subsidiary, to a top-level troika that would steer research operations at the pharma giant.

The straight-talking Morrison was credited with lending AstraZeneca considerable credibility at a time that it worked hard to shed its old reputation for ineptitude and a weak and disorganized pipeline. Since then, AstraZeneca has won favorable attention for several hot prospects on the cancer front as the company executed a blizzard of new deals to beef up the pipeline.

But there have been setbacks along the way as well. In particular, Amgen's recent decision to dump its pricey collaboration with AstraZeneca on the late-stage psoriasis drug brodalumab dinged the company at a crucial juncture. Amgen noted last month that it was pulling out after concluding that the risk of suicide among patients taking the drug would leave it uncompetitive in a crowded field of contenders.

Morrison's departure sparked a long-running discussion on Twitter today, as people discussed the benefits involved in moving from a top R&D job at a major corporation to a smaller biopharma organization. Jose-Carlos Gutierrez-Ramos recently left his senior R&D role at Pfizer ($PFE) to become CEO of Synlogic in another recent example of the migration now underway in biopharma. 

Under Morrison's direction, AstraZeneca retained its rep as a big player in the global pharma R&D business. The pharma giant spent $5.6 billion on its research work last year, up from $4.8 billion in 2013 and the 6th largest R&D budget in the industry. AstraZeneca has been engaged in a years-long effort to improve R&D, blueprinting plans for a major new campus in Cambridge, U.K., while beefing up its work at MedImmune.

Special Report: The top R&D spenders in biopharma in 2013 - AstraZeneca