Gilead Poaches Cancer R&D Superstar From Novartis AG

Published: Jan 05, 2017

Gilead Poaches Cancer R&D Superstar From Novartis AG January 4, 2017
By Mark Terry, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff

Foster City, Calif. – Gilead Sciences announced yesterday that Alessandro Riva will join the company as senior vice president, Hematology and Oncology Therapeutic Area Head. Riva is leaving competitor Novartis Oncology , where he was Head, Global Oncology Development.

Riva will report to Gilead’s executive vice president, Clinical Research, John McHutchison. His role will be to head Gilead’s hematology and oncology programs. He will also be part of the company’s Executive Committee.

John Carroll, writing for Endpoints News, notes that Gilead can probably use all the help it can get in oncology. “In the cancer field, Gilead was forced to halt a slate of six studies for Zydelig in the spring of 2016 due to safety issues. And that came after the drug was clearly losing a race with Imbruvica from J&J and AbbVie on leukemia and lymphoma. AbbVie and Roche’s venetoclax, meanwhile, is expected to gain market ground in CLL.”

Gilead also had somewhat disappointing results for its momelotinib in a comparison to Jakafi for myelofibrosis.

On the other hand, Carroll observes that Gilead has a lot of cash. “Riva may have less to do in the clinic right now than at the deal table, where Gilead may yet spend a significant amount of its cash reserves on M&A and licensing. Gilead clearly needs to do more in oncology/hematology.”

Jefferies analyst Brian Abrahams wrote in a note to investors, “We believe the relatively high-profile heme/onc chief hire signals an increasing focus in oncology, a welcome development, and expect Gilead to more aggressively pursue BD (business development) to build out a broader cancer pipeline—something not substantially baked into most expectations but which we believe could help improve sentiment around the name and LT (long-term) revenue prospects. We expect speculated (s)mid-cap M&A candidates like Incyte could also trade up on this announcement.”

At Novartis, Riva oversaw the development of more than 20 cancer drugs, including immuno-oncology therapies. He was a member of the Novartis Oncology Division Executive Committee, Development Committee, Translational and Early Development Committee and Innovation Management Board. Prior to Novartis, he co-founded the Breast Cancer International Research Group (BIRG) and Cancer International Research Group (CIRG), where he served as chief executive officer and chief medical officer.

“I have always admired Gilead for its scientific focus and data-driven approach to drug development,” Riva said in a statement. “I look forward to working alongside Gilead’s dedicated and passionate colleagues throughout the R&D organization to tackle the cancer research and development challenge with a goal of improving the lives of patients.”

“I am thrilled to welcome Alessandro, who brings a wealth of experience and expertise in hematology/oncology drug development and translational medicine,” McHutchison said in a statement. “His leadership and proven track record developing therapies across the spectrum of hematological malignancies and solid tumors will be instrumental as we continue to grow and advance our pipeline of novel therapeutics for people living with cancer.”

It’s not clear what kind of leadership vacuum Riva leaves at Novartis, which has had some key staff leaving the company recently. When Novartis merged its cell and gene therapy team into the larger oncology group in the last year, 120 people, including the head of the unit, Usman Azam, left the company. In September 2016, Hugh O’Dowd, a Novartis Oncology veteran, left to be chief executive officer at Neon Therapeutics.

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