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Longtime Lilly diabetes chief Conterno to step down

Enrique Conterno, Eli Lilly’s senior vice president and head of its diabetes division, will step down at the end of the year to be succeeded by Mike Mason, currently head of the company’s insulin-producing unit.Conterno has been with Lilly since 1992 and assumed leadership of the diabetes division in 2009. As insulin division head, Mason has been the company’s public face on pricing for a drug that all Type 1 and severe Type 2 diabetics depend on to keep their blood sugar under control.The announcement about the management shift coincided with Lilly’s third quarter earnings, in which sales of diabetes mainstays Trulicity, Jardiance and Basaglar missed investor expectations.

After years of progress in developing drugs to keep diabetics’ blood sugar under control, the pharmaceutical sector is confronting a slowdown in innovation.

Drug classes such as GLP-1 agonists and SGLT-2 inhibitors, represented respectively by Lilly’s Trulicity (dulaglutide) and Jardiance (empagliflozin), have been proven to not only control glucose but also prevent cardiovascular complications and death, raising the bar for any experimental drugs.

Once-weekly Trulicity is Lilly’s biggest product, but the company is in a tight battle against Novo Nordisk, which has three GLP-1s on the market in the daily Victoza (liraglutide), weekly Ozempic (semaglutide), and its newest product, a daily pill called Rybelsus (semaglutide) that makes injection unnecessary.

Both of the drugmaking giants are looking to expand their diabetes arsenals, but finding new approaches has proven challenging.

Lilly is betting on combining GLP-1 activation, which stimulates insulin secretion, with a second type of drug called a GIP that has the same effect. Its combination candidate, tirzepatide, is in Phase 3 testing but has been troubled by gastrointestinal side effects and a high drop-out rate.

Driving growth from marketed drugs, then, will probably be job one as Mason assumes leadership of the entire diabetes portfolio on Jan. 1, 2020. It may be a big challenge if trends from the third quarter are any indication, though.

Trulicity’s sales of $1 billion for the three months ending Sept. 30 were about $100 million lower than Wall Street analysts anticipated. Lilly said higher rebates and fees related to the Medicare Part D coverage gap were to blame.

Evercore ISI analyst Umer Raffat wrote in a note to clients that the sales miss does not appear to be related to price competition with Novo’s GLP-1 products.

Conterno is the second top-level executive departure that Lilly has announced this year. Biomedicines head Christi Shaw left in August to become the chief executive of Gilead Sciences’ Kite Pharma oncology unit.