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Vertex CEO to step down, setting stage for first female chief among top biotechs

  • Vertex CEO Jeffrey Leiden will step down next year, the company said Thursday, announcing approval by the board of a transition plan that will make current R&D head Reshma Kewalramani the biotech’s next leader.
  • With her appointment, ​Kewalramani is set to become the first female CEO of a top biotech, taking over at a time when Vertex is pushing to grow beyond its portfolio of cystic fibrosis drugs.
  • The transition will happen on April 1, 2020. Leiden, who has been CEO since 2012, will then serve as chairman of Vertex’s board through the end of March 2023, he said in a statement.

Kewalramani will be the fourth CEO in Vertex’s history, following Joshua Boger, Matthew Emmens and Leiden. And while Leiden led the company through a transition from hepatitis C research to cystic fibrosis, Kewalramani will be responsible for moving the biotech into additional disease areas.

The future CEO outlined those plans in a Thursday statement, listing five emerging disease areas in the biotech’s pipeline: Alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency, pain, sickle cell disease, beta thalassemia and certain kidney diseases.

In AAT deficiency, Vertex started a Phase 1 study last December. Vertex has shared positive Phase 2 data on its lead pain drug, VX-150, over the past two years.

In sickle cell and beta thalassemia, the biotech is partnered with CRISPR Therapeutics to develop gene editing treatments, with an ongoing Phase 1/2 trial. Vertex also recently invested in Duchenne muscular dystrophy research, in part by expanding its collaboration with CRISPR.

For kidney disease, the company previously highlighted moving a molecule into the clinic this year to target a rare kidney disease called FSGS.

Kewalramani spent about a dozen years at Amgen, rising to serve as vice president before joining Vertex in 2017 as a senior vice president. She was promoted last April to chief medical officer, and, now, the 46-year-old is set to lead the company.

Several Wall Street analysts described Leiden’s departure as CEO as a surprise, but were supportive of the choice of Kewalramani, particularly given her science background. That experience distinguishes her from the chief executives of Vertex’s near peers, such as Biogen or Celgene.

“Large-cap biopharmas are generally run by either former sales leaders or accomplished drug developers, and [Vertex’s] decision to choose an R&D leader as President/CEO stays true to the company’s roots as a science-driven organization,” Stifel analyst Paul Matteis wrote in a Thursday note to investors.

Most other heads of large-cap biotechs had previous C-suite experience on the commercial, operational or finance side. Biogen’s Michel Vounatsos and Celgene’s Mark Alles were both chief commercial officers; Amgen’s Robert Bradway was chief financial officer; and AbbVie’s Richard Gonzalez and Gilead’s Daniel O’Day were both chief operating officers.

The exception is Regeneron CEO Leonard Schleifer, who was a practicing neurologist before founding the biotech.

Vertex’ stock was down 2% Thursday morning.