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AstraZeneca names dubious doc to head cancer R&D

January 8, 2019
Life sciences

AstraZeneca PLC has appointed José Baselga, a prominent but controversial cancer doctor, to lead oncology research and development as part of a wider overhaul designed to get drugs to market faster.

His appointment Monday comes just months after Dr. Baselga, 59 years old, resigned from a string of top positions–including chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the board of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.–for sometimes failing to disclose his ties with the drug industry in academic journal articles.

AstraZeneca Chief Executive Pascal Soriot said in an interview that the company’s chief ethics officer was satisfied that these omissions were accidental, as Dr. Baselga has maintained since his failures were highlighted in a New York Times report in September.

“There is no excuse, and I acknowledge that,” Dr. Baselga said in an interview, adding that failure to disclose industry ties was an issue for lots of authors of academic papers because of rule differences between scientific journals.

Authors are required to state potential conflicts of interest, but rules vary between journals on the extent of disclosure required. Dr. Baselga has acted as a paid adviser to several drugmakers at various times.

Astra is hoping that Dr. Baselga’s credentials will help it beat out rivals in the rapidly-evolving, and increasingly competitive, market for cancer drugs.

“You can’t follow the science if you don’t have the best scientists,” said Dr. Soriot. “He is one of the best scientists in the world.”

The success of its new cancer drugs are in large part responsible for a turnaround at AstraZeneca, which last year returned to growth after years of declining sales because of a string of patent expirations.

Dr. Baselga’s role at AstraZeneca is part of an organizational overhaul aimed at simplifying the company’s structure. He will be in charge of cancer-drug development from start to finish, replacing a structure where early stage research and late stage clinical trials were managed separately.

AstraZeneca has also created a single research and development unit for its other focus areas: cardiovascular and respiratory medicine, which will be led by Mene Pangalos, previously head of early-stage research and development. Both research and development units will have their own dedicated sales organizations.

The overhaul announced Monday closely follows the departures of two high-profile executives whose roles would have been eliminated by the reorganization: Bahija Jallal, who is taking up the helm at British biotech Immunocore, and Mark Mallon, who is to become chief executive of Cambridge, Mass.-based Ironwood Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Dr. Soriot said their departures weren’t driven by the reorganization, but that they did affect the timing. “It’s clear that this reorganization has been considered for some time,” he said. “The departures gave us the opportunity to implement it now.” The changes will also affect a number of other leadership positions at the company, he said, but that the vast majority of staff won’t be affected.

By Denise Roland

Source: MarketWatch

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