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Roche R&D executive begins a new voyage with biotech move

January 16, 2019
Life sciences

Another day, another Big Pharma executive jumping ship to biotech. On Tuesday morning, it was Omar Khwaja, M.D., Ph.D., who became chief medical officer at gene therapy specialist Voyager Therapeutics.

Khwaja was a top research executive at Roche, leaving his dual positions as global head of neuroscience translational medicine and global head of rare diseases to become CMO at the neuroscience biotech.

Experiencing a seven-year itch, Khwaja has an impressive history at the Swiss major, helping push its first clinical programs in gene therapy while working on some tough CNS and rare diseases including spinal muscular atrophy and Huntington’s disease.

But now, as with so many executives before him, biotech beckoned, and he swaps his seven-year tenure at a major pharma to a smaller, riskier company.

“We are delighted to welcome Omar to the Voyager team,” said Andre Turenne, president and chief executive of Voyager. “Omar brings tremendous relevant expertise and will play an instrumental leadership role in advancing our innovative pipeline of gene therapy programs.”

Voyager, a 2014 Fierce 15 winner, has been a mixed bag in recent years. A year ago, its CEO Steven Paul, M.D., unexpectedly stepped down, with no replacement; the Eli Lilly vet was eventually replaced by ex-Sanofi/Genzyme veteran Turenne.

That came about three months after partner Sanofi walked away from the Parkinson’s gene therapy covered by a major $845 million alliance with the company. The decision gave Voyager the full global rights to VY-AADC, but left it without a partner as it geared up for a pivotal global phase 2/3 clinical trial.

At the time, Voyager said Sanofi’s decision was a result of the Big Pharma’s desire to own the U.S. rights to the gene therapy.

But on the flip side, just after Paul left, AbbVie teamed up with Voyager on a tau protein-targeting program, paying $69 million upfront for an option on the Alzheimer’s disease candidate.

The biotech, with a market cap of around $290 million, saw its shares down 2% last night.

By Ben Adams

Source: Fierce Biotech

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