AstraZeneca Plc moved to cement its position in cancer treatment by hiring a scientist who recently left a top U.S. research center after news reports that he had received payments from the pharma industry.
Jose Baselga, who was Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s physician-in-chief until he resigned in September, will head the U.K. drugmaker’s oncology research-and-development arm, the company said Monday. Current research head Mene Pangalos, who oversaw the testing of cancer treatments such as Imfinzi and Lynparza, will manage the cardiovascular and respiratory programs, which have been combined into one R&D unit.
Drugmakers are desperate to gain an edge in oncology, the most lucrative and fastest-growing dimension of the industry, with Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and Eli Lilly & Co. each announcing major acquisitions in the field over the past few days. In Baselga, Astra saw the chance to bring on one of the top minds in cancer and is willing to weather criticism to get the former president of the American Association of Cancer Research.
"Our policy is to recruit the best possible scientists — that’s been the driving force," Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot said in a telephone interview. "Stepping down from Memorial and exploring options was the opportunity for us to make an offer to him to join us."
AstraZeneca has surged over the past year as it has brought a variety of new drugs to market, including Imfinzi and Lynparza. Baselga, who earlier headed oncology for the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and was involved in the development of Roche Holding AG’s Herceptin, will help lead the company in finding new targets for existing medicines and explore the use of combinations, Soriot said.
Along with research and development, Astra will split its commercialization operations into cancer and non-cancer divisions. The move will give greater focus to both enterprises, and demonstrate that the company will be an important player in the competitive field for years to come, Soriot said.
AstraZeneca also has a stable of new medicines in the early stages of development that Baselga will attempt to shepherd through the research and approval process. He has performed scores of human trials and has sat on the boards of several biotechnology companies, giving him critical insight into the process, Soriot said.
The CEO said he had discussed coming to AstraZeneca with Baselga two or three years ago, but the talks became more earnest just a few weeks ago, after his departure from Memorial Sloan Kettering. That followed articles by the New York Times and the ProPublica investigative news service that highlighted payments that scientists and researchers had received from industry that were hidden from view.
Scientists are normally required by journals to state ties to companies whose products are studied in their research articles. The probe by the Times and ProPublica found that Baselga had received millions of dollars in payments, and that he’d failed to disclose them in 60 percent of 180 papers published beginning in 2013.
While Baselga acknowledged that he should have made appropriate disclosures, he said that the lapses were inadvertent and that none had involved AstraZeneca studies. In addition to his position at Memorial Sloan Kettering, Baselga stepped down as co-editor of AACR’s journal, Cancer Discovery, and from the board of Bristol-Myers.
At Astra, signs of a shakeup had been looming as several highly placed executives recently left. Ludovic Helfgott, former head of the diabetes unit, went to Novo Nordisk A/S in September. Bahija Jallal, who helmed the Medimmune unit, became CEO of Immunocore Ltd., and Ironwood Pharmaceuticals Inc. made former Astra strategist Mark Mallon its chief. Astra’s new shape will make the company quicker to move on new opportunities, Soriot said.