Former top Sanofi exec Whitaker nabbed by Synta to shuttle cancer drug to market

Anne Whitaker

Less than a week after mysteriously leaving a prestigious post as president of Sanofi's ($SNY) North American pharma unit, Anne Whitaker has tackled a rather different challenge, accepting the CEO job at Synta Pharmaceuticals ($SNTA), a company that has struggled to get any drugs out of its pipeline since its founding 13 years ago. Synta's lead product candidate, ganetespib, is now in clinical trials to treat non-small-cell lung cancer, ovarian cancer, breast cancer and other tumor types.

Whitaker is taking over the top spot from Synta founder and previous CEO Safi Bahcall, who left the Lexington, MA-based company in March after a failed turnaround attempt. Synta suffered a huge blow in 2009, when it had to halt a Phase III trial of another cancer drug it was developing called elesclomol. During a trial of the drug in melanoma, there were more deaths among the patients taking it than there were among those getting the standard of care. Synta's shares nose-dived, and GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) pulled out of an elesclomol collaboration agreement with the company.

Bahcall attempted a comeback based on ganetespib, but results have been shaky. The company's shares rallied a year ago on positive data from a midstage trial of the drug in breast cancer. Simultaneously, though, Synta was taking heat from Wall Street analysts for jumping into a Phase III trial of ganetespib in lung cancer before completing the Phase II. In Synta's second-quarter earnings report last week, the company heralded a number of "important clinical milestones," including the launch of a Phase III extension trial of ganetespib in acute myeloid leukemia. Still, the company's shares have fallen 23% this year to $4.

Whitaker certainly has experience navigating challenging turnarounds. She was hired by Sanofi three years ago amid a host of threats to that company's diabetes franchise, not the least of which was impending competition from rival insulinmakers and biosimilars. Whitaker helped Sanofi diversify its product portfolio, adding a range of new diabetes devices and apps, such as the iPhone-connected glucose monitor iBGStar.

"Her knowledge and experience in business strategy, product development, regulatory affairs, leadership and organizational development and commercialization will be invaluable to [Synta] as we continue to advance ganetespib through late stage development," said board chairman Keith Gollust in a statement.

Whitaker, who worked at GSK prior to joining Sanofi, said in the statement that she was excited by the opportunity to develop ganetespib. "I look forward to working with this team to build a world-class global oncology and immunology business that delivers improved health to patients, innovative treatment solutions to healthcare providers and value to shareholders," Whitaker said in the statement.

- here's the Synta statement about Whitaker
- access Synta's earnings release here

Special Report: The 25 most influential people in biopharma today 2013 - Anne Whitaker

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