Vectura poaches key AZ respiratory exec to replace departing CEO

What's in the water at AstraZeneca ($AZN)? Maybe it's an elixir for top managers who want to run a smaller drugmaker. Maybe it's an anti-Big Pharma potion. Either way, it means a second high-level exec has left the U.K.-based drugmaker for a CEO post elsewhere.

James Ward-Lilley

Two weeks ago it was R&D chief Briggs Morrison, who took the helm at biotech Syndax Pharmaceuticals. This time, it's James Ward-Lilley, who engineered two key buyouts as VP of respiratory, inflammation and autoimmunity. He's jumping to Vectura, a respiratory drug specialist that has partnered with AstraZeneca rivals GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Novartis ($NVS).

Ward-Lilley came up on the commercial side at the company, and now has 28 years to his credit there. His most recent claims to fame are two pieces of M&A: Almirall's respiratory business, an acquisition designed to build AstraZeneca's franchise as its blockbuster Symbicort braces for generic competition; and Pearl Therapeutics, a $1.15 billion deal that delivered a couple of combination lung drugs into AstraZeneca's pipeline.

Ward-Lilley will step into his new job Oct. 1, replacing Dr. Chris Blackwell, who recently said he would leave the company at the end of June. Vectura Chairman Bruno Agelici said he's "delighted" the AZ exec will be taking over. "His significant relevant experience in the respiratory market … will be a considerable asset for Vectura," Angelici said in a statement. "James joins at an exciting and important time for Vectura and we are confident that the Company will continue to grow from strength to strength under his leadership."

Vectura has one major partner in Novartis, which sells Ultibro Breezhaler, Seebri Breezhaler and AirFluSal Forspiro, a knockoff version of GSK's respiratory behemoth Advair. The Swiss drugmaker is shooting for FDA approval for both Ultibro (a.k.a. QVA149) and Seebri (NVA237) by the end of this year.

And then there's GSK, which last year rolled out a Vectura combo COPD drug Anoro Ellipta, and Johnson & Johnsons' ($JNJ) Janssen unit, which teamed up with Vectura to develop anti-inflammatory therapies for asthma and COPD. Vectura has several other pipeline meds as well.

Ward-Lilley also called himself "delighted" with the new job, saying he's "looking forward to driving the business forward and ensuring [Vectura] achieves its goal on becoming a specialty pharmaceutical company."

For its part, AstraZeneca said a search is underway for Ward-Lilley's successor. "This is a different type of challenge for him as a business leader and a great opportunity so we wish James all the best," spokeswoman Esra Erkal-Paler told FiercePharma.

Losing Ward-Lilley is a blow for AstraZeneca at a time when its respiratory business is increasingly important. CEO Pascal Soriot tagged respiratory as one of 6 growth areas for the company--which has some extremely ambitious revenue goals ahead--and the deals Ward-Lilley handled will play a big role in that.

The Almirall buyout has already yielded its first brand-new med in Duaklir, but the market for combo drugs is crowded, including GSK and Vectura's Anoro. Then there's AstraZeneca's $600 million deal for Actavis' lung meds Tudorza Pressair and Daliresp, two drugs that came along with its Forest Laboratories buyout. Lately, the company has shown it's ready to scrap; it managed to steal Advair market share for Symbicort by jockeying for formulary deals.

- see the Vectura release

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