Vertex hires BMS vet Atkinson to shore up manufacturing for bustling cell and gene therapy pipeline

Vertex has long been known for its cystic fibrosis brand, including fast-growing triple-combo med Trikafta. But Vertex has its eyes on much more than cystic fibrosis with a bustling cell and gene therapy pipeline, and now the company's found the manufacturing chief to help it get there.

Vertex has tapped Bristol Myers Squibb veteran E. Morrey Atkinson, Ph.D., as its senior vice president and head of commercial manufacturing and supply chain to help take the drugmaker into its next phase. 

Atkinson is the first major C-suite hire under new CEO Reshma Kewalramani, who took the helm earlier this year after switching from the chief medical officer role. His hiring will add an experienced hand in cell and gene therapy manufacturing as Kewalramani steers Vertex's growing and diversified pipeline to the commercial stage.

Until June, Atkinson was senior vice president of global manufacturing operations at Bristol and helped lead the manufacturing integration team for Bristol's $74 billion Celgene merger that closed in November.

In his previous roles at Eli Lilly and Cook Pharmica (now Catalent), Atkinson specialized in biologics manufacturing and led clinical production for some of the earliest viral vectors used in cell and gene therapies. Atkinson also spearheaded the building and qualification of commercial production facilities in the U.S. and Ireland, Vertex said.

RELATED: Vertex plans major Boston expansion to support gene, cell therapy ambitions

In June 2019, Vertex unveiled its plan to build a new cell and gene therapies research site in Boston after putting down $420 million to acquire Exonics Therapeutics and expand its existing partnership with CRISPR Therapeutics for multiple Duchenne muscular dystrophy candidates.

Vertex followed that investment up with its $950 million buy of Semma Therapeutics in September, adding the biotech's stem-cell-based diabetes treatments into the mix.

In November, Vertex was reportedly in advanced talks to lease a 256,000-square-foot facility in Boston's Innovation Square to house the drugmaker's planned cell and gene therapy unit. Vertex reportedly scoured the greater Boston region for a new foothold, including sites in Cambridge, Waltham and Watertown, but picked Innovation Square because it’s one of the most advanced projects in the neighborhood, on track to open in 2021.

So far, Vertex hasn't publicly announced the future home for its advanced therapies unit, though. The drugmaker is also running investigational candidates in APOL1-mediated kidney disease, beta thalassemia, sickle disease and alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency through clinical testing.

RELATED: Vertex CEO Leiden touts gangbusters Trikafta launch in 'mic drop' earnings call

In the meantime, Vertex currently houses its entire continuous manufacturing center for its cystic fibrosis portfolio at a south Boston facility that employs 100, the drugmaker said.

That site has been running at full speed with sales for Vertex's latest CF launch, Trikafta, blowing past analyst consensus on its way to blockbuster status.

In the first quarter, Trikafta hit $895 million in sales after just five months on the market. Those sales are higher than Vertex's three established CF meds combined and put the drug well on track to hit SVB Leerink analyst Geoffrey Porges' prediction of $4.6 billion in annual sales by 2023 and $6.6 billion in 2025.

Trikafta's gangbusters launch came as a fitting sendoff for CEO Jeffrey Leiden, who moved over into the chairman role in favor of then-CMO Kewalramani.