Lilly's cancer business loses its chief just as it's leaning on oncology for growth

Eli Lilly
Eli Lilly is looking for external and internal candidates to succeed cancer head Sue Mahony. (Eli Lilly)

Eli Lilly is leaning on oncology as a key pillar for growth going forward, but with news that its president of the business, Sue Mahony, Ph.D., is retiring, the drugmaker will need to find new leadership for the unit.

Sue Mahony (Eli Lilly)

During her 18 years at Lilly, Mahony has ascended the ranks—earning a spot on the executive committee—and helped see the drugmaker through some big changes. She managed the launch of breast cancer med Verzenio last year and the integration of ImClone, picked up in 2008 for $6.5 billion, Lilly said

She's also managed the company's Canadian operations, and worked in development, marketing and management, according to the drugmaker. Mahony led the company's recent oncology refocus and was previously senior vice president of human resources and diversity. In that role, she helped the company reorganize into business units in 2009. 

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"We make medicines that help patients with cancer live longer," Mahony said in a statement. "What a privilege it's been to wake up each morning with that as my life's work." 

RELATED: Eli Lilly builds $23B-plus sales forecast on diabetes, cancer launches 

Lilly said it will look internally and externally for a successor. Mahony's last day with the drugmaker is Aug. 31. 

Along with many other top players in pharma, Lilly has poured big resources into cancer in recent years, hoping success in the field can help drive growth. In a presentation late last year, Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks said recent launches in cancer—Verzenio, Cyramza and Lartruvo—will help drive the company forward, along with diabetes offerings and drugs for autoimmune diseases.  

Before joining the company in 2000, Mahony held various commercial roles in Europe at Amgen, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Schering-Plough, according to Lilly. 

RELATED: Lilly steps up to rival Pfizer, Novartis with Verzenio breast cancer approval  

The leadership transition at Lilly Oncology comes as several important meds at the drugmaker fall off the patent cliff. Blockbuster erectile dysfunction med Cialis is expected to face cheap rivals in September, and ADHD med Strattera is already under generic assault. The company last year announced 3,500 layoffs to save $500 million in annual expenses, with many coming from early retirements.