Ex-Millennium chief Deborah Dunsire looks for pipeline growth as Lundbeck's CEO

Neuroscience specialist Lundbeck has been running without a permanent CEO since last November when then-helmsman Kåre Schultz left for Teva’s top job. Now, it has found one in Deborah Dunsire, M.D., an industry veteran whose background is primarily in oncology.

Dunsire, who takes over Sept. 1, is probably most widely known as the former CEO of Millennium. During her tenure from 2005 to 2013, Dunsire transformed Millennium into an oncology biotech leader with top-selling drugs like Velcade before it was sold to Takeda to become a centerpiece of its U.S. operation. Prior to that, she had overseen Novartis’ North American oncology business for about 10 years.

But it’s not just her oncology skills that drew Lundbeck’s attention. “She brings a wealth of highly successful R&D and commercial experiences including a robust knowledge and experience in neuroscience,” Lundbeck Chairman Lars Rasmussen said in a statement. 

Indeed, Lundbeck’s key focus in neuroscience isn’t new territory for Dunsire. Before taking the helm at cancer and fibrotic startup XTuit last March, she was the CEO of CNS specialist Forum Pharmaceuticals for three years. That role ended shortly after the FDA put a hold on two Alzheimer’s trials of its lead candidate, which had also failed in schizophrenia.

Then why did Dunsire decide to go back into neuroscience, a field that has seen numerous challenges?

“My drive as a physician in the past is always on transforming medicine and unaddressed medical needs, it’s the drive behind oncology, behind Forum and XTuit,” said Dunsire in an interview with FiercePharma. Admitting CNS is a “high-risk area,” Dunsire said it’s also an area with inadequate therapies. She said those risks will be lowered in coming years as more biomarkers and more imaging techniques are identified to help scientists understand the genesis of the diseases in the brain. 

Overall, Dunsire is inheriting Denmark's Lundbeck in good shape. Thanks to Schultz and his restructuring plan that cut about 1,000 jobs, Lundbeck is now on an upward trajectory. With strong growth coming from five key drugs, Lundbeck beat analysts’ expectation in the first quarter even as a strong dollar and generic competition on some older products eroded sales.

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Dunsire said as the new CEO she doesn’t plan to restructure the company again in any major way, but will focus on identifying the “source of growth” for Lundbeck. Even though oncology has been a major part of her biopharma career, Dunsire said it is a clear focus on psychiatry and nurology that sets Lundbeck apart from others, and she doesn’t plan to change that with new therapeutic expansions. The company will continue strengthening its pipeline probably through partnerships, she said.

Its Otsuka-partnered long-lasting monthly antipsychotic Abilify Maintena maintained double-digit sales growth in the first quarter of 2018 and reached DKK 364 million ($56.7 million). The Takeda-partnered antidepressant therapy Trintellix grew 25% to reach DKK 467 million. Blood pressure drug Northera, epilepsy treatment Onfi and blockbuster wannabe Rexulti—approved for major depressive disorder and schizophrenia, and in phase 3 to treat agitation in patients with Alzheimer’s—have all delivered double-digit sales jump.

But not all areas are rosy going forward. Generic competitions have clearly taken a toll on seizure treatment Sabril and Huntington’s disease drug Xenazine. Trintellix was hit with a second complete response letter last June on new labeling for treating cognitive dysfunction in people with major depressive disorder. What’s more, Onfi is also slated to lose its exclusivity in October, opening up the possibility of generic competition. Just a few weeks ago, the drugmaker offered to pay $52.6 million to settle accusations over its donations to patient assistance charities amid an industry-wide probe.