Mass exodus of Amgen sales reps sparks legal battle with multiple myeloma rival Karyopharm

Karyopharm is preparing to launch its multiple myeloma drug selinexor, which will compete directly with Amgen's Kyprolis. (Image: Amgen)

What’s a pharma company to do when another drugmaker poaches 19 of its salespeople in preparation for launching a rival product? Many companies would buckle down, hire even more qualified salespeople and prop up the marketing message to make it clear to physicians why they should choose the first-to-market product.

But when the company under attack was Amgen, the answer was to turn to a different venue: the U.S. court system.

Those 19 salespeople resigned from Amgen last year to join Karyopharm, which is preparing to launch selinexor, a multiple myeloma drug that will compete directly with Amgen’s Kyprolis. Now Amgen is suing Karyopharm, alleging that it stole trade secrets about the performance of its salesforce and used the information to hire away its best reps.

Earlier this week, Karyopharm filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which Amgen originally filed last December in a Massachusetts state court. The motion was heard on Wednesday and the court has taken it under advisement, an attorney for Amgen told FiercePharma in an email.

According to the complaint, Karyopharm hired one of Amgen’s regional sales managers in February 2018 to serve as its vice president of sales. By the end of November, three additional sales managers and one “top-tier salesperson” had left Amgen to join Karyopharm.

The sales managers all had access to confidential information about Amgen’s salesforce, so “Karyopharm knew exactly which Amgen salespeople were the top performers and aggressively targeted only those salespeople,” Amgen said in the complaint.

RELATED: Can Amgen's new-and-improved Kyprolis kick-start myeloma sales?

The mass exodus of Amgen salespeople occurred on December 21, 2018, right before the company shut down for the holidays, according to the complaint. That’s when 14 additional salespeople simultaneously handed over their resignation letters.

The group resignation “was a coordinated effort by Karyopharm orchestrated by Amgen’s former managers…using Amgen’s confidential and trade secret information,” Amgen alleged.

Granted, the departure of all those salespeople couldn’t have come at a worse time for Amgen. It had acquired Kyprolis’ inventor, Onyx, back in 2013 for $10 billion, but then struggled to persuade oncologists to ditch older standard-of-care products in favor of the new drug. Amgen started 2018 with a potentially huge sales booster—new data added to the product’s label showing that Kyprolis plus dexamethasone cut the risk of death by 21% and extended survival when compared to Takeda's Velcade.  

In October of 2018, Amgen won approval for a once-weekly version of Kyprolis, raising hopes among Wall Street analysts that the improved convenience would jumpstart sales. Sales of the product grew 16% last year to $968 million.

RELATED: FDA delays Karyopharm PDUFA to review extra information

Amgen had expected Karyopharm’s selinexor to enter the market right about now, but in March, the FDA pushed back the PDUFA date by three months to July 6. That delay happened after an advisory committee to the agency suggested that it not approve the drug until phase 3 trial data become available.

The committee’s concerns that selinexor caused “significant toxicity” and “limited efficacy” in clinical trials initially sent Karyopharm’s stock price on a steep fall, but shares recovered somewhat on news that the company had provided the requested information to the FDA. Topline data from a phase 2b trial released in April showed an overall response rate of 25% to a combination of selinexor and dexamethasone in patients who had stopped responding to five different treatments for multiple myeloma.