Novartis loses top oncology executive Strigini to retirement

As Novartis preps for its upcoming CEO transition, so too will it have to find a new leader in oncology. One of the drugmaker's top executives, Bruno Strigini, is retiring for personal reasons, Novartis announced Friday. 

Strigini joined Novartis in 2014 after spending several years at Merck, ultimately as president of the company's European and Canadian operations. During his time at the Swiss drug giant, Strigini managed the integration GlaxoSmithKline's oncology programs following a massive asset swap and saw the company through its blockbuster patent loss for Gleevec last year. He additionally helped Novartis beat all competitors to an FDA nod for CAR-T treatment Kymriah.

Novartis didn't give any indication how it plans to fill the role, saying only that it will "announce his successor in due time." He'll come off of the executive committee by the end of the year and fully hand off the reins in early 2018.

Just before Strigini joined Novartis, the company agreed to its massive asset swap with GSK, offloading its vaccine programs—besides flu—in exchange for Glaxo's cancer offerings. Outgoing Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez called the deal "transformational" when it was announced as it would ultimately propel the drugmaker to a leadership position in oncology.

Much more recently, Novartis won the industry's first CAR-T approval in August, when the FDA backed Kymriah to treat children and young adults with a rare form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. CAR-T meds are re-engineered T cells collected from each patient and infused back into the patient to identify and attack cancer, and some experts see them as a future cornerstone of cancer treatment. 

Interestingly, Novartis hired Strigini as head of oncology development and medical affairs to replace Alessandro Riva, who was in the post on an interim basis. Riva has since left Novartis for Gilead and played a key role in that company's pursuit and purchase of Kite Pharma, another top CAR-T player. After the buyout closed, Gilead promoted Riva to executive vice president of oncology therapeutics. 

Now, Gilead and Novartis are the only two commercial CAR-T companies, with many others pursuing the technology in the clinic. 

Strigini saw another shakeup at Novartis last year when the company divided its drug group into two units—pharmaceuticals and oncology—and put him in charge of the cancer outfit. At the time, Novartis touted Strigini as being "instrumental in the successful integration of the oncology assets acquired from GSK." 

Outgoing Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez reiterated the point in Friday's announcement, saying Strigini "has navigated the business unit through the Gleevec patent expiration and has led the successful integration of the GSK Oncology Product Portfolio acquired in 2015." 

"I wish him the best for his future," Jimenez added. 

Prior to Merck, Strigini served as president, international for UCB and as a VP of international marketing for GlaxoSmithKline, according to his LinkedIn page.