Novartis poaches Pfizer veteran Liz Barrett to lead cancer unit—and its big Kymriah and Kisqali rollouts

Novartis announced that Liz Barrett is filling the oncology leadership position left open by Bruno Strigini's retirement. (Novartis)

It didn't take Novartis to find a world-class pharma executive to replace its outgoing oncology head. The drugmaker poached Liz Barrett from Pfizer less than a month after announcing Bruno Strigini's retirement. 

Liz Barrett

In hiring Barrett to head up its key oncology unit, Novartis has nabbed an executive experienced in driving some key launches at Pfizer. One big effort she led? The rollout of Ibrance, the breast cancer drug that's been among Pfizer's biggest successes in recent years—and a head-to-head competitor to Novartis' own Kisqali.

Barrett, who's worked at Pfizer since 2009, will take the reins of that business Feb. 1 and will be based in Basel, Switzerland, at Novartis' headquarters. At Pfizer, she was Global President & General Manager of oncology.

Her transition won't be the only one in Novartis' executive suite next month: incoming CEO Vas Narasimhan is slated to take the reins from Joe Jimenez on Feb. 1 as well. 

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In a statement, Narasimhan said Barrett "has been instrumental in creating new commercial models, driving innovation in close partnership with research and development and leveraging business development opportunities." 

"Her longtime commercial pharma industry experience, marketing skills and perspectives make Liz a great fit to further develop our oncology business," he added. 

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If she can replicate her signature Pfizer achievement, Barrett might be able to do just that. Ibrance, launched in February 2015, is now among Pfizer's bestselling meds, generating $2.13 billion in 2016. During the first nine months of 2017, the med pulled in $2.41 billion. So far, Kisqali—formerly known as LEE011—is struggling on the market, though analysts had pegged it as one of the biggest launches of 2017.

Barrett herself said she's "honored" to join the Swiss cancer expert. 

Novartis is a top oncology drugmaker worldwide, and part of Barrett's role will be managing the company's newly approved CAR-T drug Kymriah, a groundbreaking therapy that comes with cost and logistical challenges. Still, some see the technology as a future cornerstone of cancer treatment, and Novartis is in a leadership position in the field, along with Gilead Sciences. 

Also on tap—if they win FDA approval—are some new indications for Ilaris, which now is marketed for a few rare inflammatory diseases. It's under study as a treatment for lung cancer. Novartis is also pushing a potential cardiovascular use for the drug, also known as canakinumab.

She'll replace Bruno Strigini, whom Novartis tapped to run oncology after splitting its pharmaceutical operation into two divisions in 2016. In December, the drugmaker said Strigini planned to retire for personal reasons. 

Barrett, who was named one of the Fiercest Women in Life Sciences last year, recently said in an interview that her work at Pfizer was "phenomenally rewarding." She said she spent about half of her time reviewing Pfizer's clinical trials and the other half evaluating early-stage assets that should advance. 

Before her Pfizer stint, Barrett worked in cancer organizations at Cephalon and Johnson & Johnson.