FibroGen founder Neff dies suddenly as drug he championed racks up milestones

After founding FibroGen in 1993 and leading the company for 26 years, chairman and CEO Thomas B. Neff passed away over the weekend unexpectedly. His death comes as FibroGen nears the critical U.S. and European filings for its Astellas- and AstraZeneca-partnered oral anemia med roxadustat, which recently won its second approval in China. 

Thomas Neff

With Neff’s death, FibroGen has appointed 9-year board member James Schoeneck as its interim CEO. The company is seeking a “world-class” replacement to take the helm. 

Neff “leaves a legacy of innovation and dedication that has been rarely matched in this industry,” FibroGen’s board said in a statement. He founded the company in 1993 and his work led to the development of roxadustat and pamrevlumab, which is in testing for fibrosis and associated diseases. 

“The board of directors, management team, and employees, deeply mourn his passing, and extend our heartfelt sympathy and condolences to his family,” the statement added. 

Monday’s sad news comes right on the heels of roxadustat’s second approval in China for anemia patients not on dialysis. The drug won an approval there last December for anemia in dialysis patients, its first in the world. 

RELATED: AstraZeneca and FibroGen's roxadustat, not yet filed in U.S., nabs 2nd anemia nod in China 

Roxadustat is pressing toward new drug applications in U.S. and Europe, and it's under review in Japan. Astellas has rights to the drug in Japan, Europe and various countries, while AZ has rights in the U.S. and all markets that Astellas didn’t license.  

Aside from roxadustat, FibroGen’s pamrevlumab is in phase 3 testing to treat idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and pancreatic cancer and phase 2 testing in Duchenne muscular dystrophy. 

“Tom founded FibroGen with the vision to treat fibrosis at a time when there was no hope for this disease category and his commitment to these patients never wavered, nor did his passion for scientific innovation and discovery,” the company’s statement said. “He led this company for 25 years and established a company culture and a management team equally driven to support this passion.” 

In Schoeneck, FibroGen has an experienced pharmaceutical executive serving in the interim, the company said in a statement. He was previously CEO at Depomed and served as a VP of immunology at Centocor—now Janssen. The company aims to advance its drug programs “without interruption.”  

RELATED: The top 10 drug launches of 2019 - 5. Roxadustat 

The company’s lead independent director, Tom Kearns, said in a statement that as FibroGen pushes roxadustat forward, the company is “fortunate to be partnered with AstraZeneca and Astellas, who provide strong and comprehensive support.” 

“We are committed to honoring Tom’s vision and dedication to bringing innovative therapies to patients in need,” Kearns added. 

Roxadustat is anticipated to be among the biggest drug launches in pharma this year, carrying a 2024 sales estimate of $1.88 billion.