Vertex joins the new-CEO brigade with Leiden jumping to exec chairman, CMO stepping up

Vertex Pharmaceuticals CEO Jeffrey Leiden has overseen big changes at the company since taking the post in 2012, and now he’s handing over the reins.

Leiden will move up to executive chairman, clearing the way for Chief Medical Officer Reshma Kewalramani to take his old slot—and become one of the very few female CEOs in biopharma.

Among large drugmakers, only GlaxoSmithKline has a woman in its CEO spot. Unlike GSK chief Emma Walmsley, who came up on the commercial side, Kewalramani's background is in R&D. She joined Vertex in 2017 after 12 years in Amgen's R&D department.

Vertex said its board had been working with Leiden on a succession plan for several years now; as lead independent director Bruce Sachs said in a statement, it's aiming—not unexpectedly—for a "smooth and effective leadership transition" that doesn't disrupt its strategy or operations.

In Kewalramani, the company is getting an “accomplished scientist and physician” with more than 20 years of experience, Sachs said, and someone who has a “deep understanding and appreciation of Vertex’s strategy, business and culture.”

For her part, Kewalramani said she’s “honored” to take the post “and to continue to work alongside Jeff, the board and our leadership team at a time of such opportunity for the company.” 

Indeed, just last week, Vertex said it had submitted its triple-combo therapy for cystic fibrosis (CF) to the FDA for review. It's the drugmaker's next great hope as it works to diversify its pipeline into other fields. Kewalramani said the triple combos could treat up to 90% of CF patients, whereas its previous meds targeted smaller slivers of the market defined by genetic characteristics. 

RELATED: Vertex picks drugs for mass-market cystic fibrosis combinations on back of strong midphase data 

Outside of CF, the company is advancing candidates in pain and alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. It's also outlicensed oncology candidates to Merck KGaA and a flu drug to Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen. 

Leiden said he’s had the “tremendous privilege” to lead Vertex for the last seven years and that he’ll continue to play an “active role” in the company. He’s agreed to serve as executive chairman through the first quarter of 2023. 

He’s led a period of strong growth at the drugmaker. During his first full year at the post, 2013, Vertex turned in $1.21 billion in global sales. Last year, sales reached $3.04 billion. Along the way, though, his compensation package sparked an investor revolt, and the company rejigged its pay rules in response.

RELATED: Vertex chief, thwarted by NICE, pressures England’s PM to play ball on drug prices 

And despite Vertex's progress in CF, the company faces controversy in England over pricing. CF drug Orkambi won a European approval years ago, but the drugmaker and health officials still haven’t reached a reimbursement deal. Health officials say Vertex is demanding too high of a price, and Vertex argues the country’s offer devalues its innovative therapy. Patients, meanwhile, have pleaded with both sides to reach an agreement.