Alessandro Riva exits top Novartis oncology post, heads to a troubled — but wealthy — Gilead

Alessandro Riva

With its pipeline mired in bad data and serial setbacks and analysts demanding some sort of coherent strategic response to the ominous downturn in its hep C franchise, Gilead $GILD has managed to recruit one of the top names in oncology drug development to head up its cancer R&D efforts.

Alessandro Riva is turning in his Big Pharma credentials at Novartis $NVS to move into the big biotech, which has taken a drubbing at the hands of disappointed analysts this year.

In the cancer field, Gilead was forced to halt a slate of 6 studies for Zydelig in the spring of 2016 due to safety issues. And that came after the drug was clearly losing a race with Imbruvica from J&J and AbbVie on leukemia and lymphoma. AbbVie and Roche’s venetoclax, meanwhile, is expected to gain market ground in CLL.

Then in November came subpar data for momelotinib, which has been struggling to distinguish itself from Jakafi for myelofiboris.

Clinical setbacks, though, are all the rage at Gilead, which has been racking up failures throughout 2016, including 4 straight flops late in the year.

What Gilead does have is cash, and plenty of it. Rivas may have less to do in the clinic right now than at the deal table, where Gilead may yet spend a significant amount of its cash reserves on M&A and licensing. Gilead clearly needs to do more in oncology/hematology.

Brian Abrahams at Jefferies thinks that could be the case. He noted:

We believe the relatively high-profile heme/onc chief hire signals an increasing focus in oncology, a welcome development, and expect GILD to more aggressively pursue BD to build out a broader cancer pipeline– something not substantially baked into most expectations but which we believe could help improve sentiment around the name and LT revenue prospects. We expect speculated (s)mid-cap M&A candidates like INCY could also trade up on this announcement.

“I have always admired Gilead for its scientific focus and data-driven approach to drug development,” Riva said in a statement. “I look forward to working alongside Gilead’s dedicated and passionate colleagues throughout the R&D organization to tackle the cancer research and development challenge with a goal of improving the lives of patients.”

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