Immuno-oncology, People

Leena Gandhi steps out of Keytruda spotlight and into a top research job at I/O laggard Eli Lilly

Two weeks ago, Leena Gandhi was in the spotlight at AACR with the latest landmark data on Merck’s Keytruda/chemo combo for frontline lung cancer. That package ended up outshining a rival play from Bristol-Myers Squibb as Merck continued to consolidate its lead position in the field. 

Today, we find out that Gandhi, an investigator at the Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Health and a Dana-Farber vet, has been recruited by none other than Eli Lilly to head up its immuno-oncology research work. Or perhaps, more to the point, the I/O work that Lilly plans to get started on. And she’s the latest in a series of new hires that points to Lilly’s brewing interest in forging new oncology deals.

Dan Skovronsky

As of now, Lilly has been largely bypassed on the global I/O super highway as it pairs up its targeted cancer agents with the lead players. But in its Q1 call a few days ago, new R&D chief Dan Skovronsky and the executive team made it clear that the company is preparing to hatch some I/O deals to beef up its cancer drug pipeline. And Gandhi is clearly central to that process.

“(W)e need to be active externally and you can count us,” said CEO Dave Ricks. 

Sue Mahony

Lilly has a rep as a fairly reliable big pharma drug developer, fielding a string of new drugs in recent years. It’s made a huge investment into Alzheimer’s disease, with nothing to show for it. And while eminently reliable on the data, a big plus for diabetes R&D, Lilly’s development group has been a slow and ponderous performer, often late to every big new marketing niche it tries to tackle.

These new researchers will be charged with changing that rep.

“We mentioned we’ve on-boarded two physicians recently, one from Duke and the other from the Memorial Sloan Kettering and you will see us continuing to bringing more external talent,” said Eli Lilly oncology chief Sue Mahony during the call, highlighting the arrival of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Maura Dickler, recruited as Lilly’s new VP of late-phase development in oncology.

Gandhi arrives at Lilly June 25.


Image: Leena Gandhi. NYU LANGONE HEALTH


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