Ken Frazier, Merck CEO (Bess Adler/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Mer­ck CEO Ken Fra­zier pre­pares to step down af­ter 29 years, hand­ing the keys to the Keytru­da race car to CFO Robert Davis

Mer­ck CEO Ken Fra­zier has seen a lot in his 29 years at the Ke­nil­worth, NJ-based drug­mak­er, but it was 2020 that gave him a true pub­lic face. Amid a spate of po­lice shoot­ings, Fra­zier emerged as a lead­ing voice in the ar­gu­ment for racial equal­i­ty in health­care and so­ci­ety writ large.

And now, just like that, he’s step­ping away from the helm he has held for 10 years — and could be look­ing at a fu­ture as a high­ly sought-af­ter el­der states­man and truth-teller.

Fra­zier will leave his role as CEO on June 30, step­ping over in­to the ex­ec­u­tive chair­man role in fa­vor of CFO Robert Davis. Davis, a four-year vet­er­an at Mer­ck, comes with a dec­o­rat­ed ré­sumé, in­clud­ing time served as CFO at Bax­ter and 14 years in the ranks at Eli Lil­ly.

Davis will take con­trol as Mer­ck looks in­to a fu­ture with­out its two lodestars — Fra­zier and Roger Perl­mut­ter, the R&D ti­tan re­spon­si­ble in large part for the suc­cess of I/O block­buster Keytru­da. Perl­mut­ter has al­ready hand­ed the reins to Dean Li, the cur­rent dis­cov­ery lead at Mer­ck, sig­nal­ing the phar­ma gi­ant’s in­tent to con­tin­ue the search for the next big Keytru­da fol­low-up. Perl­mut­ter plans to stay on in a non-ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor role through mid-2021.

“We have tremen­dous con­fi­dence in Rob’s abil­i­ty to con­tin­ue to fos­ter in­no­va­tion and to team with Dean Li … to dri­ve sci­en­tif­ic ex­cel­lence in­to the fu­ture,” Mer­ck’s lead in­de­pen­dent di­rec­tor Les Brun said in a state­ment. “We are par­tic­u­lar­ly pleased that Ken will con­tin­ue as ex­ec­u­tive chair­man in or­der to work with Rob and Dean to en­sure a smooth tran­si­tion for the com­pa­ny.”

Fra­zier be­gan work at Mer­ck in 1992 as VP, gen­er­al coun­sel and sec­re­tary of what was then the As­tra Mer­ck group. Fol­low­ing a se­ries of pro­mo­tions in the 1990s, Fra­zier jumped to the C-suite in No­vem­ber 2006, tak­ing on the role of ex­ec­u­tive VP and gen­er­al coun­sel. Af­ter a brief stint as VP and pres­i­dent of Mer­ck’s glob­al hu­man health branch, Fra­zier snared the pres­i­dent role in 2010 and quick­ly as­cend­ed to CEO in ear­ly 2011, where he has stayed since.

Fra­zier’s fi­nal years at Mer­ck were marked in large part by pol­i­tics — a role he was not un­fa­mil­iar with giv­en his time on the board of lob­by­ist PhRMA. In 2017, Fra­zier bailed on Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s man­u­fac­tur­ing coun­cil af­ter claim­ing the pres­i­dent hadn’t done enough to con­demn white su­prema­cists who gath­ered at a Char­lottesville, VA ral­ly that claimed the life of a young white woman.

“Amer­i­ca’s lead­ers must hon­or our fun­da­men­tal val­ues by clear­ly re­ject­ing ex­pres­sions of ha­tred, big­otry and group su­prema­cy, which run counter to the Amer­i­can ide­al that all peo­ple are cre­at­ed equal,” Fra­zier said in a state­ment at the time. “As CEO of Mer­ck and as a mat­ter of per­son­al con­science, I feel a re­spon­si­bil­i­ty to take a stand against in­tol­er­ance and ex­trem­ism.”

In 2020, Fra­zier’s star as a pub­lic truth-teller on race — he is the on­ly Black man to lead one of the Big Phar­mas — rose even high­er af­ter the death of George Floyd at the hands of Min­neapo­lis po­lice in May. Fra­zier, in a poignant mo­ment, said that Floyd “could be me.”

Jump­ing on a train of pledges for racial equal­i­ty at ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions, Fra­zier pledged to join a coali­tion, dubbed OneTen, to hire 1 mil­lion black work­ers with­in 10 years. He fre­quent­ly called out the un­der­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of black work­ers across health­care, even at his own com­pa­ny.

In tan­dem with his pub­lic work, Fra­zier al­so over­saw the mas­sive suc­cess of Keytru­da, which has tak­en the on­col­o­gy space by storm on the way to $14.4 bil­lion in sales in 2020 — rank­ing just be­hind Ab­b­Vie’s im­munol­o­gy be­he­moth Hu­mi­ra. Un­like Hu­mi­ra, how­ev­er, Keytru­da’s war chest is still grow­ing at a rapid clip — 30% on the year — un­der­scor­ing the I/O drug’s vast suc­cess across a wide range of in­di­ca­tions.

Keytru­da, and par­tic­u­lar­ly Perl­mut­ter’s role in dri­ving suc­cess across its pipeline, was a salve for Fra­zier’s ear­ly years at the top of Mer­ck as prof­its stag­nat­ed in the ear­ly 2010s. Perl­mut­ter’s ar­rival in 2013 and sub­se­quent Keytru­da suc­cess re­freshed Mer­ck’s im­age, but in re­cent years an­a­lysts have wor­ried whether the com­pa­ny has tacked too much of its suc­cess to that one ther­a­py.

Li’s as­sump­tion to R&D chief could help iden­ti­fy the next big tar­get, and he and Davis will be tasked with an­swer­ing con­cerns over Mer­ck’s slim pipeline as well as how to keep Keytru­da on a growth clip as it looks to take over Hu­mi­ra’s top spot.

2023 Spot­light on the Fu­ture of Drug De­vel­op­ment for Small and Mid-Sized Biotechs

In the context of today’s global economic environment, there is an increasing need to work smarter, faster and leaner across all facets of the life sciences industry.  This is particularly true for small and mid-sized biotech companies, many of which are facing declining valuations and competing for increasingly limited funding to propel their science forward.  It is important to recognize that within this framework, many of these smaller companies already find themselves resource-challenged to design and manage clinical studies themselves because they don’t have large teams or in-house experts in navigating the various aspects of the drug development journey. This can be particularly challenging for the most complex and difficult to treat diseases where no previous pathway exists and patients are urgently awaiting breakthroughs.

Spe­cial re­port 2022: Meet 20 women blaz­ing trails in bio­phar­ma R&D

When you run a special report for a fourth year, it can start feeling a little bit like a ritual. You go through the motions — in our case opening up nominations for top women in biopharma R&D and reviewing more than 500 entries — you make your choices of inclusion and exclusion. You host a ceremony.

But then things happen that remind you why you do it in the first place. Perhaps a Supreme Court rules to overturn the constitutional right to abortion and a group of women biotech leaders makes it clear they strongly dissent; perhaps new data on gender diversity in the industry come out that look all too similar to the old ones, suggesting women are still dramatically underrepresented at the top; perhaps protests and conflicts around the world put in stark terms the struggles that many women still face in earning the most basic recognition.

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Kristen Hege, Bristol Myers Squibb SVP, early clinical development, oncology/hematology and cell therapy (Illustration: Assistant Editor Kathy Wong for Endpoints News)

Q&A: Bris­tol My­er­s' Kris­ten Hege on cell ther­a­py, can­cer pa­tients and men­tor­ing the next gen­er­a­tion

Kristen Hege leads Bristol Myers Squibb’s early oncology discovery program carrying on from the same work at Celgene, which was acquired by BMS in 2019. She’s known for her early work in CAR-T, having pioneered the first CAR-T cell trial for solid tumors more than 25 years ago.

However, the eminent physician-scientist is more than just a drug developer mastermind. She’s also a practicing physician, mother to two young women, an avid backpacker and intersecting all those interests — a champion of young women and people of color in STEM and life sciences.

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Gossamer Bio CEO Faheem Hasnain at Endpoints' #BIO22 panel (J.T. MacMillan Photography for Endpoints News)

Gos­samer’s Fa­heem Has­nain de­fends a round of pos­i­tive PAH da­ta as a clear win. But can these PhII re­sults stand up to scruti­ny?

Gossamer Bio $GOSS posted a statistically significant improvement for its primary endpoint in the key Phase II TORREY trial for lead drug seralutinib on Tuesday morning. But CEO Faheem Hasnain has some explaining to do on the important secondary of the crucial six-minute walk distance test — which will be the primary endpoint in Phase III — as the data on both endpoints fell short of expectations, missing one analyst’s bar on even modest success.

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Graphic: Shutterstock

Prometheus moves to raise cash hours af­ter PhII da­ta leads to stock surge

After releasing better-than-anticipated data on two mid-stage studies Wednesday morning, Prometheus Biosciences’ CEO said the company would “take some time to assess” its next financing options.

It only needed about seven hours. Wednesday afternoon after the market closed, the biotech announced it would seek $250 million through an equity offering as the company looks to edge out anti-TL1A competitor Pfizer and its new partner Roivant.

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Piper Trelstad, head of CMC, Bill & Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute

Q&A with Gates leader: Women tak­ing on more roles in phar­ma man­u­fac­tur­ing, but still work to do

More and more women are driving innovation and taking leadership roles in biotech – as evidenced today in the release of Endpoints News’ list of the top 20 women in the R&D world – but those gains are beginning to extend across pharma sectors.

In pharma manufacturing in the US today, around 46% of all roles are occupied by women, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2021. And according to a Bloomberg report, women’s roles across manufacturing roles had a massive boost after the start of the pandemic.

Phar­ma rep­u­ta­tion re­tains 'halo' even as pan­dem­ic me­dia cov­er­age re­cedes — sur­vey

The Covid-19 halo effect on the pharma industry is continuing, according to a new global study from Ipsos. The annual survey for the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) finds considerable goodwill from consumers across measures of trust, cooperation with governments, and advancing research and drug development.

“Despite the pandemic in many countries no longer being the top of mind concern generally – although it does remain the top concern as a health issue – the industry’s reputation has remained positive,” said Ipsos research director Thomas Fife-Schaw.

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FDA commissioner Robert Califf (Jose Luis Magana/AP Images)

FDA pulls On­copep­tides' Pepax­to in­di­ca­tion, open­ing the door for dan­gling ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval en­force­ment

In a move all but ensured after an overwhelmingly negative adcomm vote this September, the FDA is yanking Oncopeptides’ dangling accelerated approval. And there may be more to come.

In recent months, US regulators have honed in on reforming the accelerated approval pathway and preventing drugmakers from continuing to sell their medicines in the event of a confirmatory study flop. The moves come after commissioner Rob Califf has called for companies to do more to produce post-marketing evidence quickly earlier this year.

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Mark McKenna, Prometheus Biosciences chairman & CEO

With clear PhII win in IBD, Prometheus thwarts Pfiz­er com­par­isons as it fol­lows Hu­mi­ra 'play­book'

Prometheus Biosciences reported a clear Phase II win in two inflammatory bowel disease conditions in a clinical development race with Pfizer, planting the biotech’s flag in a field of antibodies attempting to go against black box-cornered JAK inhibitors and AbbVie’s Humira.

Shares $RXDX have soared since the summer — a small dip last week notwithstanding when rival Pfizer teamed up with Roivant on a new company for their competing anti-TL1A monoclonal antibody. And they skyrocketed once again Wednesday morning, climbing from $36 apiece to more than $100 on the back of two Phase II studies: one placebo-controlled in ulcerative colitis and the other an open-label trial in patients with Crohn’s disease.

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