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Struggling GSK recruits cancer drug guru Hal Barron as its new R&D chief

GlaxoSmithKline has recruited Hal Barron, one of the world’s top cancer drug investigators, to take the helm of its troubled pharma R&D group, offering a fresh sign that the pharma giant is jumping back in a big way into oncology.

Hal Barron

Barron became something of a living legend during his long stint at Genentech during a time the big biotech carved a broad path in the oncology field. After the Roche buyout he become CMO at the pharma giant. More recently, he joined the stealthy Google startup Calico to delve into aging R&D, where he’s been largely mum about his work.

Now, though, he’s GSK CEO Emma Walmsley’s prize catch at a time the company will try to prove that it can produce innovative new drugs — something that has long eluded the company.

Barron is replacing Patrick Vallance, who is headed to a government job as the new CEO shakes up the pipeline and sets new priorities.

Significantly, Barron will remain in San Francisco, where GSK is creating a new office focused on business development for the R&D group. That will leave him far from GSK’s R&D ops, which are based around Philadelphia and Stevenage in the UK.

His move to GSK underscores the growing importance of oncology for GSK’s future. Walmsley’s predecessor did a big swap with Novartis, trading its late-stage cancer portfolio in exchange for vaccines. GSK kept its early-stage cancer group, though, which recently took an option on a drug from Adaptimmune $ADAP.

Barron is instantly recognizable in the industry. He started out at Genentech as a clinical scientist, working his way up to CMO and helped change the face of cancer drug development in the process.

“The only way any drugs are successful is when you understand the underlying biology you’re treating. In cancer, the biology has really exploded,” Barron told me back in 2013, with researchers now able to understand what’s happening on the patient level. Understanding “the pathways which are causing the specific cancer in mind [and tailoring] the therapy to a patient’s biology, dramatically enriches the opportunity.”

Noted Walmsley: “Scientific innovation must be at the heart of GSK and with the appointment of Hal, we are bringing one of the world’s foremost R&D leaders to the company.”

She’s paying Barron a salary of $1.7 million, with a bonus of $1.7 million and millions more in stock awards.



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