Under the gun after Opdivo setbacks, Bristol-Myers Squibb names a new chief scientist

Hot on the heels of a series of painful setbacks for its marquee program for Opdivo, Bristol-Myers Squibb $BMY is bringing in a new chief scientific officer. The bellwether big biotech says that Francis Cuss, 62, is “retiring” as of March 16, with Mass General vet Thomas Lynch taking the top R&D job.

Lynch spent 23 years at Massachusetts General Hospital, serving as chairman and chief executive officer of Massachusetts General Physicians Organization and as a member of the MGH Board from 2015 to 2017. He was also a professor of internal medicine at the Yale School of Medicine from 2009 to 2015 and is stepping down from the BMS board to take the new job.

Cuss was credited with running one of the best R&D operations in biopharma. But that rep cratered over the last few months as the company was staggered by the failure of Opdivo to maintain the leadership role Bristol-Myers had built for the franchise, ceding the lead in the all-important lung cancer sector to Merck’s Keytruda. Last year their drug failed a critical study as a frontline therapy in lung cancer. Then in January, after Merck filed for an approval of Keytruda with chemo for frontline use, Bristol-Myers said that there would be no accelerated filing for its combination therapy with Yervoy, once again raising fears about their longterm prospects.

Lynch is arriving at a time of considerable uncertainty for the R&D group, which is also undergoing a reorganization.

Giovanni Caforio, Bristol-Myers Squibb CEO

Those setbacks cost the company’s investors dearly as the stock plunged, and rumors have taken root that the big outfit could even be up for a possible takeover bid. The buzz only grew after activist investor Carl Icahn bought in and then brought Richard Mulligan back into the fold.

CEO Giovanni Caforio pointedly highlighted Lynch’s experience in lung cancer in making the announcement today. He noted:

Tom is an internationally recognized oncologist known for his leadership in the treatment of lung cancer and has made significant contributions to the field of targeted therapies throughout his career. As we transition to our next phase of growth, we are confident Tom is the right person to lead our dynamic R&D organization as we focus on accelerating the development of our Immuno-Oncology medicines and fully realizing the extraordinary potential of our diverse, innovative pipeline. With deep experience as a clinical researcher, leader of large research centers and a practicing physician, Tom brings unique, important and timely perspectives to the business.

Cuss will stay on as an adviser for the next three months.

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