The nominees for Worst Biotech CEO of 2013 are...
Amarin's AMRN Joe Zakrzewski, Harvey Berger of Ariad Pharmaceuticals (ARIA - Get Report), Vical's (VICL - Get Report) Vijay Samant, John Johnson of Dendreon (DNDN) and Aveo Pharma's (AVEO - Get Report) Tuan Ha Ngoc.
Each of these executives has rightfully earned a share of this (dis)honor but only one can claim this year's Nance Trophy -- and the biotech investor scorn and ridicule that comes with it.
The Nance Trophy honors David Nance, the former CEO of now bankrupt and defunct Introgen Therapeutics. Few CEOs in biotech did more to hone the fine craft of investor bamboozlement and outright incompetence as Introgen's Nance.As in previous years, readers will cast the deciding votes. Read the following nominating summaries and make your selection in the interactive poll below. Feel free, also, to post comments at the bottom of the story if you feel I left off a CEO deserving of shame. Next week, I'll tally the votes and award the trophy. Joe Zakrzewski, Amarin Nominating Zakrzrewski for this award almost feels unfair, like piling on a guy who's already knocked out. Sympathies aside, the Amarin CEO is here because his inept decisions and total lack of strategic thinking have dug the company into a deep hole. The Vascepa commercial launch started badly last year when Zakrzewski was unable to land a qualified marketing partner. Instead of fixing Vascepa's problems this year, Zakrzewski let them fester, hoping (praying) that an FDA approval allowing the fish oil pill to treat mixed dyslipidemia patients (the "Anchor" population) would rescue the company. We all know what happened. The Amarin Kool-Aid drinkers believe FDA railroaded Vascepa by changing the rules in the middle of the game. Those of us more level headed saw the Vascepa "Anchor" blow up coming a mile away. The preponderance of scientific evidence showing no cardiovascular benefit to multiple statin add-on therapies practically demanded FDA take a more conservative stance with Vascepa. Amarin didn't help its cause by showing up at the advisory panel unprepared to defend itself. Amarin exits 2013 in much worse shape than it started the year -- burning cash, saddled with debt and a drug which can't possibly generate enough revenue to turn the company profitable. Harvey Berger, Ariad Pharmaceuticals Years ago, Berger was one of the more despised CEOs in bio-pharma. He was viewed as a self-serving bully with an anger problem. At one point in 2008, the independent directors serving on Ariad's board resigned because of Berger. Then Ariad started to develop the leukemia drug ponatinib and the results were impressive. Wall Street investors held their nose and bought Ariad stock, hoping Berger wouldn't screw up a good thing. For awhile, the strategy worked really well. Ponatinib advanced through clinical trials and was granted FDA approval in December 2012. Ariad's stock price soared, investors were happy. Berger toned down his act and even seemed on a path of redemption. But no. Call it reversion to the mean, bad luck or both, but Berger's behavior and decision making disintegrated in 2013. The toxicity and side effects associated with ponatinib (now known as Iclusig) became an issue soon after the drug was launched in January. On conference calls, Berger lashed out at critics or seemed defensive. He made excuses for selling Ariad stock. Worst of all (and unknown to investors) Berger was engaged in a fight with the FDA over the agency's growing concerns about blood clots and other heart safety side effects tied to Iclusig. Refusing to cooperate with FDA, particularly when the fight involves serious drug toxicity and the safety of patients is a losing game. Berger lost. Ariad's patients, employees and shareholders lost too. And once again, Berger is one of the most despised CEO in bio-pharma. Vijay Samant, Vical Biotech CEOs don't land on the Worst list just because of failed clinical trials. Drug blowups are common and can strike even the best company, so there's no shame in it. I make exceptions to this rule, of course, like if a CEO purposefully hides or delays negative trial results. And worse, if after an improperly delayed clinical trial is finally analyzed, the results show the experimental drug put patients in harm's way. Samant delayed the results of Vical's allovectin phase III study in melanoma. I lost track of how many times the analysis of the study was pushed back, but it was years. Samant and Vical finally announced the failure of the allovectin study in August. Few were surprised. However, three months later, Vical disclosed that allovectin caused tumors to shrink in 4.6% of patients compared to a tumor response of 12.3% in patients treated with the chemotherapy used as a control in the study. The difference was actually statistically significant against allovectin. In a secondary analysis, the median overall survival of patients treated with allovectin was 18.6 months compared to 24.1 months for patients treated with chemotherapy. Allovectin caused more harm to melanoma patients than chemotherapy. Prolonging this study by delaying the analysis caused undue harm to patients. That's disgusting, inexcusable behavior and ample reason for Samant's nomination as the Worst Biotech CEO of 2013. John Johnson, Dendreon It doesn't seem possible for a new CEO to take over the reins at Dendreon after the Provenge blowup and do a worse job than the company's previous CEO Mitch Gold. Yet somehow, Johnson has managed to turn Dendreon into a total disaster on the brink of insolvency. In August, after another train wreck of a quarter -- disappointing sales, retrenched guidance, ineffectual cost reductions, suffocating debt -- the Wedbush analyst cut his price target to $0. I've never seen a $0 price target, but it's pretty much sums up Johnson's time at Dendreon. Tuan Ha Ngoc, Aveo Pharma Every year a biotech CEO does something so lame, incompetent or evil that I find myself compelled to write a column asking (demanding) his resignation. This year's "Fire the SOB CEO!" column was written about Aveo's Ha Ngoc after the FDA and its advisory panel trashed the company's kidney cancer drug tivozanib. Under Ha Ngoc's direction, Aveo took an active kidney cancer drug and proceeded to mangle its development so badly that FDA excoriated the company in public for running a flawed and unethical clinical trial.
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