Bristol-Myers New R&D Chief Plans to Keep Focus on Cancer

Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. will stay focused on developing new cancer medicines that use the body’s own immune system to fight the disease, the company’s new head of research and development said today.

The drugmaker won’t change directions under Francis Cuss, 58, who was named chief scientific officer of the New York-based drug company yesterday. Cuss takes over from Elliott Sigal, 61, who will retire June 30.

“This is about continuity, and obviously the continuity of success,” Chief Executive Officer Lamberto Andreotti said on a conference call today. Cuss joined Bristol-Myers in 2003 as the head of the company’s drug discovery efforts.

Sigal helped implement Bristol-Myers’ “string of pearls” strategy, a plan of acquisitions and licensing deals for compounds to replace revenue lost from Plavix, the anti-stroke medication that was until this year the company’s best-selling product. There is no plan to shift what the company looks for in deals now that Cuss will head R&D, Andreotti said.

“Nothing has changed, in terms of our business development strategies,” Andreotti said.

Bristol-Myers shares gained less than 1 percent to $40.73 at the close in New York. The company’s stock has increased 21 percent in the past 12 months.

No Preference

For new drugs, Bristol-Myers is looking at areas where there aren’t existing therapies, Cuss said, and it doesn’t have a preference between diseases with small groups of patients that can command high prices, and those with larger populations.

“I go where the medical need is,” Cuss said on the call.

The company’s top prospect is nivolumab, an immuno-oncology drug. The medicine affects an immune system switch to enable the body to attack cancer cells that otherwise would be left unmolested and continue to grow. Bristol-Myers is studying the drug in kidney, lung and skin cancer patients.

Yervoy, an immuno-oncology drug for melanoma, was one of the first such products to market and sold $706 million last year.

“We have had a subtle but important move away from areas where we think the need is no longer there,” Cuss said. That includes shifting focus for future cardiovascular drugs to heart failure, he said.

Neuroscience will be less of a near-term priority in part because of setbacks, including the discontinuation of avagacestat, an Alzheimer’s drug that trials showed not to be effective. Cuss called brain diseases “clearly a difficult area, but an area where there remains an enormous unmet need.”