Dunsire Out at Millennium as Takeda Reorganizes, Cuts Costs

5/9/13Follow @xconomy

[Updated: 10:25 pm ET] Deborah Dunsire, the CEO who led Millennium Pharmaceuticals to prominence in cancer treatment, is leaving the company in an abrupt departure five years after it was acquired by Japan-based Takeda Pharmaceuticals. Dunsire exits as the company is seeking to merge operations around the globe and cut costs as it braces for a sales decline.

Anna Protopapas, a Takeda executive vice president of business development who has been with the company since 1997, will replace Dunsire as president of Takeda’s Cambridge, MA-based cancer operation, effective immediately. Dunsire will also depart from Takeda’s board of directors at next month’s board meeting, just one year after she joined the board.

Dunsire’s exit comes as part of a sweeping reorganization in the Takeda R&D operation, says Millennium spokeswoman Manisha Pai. Takeda CEO Yasuchika Hasegawa decided to integrate the autonomous Millennium cancer R&D unit into the larger Takeda organization, as Takeda is seeking to streamline operations, standardize procedures around the world, and cut operating costs. The changes meant that Dunsire would no longer be a CEO of a fully-integrated cancer company that discovers, develops, and markets cancer products, Pai says.

Hasegawa and Dunsire discussed potential roles she might take in the revamped Takeda, but Dunsire didn’t accept.

[Update] “Since these structural changes remove the need for the CEO of an integrated company, I have chosen to leave to explore other opportunities where such a role exists,” Dunsire said in an email late Thursday. “My passion has always been to work across the value chain, from research through commercialization, to bring transforming medicines to patients. I have had just such a wonderful opportunity in my eight years at Millennium, five of which were as a part of Takeda, and am so grateful for the exceptional experience I have had there.” She added: “Boston is an amazing cluster for companies focused on transforming health, so it will be interesting to explore….”

The changes at Millennium could end up extending much further than the executive office. The review and reorganization of Takeda’s global R&D operations could run through the summer, and could include staff reductions, Protopapas says. Takeda feels the need to make such moves partly because it has lost patent protection on pioglitazone hydrochloride (Actos), a billion-dollar blockbuster for diabetes. Takeda reported today, in a separate statement, that it expects 2013 net income to drop by 28 percent. Shares of the company fell 9 percent on the announcement, according to a report in Marketwatch.

Dunsire joined Millennium Pharmaceuticals in July 2005 after a long career at Novartis. At Millennium, she oversaw a period of commercial expansion in which its flagship drug bortezomib (Velcade) reached billion-dollar blockbuster status as a treatment for multiple myeloma. Millennium agreed to be acquired by Takeda Pharmaceuticals for $8.8 billion in May 2008. Instead of just harvesting the crown jewel, Takeda kept Dunsire and most of her executive team intact in Cambridge, and enabled it to continue to grow and build a bigger pipeline of cancer drug candidates. Dunsire’s success in guiding Millennium through the acquisition has helped propel her to a position of industry leadership, as a member of the board of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Takeda has about 30,000 employees worldwide, and about 1,200 at its Cambridge site, Protopapas says. While Takeda is considering staff cuts as it reorganizes, the company is committed to Cambridge and recently signed a new 17-year office lease, she says. Millennium currently has 11 pivotal-stage clinical trials ongoing for cancer patients.

“Takeda’s commitment to oncology is very significant. I think Takeda recognizes the achievements of this organization, recognizes the talent at Millennium, and the access to talent in Cambridge,” Protopapas says.

Takeda, however, has never made it into the top echelon of cancer drugmakers, and the lone product Millennium makes for cancer is now facing increasingly tough competition. South San Francisco-based Onyx Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ONXX) won FDA approval last year for a multiple myeloma drug carfilzomib (Kyprolis) and Summit, NJ-based Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) more recently won clearance for its third myeloma drug, pomalidomide (Pomalyst). Onyx’s product in particular—a proteasome inhibitor like Millennium’s—has gotten off to a fast start in the market, generating $64 million in sales in the quarter ended March 31. Millennium has sought to fend that product off with a new subcutaneous injectable form of bortezomib (Velcade), as an alternative that patients can inject themselves, as opposed to taking an IV.

Dunsire addressed employees at Millennium in Cambridge today to talk about the changes and her departure, which came to many employees as a surprise, Protopapas says. Questions from employees came up about how Millennium will retain a culture that values science, and patients, and teamwork under a new leadership structure.

Protopapas noted that she’s always lived in the Boston area during her 16 years with Takeda, even though her business development job requires extensive travel. While she will be the administrative site head for Takeda’s Cambridge unit, Protopapas will remain the head of Takeda’s worldwide business development, and will continue to report to Hasegawa, the CEO. Karen Ferrante, the chief medical officer at Millennium, will now be the top R&D leader at the Cambridge site, and she will report to Tachi Yamada, the head of Takeda’s global R&D.

The employee meeting was emotional at times, Protopapas says.

“We are a very tight group. Many of us have worked together for many years,” Protopapas says. “Any change is emotional, and this change was emotional. This isn’t just about colleagues, and good colleagues. This is about friends, people who have been through ups and downs together.”

“This is obviously a bittersweet moment for the organization.”

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  • Chasing Cancer

    Deborah is an amazing leader and a major loss for the Takeda organization. Upon walking into a company briefing of a stunned group of employees she was met with a thunderous standing ovation. Best of luck to her as she undoubtedly will go on to drive innovation for patients in her future endeavors.