Business

A surprise CEO shift at Vertex

Emmens steps down as drug gets priority review

New CEO Jeffrey Leiden. Matthew Emmens said Vertex is ‘fully capable.’

The chief executive of Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. surprised the biotechnology industry yesterday by announcing his retirement just as the Cambridge company got word that its next promising drug is being fast-tracked for review by US regulators.

Matthew Emmens, 60, who took over Vertex in 2009 and shepherded the first company-developed drug to the market this year, said he’ll step down Feb. 1, handing over the job to Jeffrey Leiden, 56, an industry veteran who sits on the Vertex board.

The management change was disclosed just as Vertex said the Food and Drug Admistration had promised a priority review of its experimental cystic fibrosis drug, which could dramatically change how the disease is treated, that will shorten the FDA review period to six months from the standard 10 months for new drugs.

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Shares of Vertex climbed 89 cents, or 2.9 percent, to $31.43 yesterday on the Nasdaq Stock Market as investors absorbed news of the chief executive change and faster FDA review.

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In an interview, Emmens said he had planned with the company’s board to serve for only a relatively short tenure at Vertex’s helm when he accepted the position nearly three years ago. Those plans had not been disclosed publicly.

“My philosophy is you come to do a certain job at a company at a certain time with a certain skill set,’’ Emmens said. “My skill set was sales and marketing.’’

Over the past 2 1/2 years, he hired managers who built a sales force at a company, founded by Joshua Boger in 1989, that had been focused for two decades solely on research and development. Now that Vertex is “a fully capable company’’ with integrated research and marketing staffs, that goal has been achieved, Emmens said.

Leiden, a molecular biologist and practicing cardiologist who is a former venture capitalist and president of Abbott Laboratories, praised Emmens for broadening the focus of Vertex, making it profitable, and setting the stage for further growth.

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“My job is to basically help the company do it again and again,’’ Leiden said “The exciting thing about Vertex is we have a series of medicines in our pipeline, and we have more medicines coming to the market.’’

Another challenge, he said, is to preserve the drug development culture fostered by Boger and a culture of teamwork built by Emmens. “We don’t want to become a big pharma company,’’ he said. “We want to maintain that core entrepreneurial culture.’’

Consultant Jonathan P. Gertler, senior partner at Back Bay Life Science Advisors in Boston, said Emmens has succeeded in creating a commercial organization at Vertex, but that Leiden is a perfect choice for establishing Vertex as a multidrug company.

“The next stage of development at Vertex has to do with innovation management,’’ Gertler said, citing Leiden’s background running big companies and nurturing small ones. “Jeff still has close ties to the clinical science that’s out there. He has a very clear eye to where the early-stage development is being managed efficiently outside the company.’’

As biotechnology players increasingly strike partnerships and collaborate on drug development, Leiden’s background could help Vertex expand its product pipeline in alliance with start-ups and other companies working on new compounds, Gertler said.

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The transition comes as Vertex, which won long-sought FDA approval in the spring to sell its Incivek drug to treat hepatitis C, stands on the verge of another breakthrough. Vertex said the FDA has granted priority review of its new drug application for Kalydeco, a treatment for cystic fibrosis that affects a particular subset of patients.

If Kalydeco is approved, Vertex could have two important drugs on the market by next summer. Incivek is considered a potential “blockbuster’’ drug, meaning it could generate annual sales of more than $1 billion.

While Kalydeco initially would treat only a small share of the approximately 30,000 people in the United States and 70,000 worldwide suffering from cystic fibrosis, follow-on treatments are being readied for a much broader patient population. The disease is a chronic condition that causes mucus to build up in the lungs and digestive system.

Leiden said cystic fibrosis drugs on the market treat the symptoms of the disease, such as buildup of mucus in patients’ airways, while the Vertex therapy is seeking to target the underlying genetic cause of the life-threatening disease.

The new chief executive will take over as Vertex goes forward with plans to move its headquarters to the South Boston Waterfront late in 2013 and take its place as one of the Boston area’s highest-profile biotechnology companies. Vertex has about 2,000 employees worldwide, including more than 1,300 in Massachusetts.

Leiden began his employment at Vertex yesterday as part of a transition period before he formally assumes the titles of president and chief executive in February.

Emmens will serve as executive chairman through May and will continue to serve on the Vertex board, though he will retire from full-time employment, the company said.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.