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Former Millennium CEO to head EnVivo

Deborah Dunsire will take the reins at the Watertown drug maker EnVivo in mid-August.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File 2013

Deborah Dunsire will take the reins at the Watertown drug maker EnVivo in mid-August.

Deborah Dunsire, who in May resigned suddenly as Millennium Pharmaceutical’s chief executive, will return to the biotechnology industry to lead EnVivo Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Dunsire, 51, one of the best-known women in the life-sciences field, said she will start in mid-August as chief executive of EnVivo, a Watertown maker of drugs to treat central nervous system disorders. Its lead drug candidate, which is entering late-stage clinical trials, seeks to improve cognition for patients suffering from schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

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“I’ve always loved to build,” said Dunsire. “The opportunity to build a company in an area so rife with need as the neuroscience area is very exciting.”

EnVivo, bankrolled by the Cambridge venture capital firm Fidelity Biosciences, was formed in 2001. It has about 130 employees operating out of two buildings in Watertown, but Dunsire said the staff will grow as the company’s drug pipeline advances and it builds a commercial sales force.

“To get this done, we have to do it well,” she said. “There's a very strong team in place on the medical and research side. And we’ll be hiring selectively, the very best people.”

Dunsire will replace interim chief executive Robert Weisskoff, a Fidelity Biosciences partner who has served since January and will remain on the board of EnVivo. Weisskoff stepped in when longtime chief executive Kees Been resigned.

EnVivo’s chairman, Stephen C. Knight, president of Fidelity Biosciences, cited Dunsire’s track record heading Millennium, a Cambridge company developing cancer drugs.

“Creating the Millennium of neurodegenerative diseases has been our goal from the beginning,” he said. “We had been looking for a CEO to take us to the next stage, to complete Phase 3 trials and develop a commercial organization. I can imagine no one better than Deborah.”

Dunsire left Millennium after its parent, Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., folded Millennium’s Cambridge cancer research unit into corporate research and development. She was replaced as president by Anna Protopapas, who has worked at Millennium for 16 years. Protopapas was given a reduced role, heading up commercial and financial operations but not research and development.

More recently, there have been other departures from Millennium. Karen Ferrante, who headed its oncology therapeutic area unit and its Cambridge research site, and Joe Bolen, who headed its oncology drug discovery unit, “have decided to leave Takeda to explore other interests,” said Millennium vice president Lisa Adler.

Ferrante was replaced by Michael J. Vasconcelles, and Bolen by Christopher Claiborne, both of whom were already at the company.

Adler would not specify the number of other Millennium employees who have left during the past month. While she acknowledged that the voluntary turnover rate had increased, she said it remains below that of the life-sciences industry overall in Massachusetts.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.
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