Sanofi Taps Cancer Specialist Dietmar Berger For Head Of Development

Big pharma is welcoming one of their own back into the fold after his brief hiatus from drug development. Last month, Sanofi announced that they successfully snapped-up cancer-fighting superstar Dietmar Berger from the jaws of biotech competitor Atara and that he will now be joining them as their head of development.

Berger has been a big deal in the pharmaceutical industry since he led the medical strategy charge on Genentech’s global filings of approved cancer drugs Gazyva, Cotellic, Alecensa, Tecentriq and Hemlibra. He worked for Roche/Genentech as senior vice president and global head of product development for five years before moving over to Atara.

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People familiar with the matter posited that Berger’s move to the biotech firm may have had to do with Roche’s decision to pass on developing their own T-cell therapies of their own – opting to partner with Kite/Gilead and merge Tecentriq with K/G’s own cell therapies. As someone whose passion perhaps lies with pursuing his own answers, Berger may have found that opportunity with Atara.

Some of this passion comes through in a 2014 interview Berger gave at that year’s ESMO (European Society for Medical Oncology) conference. In his discussion, he shared his thoughts on how Roche remained at the forefront of oncology research.

“To me, there are three important components: a deep understanding of the science of oncology, a strong focus on patients, and having the right people,” Berger said. “When I speak to people in the organization, everybody has a story how cancer touched their lives, and you sense the personal commitment to make a real change for patients.”

“Another factor is the breadth and depth of our work,” he added. “Take a closer look [at our research] …and you will find that they span a wide range, from exciting preclinical research, to potentially practice-changing Phase III clinical data…[and beyond].”

He had only spent a year with the biotech firm before moving on after Atara’s newly-inducted CEO Pascal Touchon took office. Some analysts speculated that Berger’s departure was due to his being passed over for CEO. Regardless of the reason driving the decision, his new leadership role promises new challenges that should keep Berger busy for years to come.

While some things change, some of his coworkers will be the same. Berger will be reunited with his ex-Roche partner-in-pharma-crime John Reed who is Sanofi’s current global head of research and development. The cancer specialist will be joining the Reed team at a time when the global head has been busy redefining the company’s R&D focus to fit with his plans for the future. Reed has already kyboshed 38 of Sanofi’s ongoing initiatives but isn’t sure if there’s more that needs to be done.

“We’re continuing to review the portfolio and, in fact, are in the process now of refreshing our disease area strategies and looking at one of the places where we will prioritize and focus. So while I don’t expect major changes of the type you saw last year, I think we’ll continue to see an effort to focus the R&D organization that will involve some prioritization,” Reed told investors last month.

It’s believed that the Reed-Berger dynamic duo plan to bring in-house research back to Sanofi after long-relying on partnerships with companies like Regeneron for drug-development. If the strategic-stars align, Sanofi will aim to run two-thirds of their pipeline off their own research projects.