On Monday, Eisai said its head of Alzheimer’s disease drugs will depart at the end of July, a leadership change that comes just days after the Japan-based pharmaceutical company won full U.S. approval for its medicine Leqembi.
Ivan Cheung has worked in various roles and divisions since joining Eisai in 2005. In his current position of global Alzheimer's disease officer, Cheung oversees the development, regulatory affairs and commercialization of therapies targeting the neurodegenerative disorder. He also serves as CEO of Eisai Inc., the company’s U.S. subsidiary.
Eisai plans to divvy up Cheung’s responsibilities among other members of the corporate leadership team. Keisuke Naito, son of Eisai’s CEO Harou Naito, will take over as the acting global head of Alzheimer’s disease, in addition to continuing to serve as chief ecosystem officer and chief strategy and planning officer.
Meanwhile, Tatsuyuki Yasuno will transition from chief financial officer and chief investor relations officer to acting chairman and CEO of Eisai Inc. He will also be acting president of the company’s Americas region.
These shake ups come at a pivotal time for Eisai, which is in the midst of ramping up what might be the most important product launch in its history.
The company’s closely watched Alzheimer’s treatment Leqembi was upgraded this month from conditionally to fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration. That’s pushed Medicare, the government insurance program for older people in the U.S., to amend a restrictive policy it put in place to limit who could get Leqembi.
Analysts now expect Leqembi, with broader insurance coverage, to become a blockbuster drug for Eisai and its partner, Biogen. The team at RBC Capital Markets has predicted that Leqembi, which is currently priced at $26,500 per year, could reach $10 billion in peak annual sales.
Yet to reach that level of sales, Eisai will need to overcome certain obstacles. There are concerns, for example, that Alzheimer’s treatment centers may not be well enough equipped to handle the potential demand for Leqembi. The drug can also be difficult to administer, requiring substantial testing and hour-long infusions multiple times a month.
Additionally, some doctors aren’t yet convinced that the benefits of the drug outweigh its known safety risks.
Eisai will now have to navigate these challenges without Cheung, who guided Leqembi — which is also known scientifically as lecanemab — through clinical development as well as regulatory approval.
"Ivan Cheung has made tremendous contributions to the realization of social good through the successful development of lecanemab,” Haruo Naito said in a statement.
Eisai said Cheung “believes that he has realized his missions at the Company by obtaining full approval of lecanemab in the U.S. and reimbursement from [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] and has a strong desire to pursue a new chapter in his leadership career.”
Under Cheung, Eisai helped Biogen successfully develop another Alzheimer’s drug, Aduhelm, though conflicting data and insurer pushback caused it to be seldom used since gaining conditional approval two years ago.
Shortly after that approval, Biogen’s top scientist, Alfred Sandrock, announced he would retire at the end of 2021 and “move on to the next chapter.” Sandrock was integral to Aduhelm’s development and a central proponent at a time when there was significant doubt about whether drugs like Aduhelm and Leqembi can actually slow Alzheimer’s disease.