Luke Timmerman

[Update: 10:40 am ET] Vertex Pharmaceuticals is getting a new CEO, as it faces tough new competition with its flagship hepatitis C drug and prepares to roll out a second new medicine for cystic fibrosis.

Cambridge, MA-based Vertex (NASDAQ: VRTX) said today that Jeff Leiden, a member of the company’s board and a managing director at Clarus Ventures in Boston, will replace Matt Emmens as president and CEO on Feb. 1. Emmens plans to remain a full-time executive chairman until May, when Vertex says he will retire from a full-time role at the company, but remain a member of the company’s board.

[Update with Emmens's age] Emmens, 60, is the former Merck executive who took over from founder Josh Boger as CEO in May 2009, as the company was finishing up clinical trials and preparing for the commercial push of a groundbreaking new therapy for hepatitis C, telaprevir (Incivek). The drug was cleared by the FDA in May, and although analysts expect it to be a billion-dollar seller, it quickly surpassed Wall Street sales expectations in its first couple quarters, allowing Vertex to report its first product-driven quarterly profit in its 22-year history.

But the hepatitis C landscape has changed in just the past couple months, as Gilead Sciences moved to acquire a competing drugmaker for $11 billion, and Vertex’s stock has plunged amid fears that it will soon be upstaged in the marketplace.

Shares jumped as high as $58 a share earlier this year, then plummeted all the way to $30.54 at yesterday’s close, leaving Vertex with a market valuation of $6.3 billion. Most of the value is based on the prospects for Incivek, although Vertex also has an application in to the FDA to start selling a new cystic fibrosis drug, ivacaftor (Kalydeco). That drug is getting a faster-than-usual six-month regulatory review, which the FDA sometimes grants to groundbreaking new medicines. The FDA deadline to finish its review is April 18.

“Under Matt’s leadership, Vertex established itself as a company capable not only of discovering important new medicines, but of successfully bringing those medicines to patients,” Leiden said in a statement. “As a member of the Vertex Board, I have been extremely impressed with the company’s ability to retain its clear focus on both groundbreaking science and improving the lives of people with serious diseases. It will be a privilege to lead Vertex at this exciting time and to further build the organization as we prepare for the global launch of our second new therapy, advance our diverse pipeline and build value for shareholders in the years ahead.”

Leiden, 56, is the former president and chief operating officer of Abbott Laboratories, where he gained experience in the highly competitive rheumatoid arthritis drug market with adalimumab (Humira).

Emmens, in a company statement, added: “I am proud of the accomplishments we have made during my almost three years at Vertex and believe the company is well-positioned to bring forward additional innovative new medicines. Jeff brings significant and broad leadership experience to Vertex, and I am confident that his understanding of the company, combined with his unique blend of scientific, commercial and financial expertise, will help Vertex deliver on its goals in the future.”

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