After an up-and-down year, Nektar watches development head Wei Lin walk away as it pursues pipeline rebound

More than any other year in recent memory, 2020 was a rollercoaster of highs and lows —mostly lows. Just ask San Francisco’s Nectar: Despite ditching its opioid program in January and offloading royalties to its two US-marketed meds, the biotech still has hopes for its pipeline to hit a rebound this year.

But that rebound won’t happen under the watch of senior VP and head of development Wei Lin, who is stepping down and leaving immunology head Brian Kotzin to step in.

Lin is “leaving the company to pursue another opportunity,” Nektar announced on Wednesday. It’s unclear where the Genentech vet is headed next.

Nektar poached Lin from Genentech in 2018, where he held roles such as global development leader for cancer immunotherapy and senior medical director over a seven-year stint. The Harvard Medical School grad joined Nektar as senior VP and head of oncology before getting promoted to head of development.

“Over the past two years, Wei has played a leadership role in recruiting an experienced clinical development organization and executing a late-stage clinical development strategy for BEMPEG, positioning it for future success,” chief R&D officer Jonathan Zalevsky said in a statement. “I would like to thank him for his contributions to Nektar, and wish him the best in his next opportunity.”

With big shoes to fill, Kotzin is stepping up as interim CMO and head of development.  The Amgen vet joined Nektar in 2017 and helped lead early development of NKTR-255, the company’s IL-15 receptor agonist currently in two Phase II studies: one for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma in combo with Rituxan or Darzalex, and another in head, neck and colorectal cancer paired with Erbitux. He also spearheaded the Eli Lilly-partnered NKTR-358 program, which is in Phase II for systemic lupus erythematosus and Phase Ib studies for psoriasis and atopic dermatitis.

At Amgen, Kotzin served as VP of global clinical development and head of inflammation therapeutics, as well as VP of translational sciences and head of medical sciences/early development.

“This is an exciting time for the company with multiple registrational studies underway in a range of tumor types for BEMPEG, a broadening clinical program for NKTR-358 in a number of auto-immune disorders, and an emerging opportunity for NKTR-255 in both hematological malignancies and solid tumors,” Kotzin said.

Last month, Nektar sold the royalties to Adynovate and Movantik off to  Healthcare Royalty Management for $150 million in cash. The biotech said it would funnel most of the money into two programs: bempegaldesleukin (or NKTR-214) and NKTR-255. Bempegaldesleukin, Nektar’s lead program, is being studied in several Phase III trials in combination with Bristol Myers Squibb’s Opdivo. The CD122-preferential IL-2 agonist is being evaluated in several indications, including metastatic melanoma, renal cell carcinoma and muscle-invasive bladder cancer.

That news came just less than a year after Nektar dropped its opioid program, NKTR-181, which was rebuffed by an FDA adcomm last January. The panel voted 27-0 against approving the drug, citing concerns that patients could abuse it and causing their stock $NKTR to fall 15%. On Wednesday morning, the company’s stock was down 0.61%, at $17.97 a share.