Vernalis hit by new blow asdevelopment director quits

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The biotechnology company Vernalis suffered another blow yesterday with the departure of its development director two weeks after US drugs regulators delayed a decision on a key drug.

Dr John Hutchison is leaving Vernalis to join anti-scarring specialist Renovo after seven years with the company and three as dev-elopment director. Before leaving, he had wanted to oversee the launch of the Vernalis headache pill Frova as a treatment for menstrual migraines. But the Food and Drug Administration told the company this month it would not be able to make its decision on whether to allow the new indication by the expected 19 August deadline. Shares in the company plunged 4 per cent on the news and yesterday dropped a further 4 per cent, down 1.75p to 46p.

It is understood that due to the uncertainty surrounding the timetable for Frova, Dr Hutchison, 51, decided to go ahead with the announcement of his departure. He will join Renovo as chief medical officer. Vernalis chief executive Simon Sturge said a search had started for a successor.

Vernalis registered a £42.2m loss last year and was counting on approval by US authorities for the second indication for Frova to push it back into the black. The company, which has lost more than a quarter in market value this year, is waiting for a new date for the FDA decision. If given the go-ahead, Frova would be the first menstrual migraine available in the US and analysts predict sales of £130m by 2011. Last year, sales of the treatment as a headache pill were just £3.6m.