Eli Lilly says that its president and chief executive, John Lechleiter, is also to become chairman of the board at the Indianapolis-based drugmaker.

The firm said that Dr Lechleiter will succeed Sidney Taurel, who is retiring from the board and the company on December 31. However, Mr Taurel will be designated chairman emeritus “in recognition of his many significant contributions to the company during his tenure as chairman and chief executive”, Lilly said.

Dr Lechleiter, who joined Lilly in 1979 as a senior organic chemist in process R&D, said he is honoured to be chosen to serve as chairman “and build upon the strong foundation established by Sidney Taurel". He added that “the company and our industry face unprecedented change in the coming years, and we must transform our business to succeed in this challenging healthcare environment”.

At Lilly, “we recognise these challenges and have developed a strategy that places improved outcomes for patients at the core of our efforts”, Dr Lechleiter said. “We believe that this strategy will allow us to not only remain competitive, but to thrive”.

However his enthusiasm for the future is not necessarily shared by industry observers and JPMorgan has downgraded Lilly to ‘underweight’ from ‘neutral’. Analyst Chris Schott issued a research note saying that the company faces the loss of patent protection on $7.5 billion in product sales by 2013 and “this trend only gets worse over time” with the 2014 expiration of the antidepressant and fibromyalgia blockbuster Cymbalta (duloxetine).

Mr Schott added that "Lilly's pipeline remains modest, consisting of a number of assets with either significant regulatory or clinical risk that are unlikely to drive the shares over the next 12 months." He went on to predict a delay of one year to the launch of Effient (prasugrel), Lilly and Daiichi Sankyo’s much-touted oral antiplatelet drug and rival to Sanofi-Aventis/Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Plavix (clopidogrel). A decision from the US Food and Drug Administration is expected by the end of next week.