AstraZeneca (NYSE:AZN) has been backed in to a corner, but it looks as though the drug maker is ready to come out swinging. The company's stock price has gone nowhere over the last 10 years and it is set to face an onslaught of competition from generics in the coming years. However, a new CEO could give AstraZeneca the spark that it needs.

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Up Against the Clock
Last week the company named its CFO as its interim CEO following the resignation of David Brennan who had faced a growing amount of criticism from investors. The role will not be an easy one to fill in the wake of demands from analysts and investors who are calling for the company to do deals larger than those that were transacted on Brennan's watch.

One of the greatest challenges facing AstraZeneca in the intermediate term is the expiration of patents on some of its biggest selling drugs. Nexium, which accounted for around 13% of the company's product revenue last year, is set to lose its patent protection in the United States in 2014. The company has already seen sales of the drug in Western Europe plummet due to generic competition.

AstraZeneca will have patent protection until late 2016 on its Seroquel XR. However, protection for its Seroquel IR formulation has already expired. XR accounted for roughly 12.9% of the company's product revenue in 2012 while IR comprised only about 4.4%.

SEE: Evaluating Pharmaceutical Companies

Looking Ahead
Now AstraZeneca is charged with hiring a CEO with thick skin who is either capable of pulling off a major acquisition or communicating the wisdom to the market on why smaller-sized deals make sense for the drug maker's long-term growth. Both challenges will be daunting, but can be overcome. AstraZeneca has been proactive in seeking out partnerships in the biotech space to develop new drug candidates as evidenced by its recent agreement with Amgen (Nasdaq:AMGN). It also has about $7.6 billion in cash at its disposal.

It may be too early to speculate on possible deals that could materialize down the road after a permanent CEO is hired, but analysts have already thrown out some ideas. Forest Laboratories (NYSE:FRX) and Amylin Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq:AMLN) are two possible candidates. It has been reported by Reuters that Amylin has already begun the process of seeking out suitors.

The Bottom Line
It has been a very tough landscape for the major pharmaceutical companies as generics have become more commonplace and new drug approvals from the FDA have not gotten any easier. AstraZeneca faces these same challenges, but it has the opportunity to do something big when it brings in a new CEO. Whether the company decides to make a major acquisition or a series of smaller deals, it is going to need to remain aggressive if it wants to remain a major force among the top drug makers.

SEE: Analyzing An Acquisition Announcement

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At the time of writing, Billy Fisher did not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article.

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