Post-restructuring, Biogen's top execs are back in the R&D talent hunt

Biogen's Al Sandrock

SAN FRANCISCO--Four months after Biogen ($BIIB) swiftly slashed 880 jobs in a wrenching restructuring, the biotech trendsetter is back on a new hiring spree in research aimed at luring in a wave of top talent in neuroscience R&D.

Over the course of this year, says Al Sandrock, Biogen's chief medical officer, he expects to recruit some 150 staffers, with a mission to continue to add to the neuroscience ranks that now work under the guidance of Richard Ransohoff (ex-Cleveland Clinic), Chris Henderson (who arrived from Columbia University) and CSO Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas (a 2013 hire).

"That's behind us," Sandrock says emphatically, when asked about the layoffs. "We're on the cusp of breakthroughs on neuroscience," he adds during an interview at JP Morgan in San Francisco, and Biogen plans to be a leader in the field.

Being a leader, he notes during an interview at the J.P. Morgan conference, is going to require more top talent.

Faltering Tecfidera revenue growth and fretful assumptions on its multibillion-dollar peak sales projections set the stage for a quick purge in the ranks last fall, which followed a careful winnowing out process in which Sandrock engineered a series of small, low-profile reorganizations in some of Biogen's departments over the previous three years as the R&D division overall swelled rapidly in size.

The focus inside the research group at Biogen is concentrated heavily on two key, potentially transformative drugs: The Alzheimer's drug aducanumab, now enrolling two Phase IIIs, and anti-Lingo-1, which is looking to add a new drug that can spur remyelination in multiple sclerosis patients.

Biogen, though, still has a relatively far way to go before it gets conclusive data on those two high-risk, high-reward efforts, causing some analysts to wonder how Biogen will keep investors interested in the stock during the gap.

Sandrock counters by highlighting a few key catalysts on the horizon, including the upcoming Phase II readout on Anti-Lingo-1, a 420-patient study. There's also a single-arm study of a new therapy for spinal muscular atrophy that's being pursued in a late-stage collaboration with Ionis (formerly Isis), with two Phase III studies ongoing. There's also a Phase III program for neuropathic pain, following Biogen's $675 million Convergence buyout a year ago, which provided a Nav1.7 sodium channel drug for chronic pain.

Biogen got its hands on MT-1303, an oral S1P receptor autoimmune drug, in a licensing deal with Mitsubishi Tanabe. That drug has wrapped Phase II for multiple sclerosis and will now get hustled through a late-stage program. And Biogen also has ambitious plans for its gene therapy work, which Biogen recruited Olivier Danos to run. As part of its reorganization, Biogen dropped early stage research on immunology and fibrosis, but it still has drugs in development for both fields, including a drug that was snapped up in the Stromedix buyout. Those programs are all pushing forward.

Says Sandrock: "We want to take them to the next stage and see what we have." And along the way Biogen can decide what it wants to keep, what it wants to terminate and what it wants to license out.

In the meantime, analysts are looking for fresh signs on what Biogen plans to buy next--a hot topic during the company's quarterly sessions with analysts. Sandrock wasn't offering much by way of illumination on that topic, but whatever comes in will be linked to some great expectations.

"We're not interested in incremental stuff," he said.

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