After the R&D shakeout, Biogen aims to beef up drug pipeline

Weston, MA -- With an enviable late-stage pipeline, Biogen Idec ($BIIB) is working in earnest to build up its roster of drugs in the early and middle stages of clinical development. And the big biotech is expediting its internal research and seeking outside deals to restock its R&D pond.

Weston, MA-based Biogen Idec slashed 17 of its research and development programs between last November and March, according to the company, with CEO George Scangos leading the firm's effort to exit from oncology and cardiology drug development while emphasizing its core strength in treatments for neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis. All but one of the programs cut was in Phase II or earlier, leaving the company a bit light on candidates in the first two stages of development.

"We killed a lot of projects," Scangos told FierceBiotech in an interview in Weston. "That leaves us with more projects in Phase III than Phase I and II combined. Everybody talks about [his or her] pyramid of R&D projects. We've got a pyramid too, it's just upside down."

Biogen is sitting pretty with 6 late-stage contenders for either hemophilia or neurological diseases, led by the potential blockbuster MS pill BG-12. Biogen, the world's largest provider of MS therapies, could end a now 7-year stretch without FDA approval of a new drug if BG-12 passes the finish line. And this has helped fuel a more than 50% jump in the company's stock price this year.

Yet to keep its edge for years to come, Biogen needs to keep its foot on the gas and continue replenishing its pipeline with compelling drug candidates. Scangos has been vocal about bringing in more drugs in hematology, immunology and neurology. "We need more early-stage projects. It's very clear," Scangos said. "Some of those will come from our own R&D, but a lot of them are going to have to come from the outside."

In shaking up its approaches to generating new products since Scangos took the reigns last July, Biogen brought on new heads of research and development and corporate development--Doug Williams and Steven Holtzman, respectively--in January. Williams, who engineered the cuts of 8 R&D programs in March, said that the emphasis at the company is to expand the early- and mid-stage portions of the pipeline with quality over quantity of programs.

In the R&D group, there's a push at Biogen to be decisive about which programs are worth the time and investment to advance into the clinic, Williams said. The group has nixed some of the bureaucracy that had previously slowed the progression of drugs into trials. And, like other companies, Biogen wants to expand the use of companion diagnostics to better predict patients' responses to its experimental drugs in development.

How empty is the bottom two-thirds of Biogen's R&D well? Right now, the biotech giant has just one Phase II drug, an antibody called ocrelizumab in testing for MS, and 5 early-stage candidates spread across its key research interests in neurology and immunology, according to its website. But if Scangos has his way, Biogen will grow those numbers with experimental drugs that suit the apparently discerning tastes of the CEO and his new executives.