As Amgen zeroes in on cancer, neuroscience pipeline under the ax

As Amgen rides the wave of hype and hope for its early-stage KRAS effort as well as other cancer assets in its pipeline, this is pushing out its work on neuroscience.

To that end, the biopharma company is looking to slim down its efforts in that area, which could see nearly 200 jobs at risk, as it moves away from its neuro work in Cambridge, and focuses more on its R&D on the West Coast. 

Talking on their financial call late Tuesday, David Reese, executive vice president of R&D at Amgen, explained: “I'd like to say a few words about the decision we've made to reshape our neuroscience research efforts. We believe that in order to compete effectively, we need to make investments in the areas and platforms that will position us for long-term success.

“Upon careful evaluation of our pipeline and the challenges inherent in developing drugs for major neurologic diseases, we've made the decision to end our neuroscience research and early development programs with the exception of programs centered on neuro inflammation that will be pursued by our inflammation TA.

“This was a very difficult decision and we know it will be a disappointment for our staff and the scientific community. Over the years, many people at Amgen have devoted time and energy toward developing medicines for patients with neurologic conditions and I'd like to thank and acknowledge them for their efforts.”

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He added that bringing migraine drug Aimovig to market was a “tremendous achievement,” and it would “continue to actively support the program including ongoing clinical development.”

He concluded: “At the same time, we're exploring other models to capitalize on our generics capability and advance our broader efforts in neuroscience, and we'll provide guidance on those activities in the future.”

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On the Q&A, Amgen added a little more detail: In a question from Ronny Gal, an analyst at Bernstein, Reese reiterated that it “was a very difficult decision.”

He added: “Consistent with our desire to generally target diseases with a large public health impact based on what we felt was the state of the art in terms of understanding the pathogenesis of major diseases especially neurodegenerative diseases and our overall portfolio, we made that decision to end our early neuroscience research efforts.

“As I mentioned, we are looking at ways to maintain a hand in neuroscience through alternative models and we'll discuss some of that in the future. We believe that genetics will ultimately drive progress in this area and we'll continue to work with deCODE to generate insights.”

Amgen CEO Bob Bradway added: “I would just add on the last point that half the genes in the body are expressed in the brain and only the brain and we think we have some unique resources to try to capitalize on insights around that. And as Dave [Reese] suggested, we'll be exploring potentially different models for doing that with venture capital and perhaps academic institutions as well.

“And I think more broadly we're focusing our efforts on where we think we can be successful. So, we're focused as you know in cardiovascular disease, inflammatory disease and cardiovascular disease, oncology of course. So those are the areas that we're focused on and expect to be successful advancing molecules in those areas over the coming years.”

Amgen told FierceBiotech: “We made the difficult decision to end our research in neuroscience, which is largely based in Cambridge, Mass. We are consolidating our U.S.-based Research presence primarily in Thousand Oaks and San Francisco. While not all changes are happening immediately, we anticipate that approximately 180 roles will be impacted.

“We recognize that Cambridge is a vibrant life sciences community that enables access to external innovation and top talent. The site remains a center of excellence for Operations, with a significant Process Development presence, dedicated to advancing the pipeline and developing next-generation technologies.”

Neuro has not been easy for anyone: This also comes a few months after Amgen and drug partner Novartis ditched pivotal tests of CNP520 in Alzheimer’s disease after an interim review found patients on the BACE inhibitor worsened on some measures of cognitive function. Plus ça change.

Even though first to market, Amgen's Aimovig has also started to succumb to market pressures, notably coming under fire from Lilly and losing its grip on the next-gen migraine share.

Lilly knows of the neuro pain, too: Just this month, it also announced it was cutting back on its neuroscience work, shuttering its main R&D house in the U.K. and moving parts back over to the U.S. It has been beset by failures here, notably in Alzheimer’s, as research in this area keeps throwing up dead ends.

Pfizer has also been hit by Alzheimer’s failures, and last year re-jigged its neuro pipeline, axing some programs and staffers but then creating a venture capital firm to help invest in the area. Eventually, the Big Pharma spun out its neuro unit, with the help of Bain Capital, into Cerevel Therapeutics. Amgen may take a similar path.