Biogen 'could migrate' from neuroscience to immunology, with $10B 'dry powder'

Long known as a neuroscience company, Biogen “could migrate” into immunology, CEO Christopher Viehbacher signaled Tuesday.

This wouldn’t be a huge leap for Biogen, which boasts a large multiple sclerosis franchise with Vumerity, Tecfidera, Tysabri, Plegridy and Avonex. "Within MS, which is basically an autoimmune disease, I think we could migrate into immunology," Viehbacher said during Biogen’s first quarter earnings call.

But a shift away from neuroscience would be significant for Biogen, however, and a signal of Viehbacher's new direction for the company. In July 2022, then-CEO Michel Vounatsos and other executives pointed to the pipeline and Sage Therapeutics-partnered depression therapy zuranolone as evidence of the company’s continued commitment to neuroscience. 

Biogen of course has high profile Alzheimer's treatments Leqembi, which is awaiting a full FDA approval, and Aduhelm, which has mostly faded from the market. Priya Singhal, M.D., head of Development and interim head of Research and Global Safety and Regulatory Sciences, also touted the tau therapy BIIB080 as the future of Biogen’s Alzheimer’s franchise. So the company will continue to have a major footprint in neuroscience going forward, even if immunology is expanded. 

“We're looking at external growth really from two perspectives. One is, how do we balance the company a little bit more on its pipeline? It has been very neuroscience-focused,” Viehbacher said. The second is an awareness that the MS franchise is declining slightly, and new growth is needed to back it up.

Over the next few years, Biogen will see “the tide going out on MS and the tide coming in on the new products,” Viehbacher said. “We obviously have a lever with cost that we can use and external growth development helps to manage that transition period.”

Franchise growth could come from Biogen’s existing or soon-to-launch products. The CEO pointed to zuranolone in depression and Spinraza in spinal muscular atrophy, as areas that could define the company’s next era.

Biogen has brought on Adam Keeney, Ph.D, as head of corporate development to drive business growth. Keeney has an “entrepreneurial spirit that will be very welcome at Biogen,” Viehbacher said, noting his experiences at pharmas large and small in R&D and strategy.

Keeney will work with Singhal and a yet-to-be-hired head of research to consider licensing and other external opportunities. Viehbacher said he hopes to have the research chief in place by the end of the summer.

“In terms of more transactions, I think we would be more inclined to find something that is revenue-generating in the near term,” the CEO said.

Biogen ended the quarter with $6 billion in cash and marketable securities and $6.3 billion in debt, so about $300 million in net debt, according to CFO Michael McDonnell. “Overall, we remain in a very strong financial position with significant cash and financial capacity to invest in growing the business over time,” he said.

The drugmaker also received a payment of $813 million from Samsung Biologics for the sale of Biogen’s equity stake in Samsung Bioepis. The agreement totals $2.3 billion to be paid out over time. With the Samsung payment and other leverage, Viehbacher said the total is “in the zip code of about $10 billion that we've got as kind of dry powder so to speak.” Biogen is unlikely to take on incremental debt with a major transaction unless it’s “the right opportunity.”

The company also announced a pipeline reorganization that claimed three assets Tuesday morning, including the phase 3 large hemispheric infarction therapy BIIB093.