After tough rightsizing, Biogen looks to newer rare diseases to broaden lens

Adam Keeney’s two-pronged 2023 to-do list was a doozy. 

The business development journeyman, with prior stints at Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi, was hired last year as Biogen’s executive vice president and head of corporate development, tasked with using M&A to shore up Biogen’s late-stage pipeline and overseeing a dispiriting 1,000-person downsizing. 

“On a personal level, it is tough and we just have to admit that,” Keeney, Ph.D., said in an interview with Fierce Biotech at Biogen’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, headquarters. “Unfortunately, it's just fiscal responsibility that if your top line is not growing, you've got to right-size the organization.” 

Though the cost-savings plan is in the rear view, transactions are not, Keeney says. Biogen's past decade or so has largely been defined by Alzheimer's disease—for better (see Leqembi) or worse (see Aduhelm). The company's curiosity now centers on rare diseases, even ones outside of neuroscience.

“The opportunity we have is not only to maintain our core areas of neuro—Alzheimer's disease, we’re in neuromuscular disease—but looking to some newer rare diseases,” Keeney said. He noted that Biogen met with companies at this year’s J.P. Morgan healthcare conference to “broaden our lens.” 

When asked what patient threshold the company would consider as commercially viable rare conditions, Keeney used Friedreich's ataxia as an example, saying the disease’s 5,000-U.S. patient size is on the low end of desired disease prevalence. Biogen bought Reata Pharmaceuticals for $7.3 billion last year, which centered on Friedreich's ataxia drug Skyclarys. The rare disease has seen an uptake in interest and advancements in recent years.

Keeney cited regulators' growing willingness to consider surrogate endpoints for rare diseases as bolstering the larger business model for developing these drugs. Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, recently said that accelerated approval would become “the norm” for initial gene therapy approvals. Biogen knows this firsthand, having had SOD1 amyotrophic lateral sclerosis treatment Qalsody approved in April 2023 under the accelerated approval pathway.

Whereas last year, Biogen was looking for a commercial-stage asset that could immediately bolster revenue, earlier clinical assets are now on the deal menu. Keeney described appealing assets as ranging from the late discovery stage through phase 2. He wouldn’t preclude another full acquisition, albeit one likely smaller than Reata, but Biogen’s general appetite seems to be more in the bolt-on range. 

Keeney’s comments on additional deal interest follow growing sentiment that neuroscience is no longer the forgotten therapeutic area of the late 2010s. AbbVie and Bristol Myers Squibb both made big splashes at the end of 2023 with the acquisitions of Cerevel Therapeutics and Karuna Therapeutics, respectively. Keeney doesn’t lament the fact that Biogen didn’t make a move on either, saying instead that neuroscience dealmaking is good for everyone involved, including the smaller biotechs that feel renewed interest from partners. 

"I think [biotechs] are interested in partnering, maybe partnering earlier than they were historically," Keeney said. "So we're seeing that. We're seeing a lot of engagement and interest externally." 

Biogen’s lack of FOMO may, in part, stem from already having a neuropsych candidate: Sage-partnered zuranolone. It was approved in August 2023 as a treatment for postpartum depression, but was rejected for major depressive disorder, the larger indication that investors and Biogen alike had pinned much of the commercial potential on. 

C'est la vie was Keeney’s general disposition, saying Biogen under CEO Chris Viehbacher is less about needing to fill a particular therapeutic need and more about having a pipeline with depth. That means not chasing another depression med through deals just because it was a hoped-for addition to Biogen’s portfolio. 

“[Major depressive disorder] might not come but then we've got other opportunities that will fill that pipeline gap and may have a different risk profile [or] might have a different sales profile,” he said. “So we're not singularly going after one particular therapeutic area or one particular stage of development.” 

Keeney’s external sleuthing is the more enviable part of the job, as opposed to his oversight of Biogen’s cost reduction and reallocation program—dubbed “Fit for Growth”—that included layoffs for 1,000 employees. The announced reduction came three days before Biogen disclosed its Reata purchase

Consider Biogen rightsized, according to Keeney, who is entering his second full year.

“I think we've got all of the foundational pieces we need,” he said. “We’ve now got to deliver.”