Goldfinch poaches AstraZeneca research executive Tony Johnson for CEO

The lure of a razor-sharp therapeutic focus has enticed AstraZeneca’s head of early clinical development, Anthony Johnson, M.D., to take the top job at kidney disease specialist Goldfinch Bio.

One year after Goldfinch was launched by Third Rock Ventures, Johnson has made the switch from Big Pharma to biotech to help the startup realize “a tremendous opportunity to have an impact across an entire disease area that suffers from a lack of approved treatment options,” he told us.

Johnson is leaving behind a senior position at AZ’s Innovative Medicines and Early Development Biotech Unit, having previously held similar roles at Bristol-Myers Squibb and GlaxoSmithKline, but is no stranger to the cut and thrust of early-stage biotech, having previously served as a venture partner at OrbiMed.

“Diseases of the kidney constitute a major unmet medical need for patients [and] Goldfinch’s sole focus is to identify and validate novel genetic targets for a precision medicine approach to kidney disease,” he said, noting this has emerged as a global epidemic that affects over 1 in 9 people worldwide and costs the U.S. $80 billion a year.

Johnson will be joined at Goldfinch by another Big Pharma veteran: Mike Broxson, who was most recently head of R&D business development at Takeda, who will take the role of chief business and operating officer.

Mike Broxson

Broxson says he was quite happy at Takeda but was “blown away by the Goldfinch team, the science and the company’s mission to elucidate the molecular basis of kidney disease to develop therapies for patients with these disorders. I’m thrilled to be joining a company that brings precision medicine to the kidney space.”

The company is concentrating on two kidney diseases—focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) and polycystic kidney disease (PKD)—neither of which have FDA-approved treatment options.

The FSGS program has emerged as the front-runner and according to Johnson could see an Investigational New Drug filing in the first half of 2019. Goldfinch isn’t giving anything away just yet about target mechanisms in FSGS, other than to say it is investigating “dysregulated pathways in the podocyte, a highly differentiated cell that is unique to kidney and implicated by genetics in multiple kidney diseases.”

Likewise, in PKD the biotech says it is targeting “cilia-dependent pathways implicated in PKD disease progression” and has established the biological assays to enable drug discovery on a validated target.

“At Goldfinch, we see ourselves as the only company focused on a precision approach to treating kidney disease,” Johnson said.

“Recent advances in the genetics and biology of kidney disease have led to the identification of new disease-causing genes and a greater understanding of the molecular pathways involved in disease progression. We are building the largest genomic registry of patients with kidney disease and integrating with a differentiated biology platform to inform a differentiated understanding of the underlying disease mechanisms and therapeutic targets.”

In the past year, the company has swelled to reach 25 full-time employees, and work is getting underway on new research projects including more prevalent forms of kidney disease seen in patients with diabetes and high blood pressure.

The series A funding will get the company through to target validation in its lead indications and the identification of new targets, according to Johnson, and the next 12-18 months should see the company’s head count swell to 40-plus “as we plan for clinical development.”  

“As a clinician, I have witnessed firsthand the unmet medical need in patients with kidney disease,” he says. “Goldfinch’s multidisciplinary approach will revolutionize the discovery and development of new treatments for such patients, [and] I’m delighted to work with our innovative scientists, renowned founders and many underserved patients to make this vision a reality.”