New Biogen research chief Jane Grogan looks to apply biotechs' scrappiness to a pharma in flux

Jane Grogan, Ph.D., is just a week into her new job leading Biogen’s research unit, but she’s chomping at the bit to apply the fast-paced rigor of the biotech world to her new employer’s pipeline. 

The ex-chief scientific officer of ArsenalBio and Graphite Bio officially started as the head of research at Biogen Oct. 2, with much of her first days spent acclimating to the team and getting a grasp on the existing projects. But as the company continues to follow through with a large-scale reorganization that includes laying off around 1,000 employees, quickly realigning scientists’ focus is a pressing matter. 

“The opportunity as CSO to startups really taught me how to be scrappy, how do be focused, how to be disciplined, and the importance of growing a really good team and mentoring good scientists,” Grogan said in an interview with Fierce Biotech. 

New Biogen head of research Jane Grogan
Jane Grogan, Ph.D. (Biogen)

“We're gonna look at all modalities at this point,” she added. “I've just started and so we'll be taking a fresh look at where our preclinical portfolio needs to be.”

While Grogan's answer reflects the vast opportunity before her, the work will still fall under the tightly focused strategy of new CEO Chris Viehbacher.

Take gene editing, for example, which was the focus at Grogan’s previous employer, Graphite. She says that there’s “probably an opportunity [at Biogen] to look at different editing modalities” but the delivery technology needs to mature. 

She also brought up cell therapies as an area of interest but acknowledged that the space still needs maturation as well. The modality is largely associated with treating cancer but Bayer-owned BlueRock has a closely-watched Parkinson’s cell therapy that’s gearing up for phase 2. 

“I think the rules of that science are playing out now in the clinic and across many companies," she told Fierce. “And we're going to watch and see how this applies to oncology and also to autoimmune diseases.” 

Grogan veered away from expressing interest in psychedelics research even as investment and clinical legitimacy in the space have started to blossom. Instead, she said Biogen has a “really limited, very focused effort in neuropsychiatry.” A spokesperson later confirmed that psychedelics were not a research focus at this time.

One area that is a priority is immunology, particularly targets that could be key to treating multiple diseases and that may overlap with multiple sclerosis, a condition that’s been a pillar of Biogen’s portfolio for years. 

Grogan’s official start at Biogen came days after the company completed a $7.3 billion acquisition of Reata Pharmaceuticals, adding FDA-approved Friedreich's ataxia treatment Skyclarys. Grogan is still in the process of assessing Reata’s clinical portfolio, and wouldn’t commit to the other three prospects being tacked on from the deal, including cemdomespib. That asset began recruiting patients with diabetic peripheral neuropathic pain last month for a phase 2 trial.

The hope of adding startup-like fervor to the research team comes as Biogen tries to buoy morale after a summer of layoffs and restructuring. Grogan, who spent almost 16 years at Genentech before moving to Arsenal, tapped into a larger ethos about scientific breakthroughs when asked how she intends to conjure up scrappiness among staff that may be worn down. 

“One of the privileges of what we do as scientists … is kind of waking up every day to discover something new, come up with a hypothesis, test it, kill the idea, kill the experiment, go on to the next one and continue to build and learn until we understand something,” she said. Motivating people to press ahead with that process will be atop her early to-do list.