In revamped early-stage drive, J&J's Stoffels lets his biotech flag fly

Dr. Paul Stoffels was a biotech guy way before he became the top pharma executive for Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), and he has drawn on his past experience with fledgling enterprises to pilot a new strategy for securing collaborations with startups and other innovators.

Among his many charges as J&J's chief scientist and worldwide pharmaceutical chairman, Stoffels oversees a budding crop of innovation centers in Menlo Park, CA, Cambridge, MA, London and Shanghai. These centers serve as entry points for biotech startups that want to work with J&J, which in turn could get early access to the medical products of tomorrow. With the centers, the company also hopes to entrench itself in hotbeds of science and technology.

Stoffels, 51, has sat in the same seat as many biotech entrepreneurs. He served as chairman of Tibotec and chief executive of Virco, a pair of infectious disease biotech groups, which Johnson & Johnson acquired in 2002.

"I worked for many years on the other side," Stoffels told FierceBiotech, "and it helps to have that insight to act now as a very collaborative organization with a lot of respect for the biotech companies you work with."

Johnson & Johnson, headquartered in New Brunswick, NJ, has relocated disease-area experts and members of its investment group to the Boston area and other innovation centers to work as part of the biotech ecosystems there. Their mission takes them into the labs and offices of external groups with technologies of interest to their employer.

Alzheimer's disease, for instance, has stumped neuroscience drug researchers from J&J and the rest of the pharma industry. Startups and academic groups might offer fresh approaches to combat the memory-robbing disease, which affects more than 5 million Americans desperate for good drugs. Companies have pursued a host of targets, including amyloid beta and tau proteins implicated in the death of brain cells in dementia patients. Yet none of those efforts has yielded a marketed product.

"In Alzheimer's, nothing is known yet," Stoffels said. "Whether it's amyloid beta, whether it's tau, BACE inhibitors. Nothing is known yet. Maybe it will be combinations of all those. It is important for us to pursue different pathways."

Johnson & Johnson's lead anti-amyloid antibody bapineuzumab crashed and burned in Phase III studies last summer, a major setback for the company and its partners Pfizer ($PFE) and Elan ($ELN). The late-stage data showed reductions in amyloid beta yet failed to deliver on improving mental function, supporting the move toward treating the disease at an earlier stage in its progression. 

Paul Stoffels

Stoffels and other research leaders at his company have backed efforts to investigate additional targets. This week Johnson & Johnson Development Corporation, the company's VC arm, revealed its seed investment in the Cambridge, MA-based startup Rodin Therapeutics. Rodin aims to research drugs that target epigenetic activities in Alzheimer's disease. It's a fresh approach to the disease and epigenetics, which involves molecules that activate or deactivate genes and has mostly been tapped in pursuit of new cancer treatments.

Johnson & Johnson has no rights to Rodin's technology through the equity investment in the startup, but one of the neuroscience specialists from the J&J's Boston Innovation Center will serve as an advisor to the young outfit. This keeps the pharma giant close to the action at Rodin without locking up the IP rights to the company's drugs in a way that stifles its ability to seek other investors and partners.

The Boston Innovation Center, which is the third of four planned centers to open, also puts J&J in closer proximity to previous partners such as Vertex Pharmaceuticals ($VRTX) and sundry academic labs at Harvard and MIT. 

Stoffels is a physician by training from Belgium and worked as a doctor and HIV researcher before taking roles in industry to combat infectious diseases through Tibotec and Virco. Tibotec and other companies have helped change HIV from a death sentence into a disease that can be treated for decades. It's one of the greatest feats of the pharma industry over the past 50 years.  

Perhaps this kind of victory in drug research engenders a level of confidence in Stoffels. Biotech also demands that entrepreneurs take leaps of faith in unproven science, most of which never pan out at some point in development. Like a true biotech vet who has enjoyed some success, Stoffels has no doubts about whether J&J's innovation centers will prevail in bringing the company closer to external sources healthcare inventions.  

"It's going to be successful--I'm sure," Stoffels said. "It's going to work."

-- Ryan McBride (email | Twitter)

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