Biogen Shakes Up Leadership Team, R&D Head Departs for New Role
After multiple failures to develop therapeutics for Alzheimer’s disease, Biogen’s Michael D. Ehlers has resigned from his role as head of research and development. His last day with the company will be Oct. 11 and he will assume a new role later this month as head of a gene therapy startup.
The departure is not totally unexpected considering the significant resources Biogen had tied in with its aducanumab program. Following Biogen’s March announcement that it was terminating its aducanumab trials, the company’s stock tumbled more than 25%, causing it to lose nearly $18 billion in market cap. Then, in September, Biogen and its development partner Eisai killed their BACE inhibitor program in patients with early Alzheimer’s disease after a safety review returned an unfavorable risk-benefit ratio analysis. Both of these announcements rocked Biogen and hopes for an Alzheimer’s treatment which has so far eluded researchers. Days after the BACE program news, Biogen stopped another clinical trial in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis due to safety reasons.
With Ehlers’ departure, Biogen said Chief Medical Officer Alfred Sandrock was named head of R&D. He will continue to serve as CMO. Alphonse Galdes was named head of pharmaceutical operations and technology.
While Ehlers is departing after several noted trial failures, Chief Executive Officer Michel Vounatsos pointed to his “significant contributions” to Biogen. During Ehlers’ three years as head of R&D, Vounatsos said he transformed Biogen’s R&D operations and “built the best neuroscience team in the industry.”
In a brief statement, Ehlers said he is proud of the accomplishments the company achieved during his time there.
“With nine read-outs expected by the end of 2020, I believe Biogen is in a unique position to bring breakthroughs in neuroscience and I am confident in the team in place to realize the full potential of a significantly expanded pipeline. I believe it is the right time to pass the baton, and I am excited about taking on a new challenge in venture capital and biotech with the same broad goal of converting differentiated science into meaningful medicines for patients,” Ehlers said.
That new challenge in venture capital and biotech for Ehlers will be at Apple Tree Partners, a life sciences investment fund. Ehlers was announced as the new chief scientific officer and venture on Monday. He will also be named CEO of Apple Tree’s portfolio company Limelight Bio effective Oct. 21. Limelight, a gene therapy company, is developing treatments for inherited diseases of the eye, brain, muscle and liver. That includes treatments for diseases that cannot be addressed by current gene therapy methods, Apple Tree said.
Vounatsos said the company will be in good hands with Sandrock and Galdes. Under their leadership, Vounatsos said Biogen will continue to aim “sustain leadership in our core MS business and expand our neuroscience portfolio.” Sandrock, who was named CMO in 2012, said he will remain focused on advancing the company’s pipeline in order to bring new treatment options to patients.
This morning, Biogen announced data from its NURTURE trial showed treatment with its spinal muscular atrophy drug Spinraza resulted in survival of 100% of infants who were dosed pre-symptomatically. None of the infants required permanent ventilation. Motor milestones achieved included 100% of participants sitting without support and 88 percent walking independently, which are unprecedented outcomes in comparison to the natural history of the disease, Biogen said of treatment with its $1.7 billion generating drug.