Biogen Idec's Big Ideas

April 18, 2007

Pharmaceutical Executive

Volume 0, Issue 0

Biotech restructures to become a bigger force in the cancer market.

Restructuring is all the rage at big pharmas, and now it looks like biotechs want a piece of the trend. Biogen Idec, a global player formed by the 2003 merger of the Swiss-based Biogen, and San Francisco's IDEC Pharmaceuticals has reorganized its R&D and commercial operations into three semi-autonomous business units and made high-profile hires to head those divisions. The company, already strong in neurology and immunology, is aiming to become an oncology powerhouse.

David Parkinson, MD, joined the biotech in March 2006 as senior vice-president of oncology R&D. He will report to Cecil Pickett, a former Schering-Plough bigwig who in September signed on as Biogen Idec's president of R&D. Parkinson, an Amgen alum, is now charged with building a pipeline through internal discovery, in-licensing compounds, acquisitions, and partnerships. And he plans to expand beyond the company's core expertise in large molecules. "There was a history of strength in biologics in the area of lymphoma," he said. At the same time, "the future of cancer therapies is the rational combination of small and large molecules."

The company's recent acquisition of Conforma, for instance, added the first small-molecule product to its portfolio of monoclonal antibodies. The HSP-90-inhibitor targets the "heat shock protein," which exists in both normal and cancerous cells and plays a role in cell proliferation. "The question is how can we best interrupt a protein that is important to the cancer process," Parkinson said, adding that antibodies are inappropriate for interrupting activity that occurs inside a cell. "HSP-inhibitors have caught the attention of cancer therapeutic developers. The preclinical data is certainly promising."

Yet even on the monoclonal-antibody front, Biogen Idec has added three compounds in midstage development: galiximab for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, lumiliximab for chronic lymphocyctic leukemia, and volociximab for solid tumors, which is being codeveloped with PDL BioPharma. "We have a portfolio that already reflects our strategy," Parkinson said, referring to the combination of internally and externally developed products. "We intend to go forward in the same manner."

Biogen Idec currently counts 94 percent of its revenue from two products: MS drug Avonex (Interferon beta-1a) and cancer drug Rituxan (rituximab), which is comarketed with Genentech, according to its latest 10K filing. The decision to move into three stand-alone business units should help insulate the company from the uncertainties of drug discovery and commercialization as it takes on bigger challenges.

The drug-market roller coaster is something the biotech has experienced firsthand. Biogen Idec is also known for its beleaguered MS drug, Tysabri (natalizumab), which was pulled from shelves in February 2005 only to be restored 16 months later after a regulatory back-and-forth concerning safety.