Biogen CEO on how Alzheimer’s, depression could be the company’s future

  • Biogen is a biotechnology company best known for its drugs focused on multiple sclerosis.
  • But new CEO Christopher Viehbacher said he sees Alzheimer’s becoming a new franchise.
  • He added that zuranolone, an antidepressant, is the “biggest underestimated potential” of the company.

Hot on the heels of the approval of a new Alzheimer’s drug, Cambridge-based biotech company Biogen seems intent on broadening its focus to a wider range of diseases.

While Biogen is best known for its multiple sclerosis treatments, the company’s new CEO Christopher Viehbacher said at an investor presentation Monday that the narrow focus has become a “melting iceberg” for Biogen.

Viehbacher said that as he restores the company to sustainable growth, he has focused on two “blockbuster products” that will help fuel that momentum. He spoke at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco.

The new Alzheimer’s drug lecanemab could signal a new franchise

The first is lecanemab, an Alzheimer’s disease drug that was granted accelerated approval by the US Food and Drug Administration last week. The drug, which will be sold under the brand name Leqembi, was developed together with the Japanese pharmaceutical company Eisai. In studies, the drug slowed the rate of cognitive decline by 27% in Alzheimer’s patients over 18 months. The drug is intended to treat people in the early stages of the disease.


Biogen headquarters in Cambridge, Mass.

AP Photo/Steven Senne

Cowen analysts said in a September 2022 note that Leqembi could capture about 11% of the Alzheimer’s disease market three years after launch, generating about $4.3 billion in US sales.

“I actually see Alzheimer’s becoming a franchise for us,” Viehbacher said. “So with our partners, they say, this is not just about the launch of lecanemab, as important as that is. We have two other assets in development. There are an incredible amount of studies that can be done to build out that franchise as well.”

A new type of depression drug has the ‘most underrated potential’

The other key drug, according to Viehbacher, is zuranolone, a treatment that Biogen developed in partnership with Sage Therapeutics for major depressive disorder and postpartum depression.

Zuranolone may become one of the few new antidepressants to hit the market in decades. It is a fast-acting treatment, and is given as a two-week course, differentiating it from other depression medications that are taken continuously.

In December, the two companies completed their application and asked the FDA to approve the drug. The FDA could decide on the treatment as soon as the third quarter of this year, Biogen has said.

“I think zuranolone is the biggest underestimated potential of Biogen,” Viehbacher said.

He added that the demand for mental health treatments is huge and that while selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a type of antidepressant, have been helpful, they have not been able to solve all the problems.

“When I look at the forecast for the product, I think it’s massively undervalued,” he added.

While Viehbacher said he has no plans to make “radical left turns” at Biogen, he said he has focused on widening the company’s reach — both through new drugs like lecanemab and zuranolone as well as research. Viehbacher became CEO in November after a long career at GlaxoSmithKline and six years as CEO of Sanofi.

Viehbacher said that while new drug development will drive Biogen over the next three to five years, research will drive growth over the next five to 15 years.

“I wanted research to be somewhat disconnected almost or unencumbered by where our business is today and be able to pursue science in a slightly broader way,” he said. “Through research, I think over time we can actually build out a pipeline that’s a little bit broader than just pure neurology.”

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