Back to School: How biopharma can reboot drug development. Access exclusive analysis here

Research isn't random

Four years ago, Biogen Inc. had one of the less exciting pipelines in the biotech business, and investors wondered whether it would ever put together a substantial pipeline beyond interferon alpha and beta. A bit more than a year after merging with Idec Pharmaceuticals Corp., it finally looks like "there's a there there."

Biogen Idec Inc. has six novel compounds in the clinic and one awaiting approval, mostly from the Biogen side. The Biogen side also has put together a discovery engine built on mechanism rather than disease, thus cutting across multiple therapeutic areas. And while the in-house theme has been biologics, the first homegrown small molecules based on this approach have reached preclinical development.

How it got there is the story of a company's shift from doing opportunistic research to doing drug discovery based on a more coherent vision of how a small number of key biologies/pathologies are linked to human disease.

"The old strategy was opportunistic in the sense that there wasn't actually a strategy," said Michael Gilman, executive vice president of research. Biogen was founded in 1978, and its initial compounds came from the company's academic founders. Interferon alpha was launched by licensee Schering-Plough Corp. (SGP, Kenilworth, N.J.) in 1986. After that, the company focused on getting its own commercial presence: its Avonex interferon beta was approved for multiple sclerosis a decade later in 1996.

In the interim, Biogen's research focus was determined in part by the fact that one of its early heads of research, Richard Flavell, was an immunologist, who in turn hired more immunologists.

"Pretty soon we had a strong immunology group," said Gilman. "That gave rise to the next wave of products: Antova, Amevive - the first drug to have originated out of Biogen research - the lymphotoxin beta receptor program, Antegren. So we turned into an immunology shop because of the first few scientists.

An outlier was Hirulog bivalirudin. But the company stopped development of the direct

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