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Biogen sheds neuroscience drug programs amid uncertain future

The Cambridge firm has dropped five early-stage drugs for neurological diseases this year in the midst of larger budget cuts following Aduhelm’s failed rollout.

The Biogen Inc., headquarters is shown in March 11, 2020, in Cambridge, Mass.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Biogen has stopped developing at least five neuroscience therapies since the beginning of the year. The slimming of the Cambridge company’s drug pipeline comes as the firm struggles to regain its footing following the failed launch of its controversial Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm.

Biogen, known for its focus on developing drugs for neurological diseases, reported second quarter revenue of about $2.59 billion during its earnings call with investors on Wednesday, slightly beating expectations but still about 7 percent lower compared to the same time last year. Competition from other firms has eroded sales of Biogen’s spinal muscular atrophy drug Spinraza as well as its multiple sclerosis drug franchise — which accounts for the bulk of the firm’s profits.


Investors are eager to see how Biogen plans to make up for lost income. But for now, the company seems focused on paring back. On Wednesday, the firm said that its experimental schizophrenia drug was ineffective in an intermediate-stage clinical trial. The drug, which Biogen acquired from Pfizer for $75 million upfront in 2018, was once predicted to reach more than $1 billion in annual sales if approved.

The company also quietly removed early-stage drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, from its pipeline on Wednesday. Biogen confirmed to the Globe that these programs were discontinued this year. And earlier this year, it stopped developing a different early-stage drug for ALS, as well as a drug for multiple sclerosis.

Although years away from potential commercialization, the elimination of these therapies clouds Biogen’s long-term plans for bringing new drugs to the market.

The Alzheimer’s therapy that Biogen dropped was an antibody designed to remove proteins called tau from the brain. Many neuroscientists hope that tau-lowering therapies will show more promise than amyloid-lowering therapies such as Aduhelm and Biogen’s experimental drug lecanemab. Biogen is still moving forward with a different drug designed to lower tau.


The two ALS therapies that Biogen ditched once excited scientists, because they were based on genetic and molecular clues about the root causes of the disease. And the company’s discontinued pill for multiple sclerosis was part of a promising, but highly experimental, class of drugs designed to restore the protective coating on brain cells, known as the myelin sheath. Other groups are working on similar therapies, and if they prove effective, they could provide a long-awaited cure for the disease.

In the call with investors, chief executive Michel Vounatsos said “there is inherent risk in neuroscience.” Vounatsos, who announced in May he would step down once a successor was found, did not provide updates on the search.

Also in May the company said that it would dismantle its Aduhelm sales division and institute other “cost-reduction measures” to save the company an estimated $1 billion. Biogen reported only $100,000 in sales of Aduhelm in the second quarter, despite citing $100 million in costs over that same time relating to its commercialization and subsequent elimination of its sales infrastructure for the drug. The company has refused to say how many employees have been let go.

Further adding to Biogen’s troubles, the firm reached a $900 million settlement in a lawsuit brought forward by a former sales rep at the firm. The whistleblower said Biogen was paying illegal kickbacks to doctors and other healthcare professionals for sham consulting and speaking fees intended to bolster the sales of its multiple sclerosis drugs. Biogen hasn’t admitted any wrongdoing.


Ryan Cross can be reached at ryan.cross@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @RLCscienceboss.