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AbbVie bases Alzheimer’s effort in Cambridge

AbbVie Inc. vice president Eric Karran and chief scientific officer Michael Severino at the company’s new research facility in Cambridge.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — AbbVie Inc. will direct an effort to cure Alzheimer’s disease from its new research facility in Cambridge.

The drug maker, based in North Chicago, Ill., on Wednesday formally opened a 43,000-square-foot Foundational Neuroscience Center on two floors of a former Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. building on Sidney Street.

AbbVie vice president Eric Karran, a biopharma veteran hired from the United Kingdom to lead the new center, said its mission is ambitious: to take on Alzheimer’s, the neurodegenerative disease estimated to affect more than 40 million people worldwide.

“There’s a group of people who don’t know about the Foundational Neuroscience Center, but they will,” Karran told more than 50 guests gathered for the opening ceremony. “They’re Alzheimer’s patients. And we’re going to cure that terrible disease. . . . We will find drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and, when we do, that will be truly transformative.”


The center, which moved its first employees into the refurbished space in April, will hire about 50 people — mostly scientists and researchers — by next year. AbbVie received a $525,000 tax break from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center last month based on a commitment to hire 35 employees here and at its much larger facility in Worcester during 2016.

AbbVie, spun off from Abbott Laboratories three years ago, has focused on drug discovery primarily in the fields of immunology, virology, and cancer. But when Michael Severino was hired from Amgen Inc. in 2014 to be AbbVie’s chief scientific officer, he decided to make a play in neuroscience and set up a research outpost in the biomedical cluster around Cambridge and Boston.

In an interview on his visit to the new office, Severino said academic and industry researchers have made enough progress in understanding the pathology involved in Alzheimer’s that it makes sense to invest resources in drug discovery. Other companies, including Biogen Inc., Eli Lilly & Co., and Merck & Co., already have Alzheimer’s drug candidates. But while there are treatments for symptoms, there are still no disease-modifying therapies.


“We’re going to go where the science takes us and where the unmet need is,” Severino said.

Karran said AbbVie will do its own research into therapies for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, but will also collaborate with academic researchers at Harvard University, Boston University, Washington University in St. Louis, and elsewhere. He said the company was “agnostic” on whether its experimental compounds come from its own labs or outside the company.

AbbVie in March 2015 licensed its first compound — an antibody that combats the Tau protein involved in several neurological diseases — from C2N Diagnostics LLC in St. Louis. Karran said there will be other licensing deals and collaborations to come.

While the Cambridge site is AbbVie’s first foothold in the Boston area, the company is no stranger to Massachusetts. The campus in Worcester it inherited from Abbott employs about 800 people in immunology drug research, protein engineering, and manufacturing small batches of biotech drugs for clinical trials. That site was involved in the development of Humira, the rheumatoid arthritis drug that is AbbVie’s best known product.

In 2014, AbbVie pulled out of its agreement to acquire Shire PLC — which is based in Ireland, though its management sits in Lexington — after the US Treasury Department said it was imposing new rules to prevent companies from capitalizing on the foreign domicile of merger partners to lower their corporate taxes.


Robert Weisman can be reached at