Biogen: Seizing the Opportunity to Change Human Lives
The most significant medical achievements were all fruits of detailed research and development.
Add technology and life itself to the equation, and you get biotechnology. Biotechnology uses biological material to create better healthcare, and five scientists took a bold chance in the industry.
Kenneth Murray, Phillip Allen Sharp, Walter Gilbert, Charles Weissmann, and Heinz Schaller combined their knowledge and technological advances to build one of the world’s first global biotechnology companies - Biogen.
The company is a pioneer in biotechnology and neuroscience. It specializes in creating and developing neurological disease treatments for patients in need. Thanks to the brand’s efforts, today, the world can make use of the first-ever anti-cancer vaccine and anti-cancer treatment. Looking in the face of Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease, to name a few, Biogen uncovers a series of solutions modern neuroscience can put into practice.
With five masterminds crafting solutions to decades-old medical hurdles, the story of how Biogen evolved is an impressive one.
Outstanding Minds Set Together
Biogen was a creation of outstanding and established scientists from all corners of the world. Phillip Allen Sharp, for one, is an American geneticist and molecular biologist, born in 1944.
Philip completed his Ph.D. in Chemistry at the University of Illinois in 1969 and moved on with his postdoctoral studies on plasmids at the California Institute of Technology. He also studied gene expression in human cells at the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory.
Philip continued his career at MIT’s Center for Cancer Research until 1991, and at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research until 2004. Another molecular biologist among the founders is Walter Gilbert, born in 1932. A biochemist, and a physicist, he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Physics from Harvard University in 1953 and completed a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Cambridge in 1954.
By 1956, Walter returned to Harvard and was appointed as assistant professor of physics, biophysics, and biochemistry.
The three other Biogen founders included Kenneth Murray from Britain, Charles Weissmann from Switzerland, and Heinz Schaller from Germany. Kenneth Murray, a British molecular biologist born in 1930, completed his Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham and engaged in his research. He first worked in a lab at both Stanford University and Cambridge University. In 1967, Kenneth began to spread his knowledge as a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and retired as Biogen Professor of Molecular Biology.
Charles Weissmann, born in 1931, completed his education at the University of Zurich and earned his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry in 1961. Charles started his scientific career at the Institute for Molecular Biology in Zurich. By 2011, he became a President of the Roche Research Foundation and Chairman of the Department of Infectology, Scripps Florida.
As for Heinz Schaller, he was actually a pioneer of modern molecular biology who began his career in the 60s as a research associate at the Institute for Enzyme Research, Madison, Wisconsin. Later, he also joined the Max-Planck Institute for Virus Research, Tübingen. Heinz was committed to building the Center of Molecular Biology in Heidelberg, where he also served as a professor until 2000.
The Bright Beginning of Revolutionary Medicine
In 1978, with the support of the three venture capitalists, all five accomplished scientists met in Geneva, where they established Biogen NV. It was a new and young company among traditional and established brands. Yet, it offered quite a medicinal breakthrough.
Biogen first delivered in 1979 when Kenneth Murray synthesized bacteria of the antigen protein from the hepatitis B virus. This technology was licensed and used by GlaxoSmithKline - a pharmaceutical manufacturer - for manufacturing the hepatitis B vaccine. This is also known as the first world’s anti-cancer vaccine.
At the same time, Charles Weissmann successfully cloned a biologically active human leucocyte (alpha) interferon. For this, Biogen granted a license to the pharmaceutical company Schering-Plough. In 1996, another monoclonal antibody, interferon beta, was approved in the USA for treating relapsed forms of multiple sclerosis and made available for European patients.
In 1996, Biogen also obtained approval for rituximab, the first monoclonal antibody for cancer therapy. After its approval for treating certain types of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the medicine was also green-lighted as a treatment for diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
New Territories and Refined Strategies
In 1985, Venture capitalists from Silicon Valley supported the development of monoclonal antibodies. As a result, they established IDEC Pharmaceuticals. In 1991, IDEC submitted its IPO and thus became a NASDAQ-listed company.
In 2003, this opened the door for Biogen to merge with the company and become Biogen IDEC. Up next, the brand entered the US market and opened its first manufacturing facility in Cambridge. After this first step, expansion to North Carolina and Europe followed.
Over the last decade, the company has focused on developing new treatments for hemophilia, neurology, and immunology diseases. It focused on identifying new approaches to treat sclerosis, atrophy, dystrophy, and neurological/neuromuscular disorders.
The strategic merger made the acquisition of related research-based companies possible.
First, Biogen made an acquisition of Stromedix - a biotechnology company. Then it acquired Elan Corporation and Convergence Pharmaceutical.
These acquisitions put Biogen at a competitive advantage in the field of biotechnology. Thousands of people worldwide could now benefit from their innovative medicinal approach. The company also collaborated with Sangamo BioSciences in the field of hemoglobinopathies therapy, and with Eisai, in the field of Alzheimer’s therapy.
Biogen’s Rocky Road to Brighter Times
A massive challenge the Biogen team faced had to do with one of their employees and his massive lawsuit. It all started in 2012, when Michael Bawduniak, a former Biogen employee, reported to federal law authorities that Biogen had been making illegal payments. To fight this illegality, Michael filed a lawsuit against the company relying on the False Claims Act's whistle-blower provision, which allowed him to sue the company on behalf of the government.
However, Biogen didn't leave the matter unattended. Instead, the company settled and paid Michael $266 million. It also paid $900 million for claims that it bribed renowned physicians into prescribing the company's drugs and solutions.
Another serious hiccup the company had to overcome was their flopped introduction of the latest Alzheimer's drug, Aduhelm. And although the drug was FDA-approved and green-lighted to use, the backlash caused the company to withdraw it from sales and also caused its Chief Executive, Michel Vounatsos, to step down.
Despite the storm of troubles, many recognitions also came their way. Namely, two Nobel prizes went into the hands of Biogen scientists and founders. In 1980, Walter Gilbert, Ph.D., won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in DNA sequencing. And in 1993, Phillip Sharp, Ph.D., was awarded the same in the field of medicine for his discovery of split genes. In addition, Dr. Kenneth Murray has been knighted thanks to his discovery of hepatitis B antigens.
Among its other successes, Biogen also received the annual National Medal of Technology award in 1998, the highest bestowed award to technology innovators in the US.
Biogen’s headquarters and main research center remain in Cambridge to this day. The company currently has 7,000 employees, which helped put some of its major plans into practice. In 2021, the company announced it would build a state-of-the-art facility in North Carolina dedicated to gene therapy manufacturing.
As a way to further recover from its Aduhelm fiasco, Biogen strategized five new focus areas - R&D programs, cost reductions, biosimilars, worldwide evolution, and revenue growth. With the new and improved Biogen, the world of medicine will continue to grow, evolve, and make use of its latest solutions.
All in all, the Biogen team of five made a remarkable impact on the neuroscience industry as we know it. With a tailored product line in hand, the team has held its ground since 1978. They have proven to the world that quality science never ages or goes out of fashion!