- Al Sandrock, the well-known researcher who spent almost a decade overseeing clinical development activities at Biogen, has now been appointed CEO of the gene therapy company Voyager Therapeutics.
- Biogen had made the surprising announcement in November that Sandrock would be retiring at the end of 2021. While the researcher did depart Biogen, he didn't stay away from the industry for very long. Voyager revealed in early February that he had been added its board of directors, and, less than a week later, he joined the board of Verge Genomics, a drug discovery startup.
- With his new appointment, Sandrock will take the reins from the chairman of Voyager's board, Michael Higgins, who has been serving as the company's interim CEO since last June. Voyager's work centers around diseases of the brain and central nervous system, with programs aiming to treat Huntington's disease, ALS and a rare condition called spinal muscular atrophy, or SMA.
During his more than two decades at Biogen, Sandrock proved to be one of the industry's most skilled drug hunters. The company credits Sandrock for the discovery and development of Tysabri and Tecfidera, two highly effective multiple sclerosis treatments that each have earned billions of dollars in sales. He was also a vital player in the advancement of two other multiple sclerosis products and a blockbuster medicine for SMA.
Over the years, Sandrock came to champion another Biogen drug: a therapy for Alzheimer's disease now known as Aduhelm. Last June, Aduhelm became the first medicine ever approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat Alzheimer's itself, rather than symptoms of the illness. It also broke a near 20-year period where no new Alzheimer's drugs had been cleared for market in the U.S.
Yet the approval, while supported by patient advocacy groups, created an immense amount of backlash against both Biogen and the regulators who reviewed its drug. Biogen has, as a result, found selling Aduhelm to be more challenging than expected. And, as the Aduhelm saga unfolded, the company watched important pieces of its leadership team leave. Head of research and development Michael Ehlers headed to Apple Tree Investors in 2019, while chief financial officer Jeff Capello exited in 2020.
Sandrock added to this string of departures late last year. But the researcher didn't stay out of the spotlight for very long, as he quickly joined Voyager's board. He arrived at the company about nine months after a "strategic shift" that saw its CEO and top researcher step down to pursue other opportunities.
Though Voyager and its gene therapy technology have attracted much attention from venture capitalists and larger pharmaceutical firms, the company, like many drugmaking startups, has faced setbacks. Last summer, for example, it decided to discontinue its most advanced gene therapy program, which was targeting Huntington's. Partnerships between Voyager and AbbVie and Neurocrine Biosciences have also fizzled.
Interest in Voyager's technology doesn't seem to have faded altogether, though. Pfizer and Novartis inked deals with the company in October and this month, respectively, hoping to use the viral shells that Voyager creates to develop gene therapies for cardiovascular and neurological diseases.
Sandrock, as the freshly minted CEO, will have considerable influence over those deals and future ones, as well as the overall direction of Voyager's research and development activities. While investor reaction to the appointment was muted — Voyager shares remained relatively unchanged in Tuesday morning trading — company leadership touted having Sandrock at the helm.
"Al is a global thought leader in neuroscience with an impressive track record bringing transformative new medicines to patients," Higgins said in a statement. "His success pioneering the development of numerous innovative neurological treatments, and particularly, his skill in advancing promising candidates from early-stage research toward clinical proof of concept, is perfectly suited for Voyager."