Neurology research is our great frontier

Building a leading discovery engine

By Chris Henderson, Ph.D.
Vice President, Neurology Research

June 15, 2016

Neurology has been unfairly considered a graveyard of good ideas.

It is true that neurodegenerative diseases have been incredibly difficult to treat, but there has never been a bigger opportunity or a more palpable turning point for great science to solve some of the most devastating diseases of our time.

Our turning point as a community of scientists
I think there have been three main reasons for the difficulty in treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The first is that we haven’t understood the diseases well enough – we didn’t have good therapeutic targets to pursue. The second reason is that the technologies that we currently have to get medicines into the nervous system, such as novel antibodies or DNA antisense oligonucleotides, weren’t available. Lastly, we had underappreciated the role of cells other than neurons – such as microglia, oligodendrocytes and astrocytes - in triggering and driving these diseases.

We now know much more about neurodegenerative diseases and we have new tools for studying them in both animal and human models. We also have access to new therapeutic modalities . As a result, in a disease like ALS where once there were almost no hypotheses, we have a wealth of leads to prioritize and multiple ways to turn them into therapies. The scientific community, helped by families struggling with ALS, may be on the brink of a breakthrough.

Biogen’s neurology frontier
I’m proud to head neurology research at Biogen where we are building up a pipeline of ideas and potential therapeutic approaches for multiple sclerosis (MS), Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and ALS. We are focusing not only on the diseases as single entities but on different biologies that may provide clues to more general mechanisms of neurodegeneration. I joined Biogen in 2014 because it is the neurology company. What Biogen has shown in the case of MS is that effective medicines can be developed for conditions we previously thought were untreatable. And the company’s determined response to keep fighting following the first, failed ALS trial was an inspiration to the whole field.

We are in a period where many companies have left neurology discovery and development due to so many past failures, but I’ve spent my whole career trying to do something for people with ALS and SMA. It is just extraordinary to know that from our CEO downwards, everyone is committed to making major changes in the life of those facing the challenges of neurodegenerative disease. Biogen has a unique internal effort but cannot do this alone: we are hard at work building our academic collaborations and our pipeline of ideas, so as to be ready to seize new opportunities in the great frontier of neurology research as they emerge.

Learn more about neurology research at Biogen

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