Jackie Fouse, the well-known biotechnology executive, plans to step down from her role as CEO of rare disease drugmaker Agios.
Effective Aug. 8, Fouse will transition to chair of Agios’ board of directors and be succeeded by another industry veteran, Brian Goff, who most recently served as head of commercial and global operations at Alexion Pharmaceuticals before its $39 billion sale to AstraZeneca.
Fouse took the CEO job in early 2019, becoming one of the few female company heads in biotech. In the years since, she’s overseen Agios’ transformation from a company developing treatments for both cancer and rare diseases to one that’s solely focused on the latter. In April 2021, Agios completed the $1.8 billion sale of its cancer drug business, including two marketed products called Idhifa and Tibsovo.
“If you would have asked me in 2019 that that’s where I thought Agios was gonna be in 2022, I probably would not have given that answer. But where we are feels really good,” Fouse said in an interview.
Now, Agios is several months into the launch of its first therapy for a rare disease. Known as Pyrukynd, it’s the first Food and Drug Administration-approved medicine for pyruvate kinase deficiency — a genetic disorder that causes red blood cells to break down and leads to anemia. Agios is also working to get Pyrukynd cleared for use in two other blood disorders: sickle cell disease and thalassemia.
Fouse said the upcoming change in leadership had much to do with Goff and the belief among Agios management that he, given his past experience, can help Pyrukynd succeed commercially.
“I think it’s a great time for him to come in,” Fouse said.
“To me, this is a shift in resource allocation for the talents who are most focused on a given area of the company,” she added. “Had we not found somebody of Brian’s caliber, we would have taken our time to find that perfect person.”
Over the first three months of the year, Agios recorded $832,000 in Pyrukynd revenue. But Goff argues the drug, along with Agios’ commercialization team for rare disease treatments, are “more or less at the starting point.” Growing both will be priorities moving forward.
Yet, Agios may run into increased competition as it attempts to extend Pyrukynd into other diseases. Large pharmaceutical firms like Novartis and biotechs like Vertex, CRISPR Therapeutics and Bluebird bio, for example, are trying to develop genetic medicines for sickle cell or thalassemia. One cell therapy from Bluebird, meant to effectively cure beta thalassemia, last month received unanimous support from a panel of independent experts that advises the FDA.
To Goff, the way in which Pyrukynd works — by activating the pyruvate kinase enzyme — could differentiate the drug as the list of available treatments for these diseases gets longer. He notes, though, that he doesn’t want Agios to be reliant on one product.
“There’s a pretty interesting pipeline of Agios-developed assets that I’m excited about sorting through with the team and deciding what’s the best pathway for those,” he said.
Agios, like many drugmakers, has seen its share price fall amid a historic downturn in the biotech stock market. The company’s shares currently trade at just under $24 apiece, less than half of their value from a year ago. In the past, investors have been critical of the amount of money Agios spends on research and development. Two months ago, the company said it would move away from exploratory research to conserve cash, and laid off 50 employees.
Yet, the sale of its cancer drug business has given Agios an influx of funding. Goff said the company’s balance sheet and finances are strong, which presents an “opportunity for very thoughtful, disciplined capital allocation to expand the pipeline.”
“Given the strong financial position that we have, we don’t have to raise equity,” Fouse said. “We are in the fortunate position of not having to worry about what the stock price is.”