- Al Sandrock, a former top Biogen executive who led development of the company’s Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm, is joining the board of directors at Verge Genomics, a drug discovery startup, after leaving Biogen at the end of last year.
- The appointment is significant for Verge, which raised nearly $100 million in December to advance a group of experimental drug candidates toward human testing. Sandrock, while now best known for developing Aduhelm and defending it through intense controversy, has a track record of past success in drug R&D, having championed the Biogen medicines Tysabri, Tecfidera and Spinraza.
- Sandrock’s appointment to Verge’s board comes roughly one week after he joined the board and executive committee of Voyager Therapeutics, a gene therapy developer working on treatments for neurological disorders.
Top biotech and pharmaceutical executives typically find ample demand for their expertise on the boards of smaller, emerging drug developers after they’ve stepped down or left their previous roles. For example, John Maraganore, the longtime CEO of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals who handed the reins to Yvonne Greenstreet in December, has since joined the boards of several biotech companies, while becoming a venture partner and adviser to two prominent venture capital firms.
Sandrock’s appointments are particularly notable given the high-profile nature of his departure from Biogen, where he had served as chief medical officer and head of R&D. His surprise exit, announced last November, came as the biotech company was seeking to defuse criticism around Aduhelm and its contentious approval by the Food and Drug Administration last June.
In Verge and Voyager, he’s chosen to work with early-stage companies exploring new ways to develop treatments for neurodegenerative diseases like ALS and Huntington’s. Voyager, which specializes in genetic medicine, is trying to direct its drugs to harder-to-reach tissues like the brain.
Verge, meanwhile, aims to use machine learning to unearth better drug targets from genomic data collected from patients with neurodegenerative diseases. The company recently struck a three-year research alliance with Eli Lilly and aims to advance its first candidate, a drug for ALS, into clinical testing this year.
Verge’s CEO, Alice Zhang, says Sandrock saw merit in the startup’s approach when they first met four years ago at a reception around the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference. “He saw that one of the biggest opportunities — and biggest challenges — was deciphering the complexity in the biology of neurodegeneration and using human data to identify better targets,” Zhang said. “And that’s, of course, exactly what we do.”
Then, last year, Verge hired Robert Scannevin, a former senior director at Biogen who had worked with Sandrock, as chief scientific officer. “That helped seal the deal,” according to Zhang.
Zhang said she isn’t concerned by the controversy surrounding Aduhelm and Sandrock’s role in its approval, noting that his experience validating drug targets in Alzheimer’s could help Verge.
“After getting to know Verge over the last four years and watching all of the remarkable scientific progress they have made, I am convinced that they are leading the way in tech-enabled drug discovery,” said Sandrock in a statement on his appointment.