Dive Insight:

As one of biopharma’s top scientists for decades, Roger Perlmutter has been sizing up small biotechs for years. So it’s notable that he’s finally chosen to lead one of them.

Perlmutter jumped from academia to industry in 1997, when he first joined Merck. He climbed through the ranks within the storied pharma company but ultimately left in 2001 when the MIT professor Peter Kim was chosen to lead Merck’s research labs. Perlmutter instead took the top research spot at Amgen, where over the next 11 years he reshaped the biotech’s drug pipeline, overseeing the development of cancer drugs like Imlygic and Blincyto and the bone drug Prolia.

Perlmutter eventually replaced Kim, rejoining Merck as research chief in 2013. Under his leadership, Merck won approvals of drugs for HIV, hepatitis C and Ebola virus. But his legacy was defined by the rise of the cancer immunotherapy Keytruda, which was developed under his watch and has become one of the world’s top-selling medicines.

Perlmutter officially left his role at Merck on Jan. 1, part of a leadership shift at the pharma giant that includes the planned retirement of longtime CEO Ken Frazier.

Eikon, Perlmutter’s new home, is based on research that helped overcome a key limitation of microscopes that made it impossible to see all the tiny details within cells, such as how individual protein molecules interact with one another — and how things change when disease occurs. Discoveries by Betzig, William Moerner and Stefan Hell changed that, enabling scientists to “peer into the nanoworld,” as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences wrote in 2014. Betzig and Moerner, specifically, used particular types of fluorescent dyes to light up individual molecules, enabling microscopes to see them glow.

Betzig and Robert Tijan, former president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, formed Eikon in 2019 to harness that method to find new drugs. The company labels individual proteins with fluorescent tags and images them as they move inside cells. Studying proteins in motion, rather than as static images, promises to help uncover previously overlooked or unreachable drug targets. It’s an approach that, conceptually, is shared with others, most notably the now-public biotech Relay Therapeutics.

“The pharmaceutical industry has long been limited in the tools available to study dynamic regulatory mechanisms in living cells,” Perlmutter said in a statement. “In this context, it is inspiring to see what Eikon has already accomplished by incorporating physics and engineering along with machine learning to complement traditional drug discovery approaches.”

Eikon hasn’t disclosed what disease areas it’s focusing on or how far away it is from clinical testing. Its website shows, however, that its lead program targets a protein called EWS/FLI, which is implicated in a type of bone cancer known as Ewing’s sarcoma.