Medical Innovation Exchange

Richard Pops: Pushing neuroscience boundaries with Alkermes

Richard Pops knows a thing or two about leading (and growing) a global biopharmaceutical company. CEO of Alkermes since 1991, he has overseen the organization’s transformation from a privately held firm with 25 employees to an international, publicly traded biopharma enterprise with more than 2,000 employees.

During a busy J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, Firece Biotech’s Rebecca Willumson grabbed some time with Richard to discuss the recent journey back to Alkermes’ roots – the field of neuroscience.

He touches on why the decision was made to double down on the company’s core strengths, as well as what informed its decision to invest in and pursue an orexin-based approach to treating narcolepsy, and some of the nuances relating to the project.

“The challenge is making the molecule itself,” he tells us. “Sometimes in biotech, you just have to clone the protein that’s missing, put it into a vial, and inject it into the body. The brain’s different. You have to get the molecule into the brain. And a peptide like orexin, the natural molecule, doesn’t get into the brain as a drug.”

The conversation also touches on the ways mental illness and addiction are often misunderstood and stigmatized, and how Alkermes integrates this as a call to action on behalf of the patients they serve.

Listen to the full interview to discover more.

Rebecca Willumson: Hi there. I’m Rebecca Willumson. I’m the publisher of Fierce Biotech, and I’m here today with Richard Pops, CEO of Alkermes. Richard, thank you for joining me.

Richard Pops: Good to be here.

Rebecca Willumson: So Richard, as Alkermes returns to its roots as a pure-play neuroscience company, developing medicines for people with complex psychiatric and neurological disorders, what are you most excited about, focused on for the year ahead?

Richard Pops: I’d say we’ve been on a bit of a journey over the last couple of years to return to this original roots of being a pure-play neuroscience company. The business had expanded to include oncology and some other things, and we made a decision a couple of years ago, particularly as we launched LYBALVI, our anti-psychotic, it was going to do well in the market, that it was time to focus the company down on our core strengths. And the core strengths are just that: making medicines for people with serious mental illness and addiction, and more broadly, other CNS disorders that are difficult to develop drugs for.

So this year, what I’m probably most excited about is to come to JP Morgan and explain to the company that it’s a profitable company with a billion dollars of top-line revenues, profitable, with a really exciting pipeline asset that I’m sure we’ll talk about in narcolepsy, and a scientific capability that’s been burned in over many years, and a presence in the marketplace that we’ve built commercially, that allows us to build around. With the scientific capability and the commercial capability and the financial resources, it feels like a good time in Alkermes.

Rebecca Willumson: Tell me, how do your neuroscience expertise and development capabilities inform your decision to invest in and pursue the orexin-based approach to narcolepsy? And what excites you about that program?

Richard Pops: Most of the time, when you’re developing drugs for the brain, you’re not quite sure of the mechanism. We don’t know what schizophrenia is, we don’t know what depression is. And when we bring medicines into clinic, it’s fraught with risk, because you’re not sure whether or not the medicine is going to directly affect the condition you’re trying to treat. And, there’s large placebo responses when you put people into clinical trials.

I contrast that with what’s happening with this orexin pathway for the treatment of narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a deficiency of orexin, which is a neuropeptide, a natural molecule in your brain. If you don’t have it, you have narcolepsy Type 1. This molecule is actually the principle driver of the sleep-wake cycle in humans, and it drives alertness and wakefulness. So it’s one of these rare conditions in the CNS, where we know exactly what to do. If we can replace that neuropeptide, we should be able to re-establish the normal sleep-wake cycle. And previous data, both in animals and in humans, is supportive of that.

The challenge is making the molecule itself. Sometimes in biotech, you just have to clone the protein that’s missing, put it into a vial, and inject it into the body. The brain’s different. You have to get the molecule into the brain. And a peptide like orexin, the natural molecule, doesn’t get into the brain as a drug. So you have to make a small molecule that mimics the action of the more complicated large molecule.

So it’s a tricky molecular design problem. That’s what attracted us to it. We’re good at that. And that’s what the drug that’s in the clinic right now is seeking to do.

Rebecca Willumson: So Alkermes has a decades-long history in the treatment of serious mental illness and addiction, disorders that affect millions of people in the U.S. And are often misunderstood or stigmatized. Can you elaborate on your commitment to these patient communities?

Richard Pops: It’s such an amazing journey because when you start a biotech company, and you’re focused exclusively on the science, the chemistry, the biology, to try to create a molecule that you can effect some change or a positive outcome in a person’s brain, you go through the whole drug development process, FDA approval, and then you realize, for many of these patient populations, with this FDA-approved drug, they’re not going to get access to the medicine. So what you end up doing, and what we ended up doing, was actually building a complete wrap-around in terms of policy and public affairs and patient advocacy in order to make sure that these medicines that we’ve worked so hard to develop can actually get to patients that need them.

It’s interesting because it starts to infuse the whole company with the sense of purpose. It’s not just about the science. It’s not just about making the molecule and manufacturing. It’s figuring out and assuring that people can get access to it on an ongoing basis.

It’s a big problem in the U.S. for people with stigmatized diseases. If you have cancer, and you’re wealthy, you’ll get medications. If you have schizophrenia, and you’re on Medicaid, you’re not going to get access to good medicines, unless people fight for you. And that’s part of what we do.

Rebecca Willumson: Well, that’s all the questions that I have. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Richard Pops: Thank you.

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