AbbVie: a biotech company in a pharma coat

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AbbVie was created as a spin-out of the pharmaceutical activities from industry giant Abbott Laboratories just over 3 years ago. This has proven to be a smart decision—despite fluctuating markets, the combined market cap of AbbVie and Abbott has more than doubled since the split. At Knowledge for Growth 2016, BioVox had the opportunity to talk with Jim Sullivan, AbbVie’s VP of Discovery, about the drivers of this success, the company’s mission to create remarkable impact for patients, and its talent for setting up collaborations, for example, with Google-backed Calico to tackle aging.

Pharma resources in a biotech business

“One of the most exciting parts of AbbVie is that it combines the agility, creativity and passion of a biotech start-up with the structure and financial resources of a large pharmaceutical company. In bringing those two very important cultural elements together in one company, we’ve created a biopharmaceutical company that has a really good chance of accomplishing our mission,” says Sullivan. “When coming from a large healthcare company, you recognize the importance of streamlining decision making.”

We’re agnostic to where the best science comes from, internally or externally.

AbbVie makes this possible by working with project teams that are set up like little biotech companies. They each have a leader who is empowered and accountable to move the program to the next milestone. “We also have very few layers between the CEO and these project leaders,” Sullivan explains. “If significant resources are needed to accelerate a program, we can get decisions made quickly.

Create a major change for patients

“Our mission can be boiled down to delivering remarkable impact to patients,” says Sullivan. “We are working on chronic diseases that have  huge unmet medical need and are costing the patients and society a lot. We’re not going after incremental benefit.”

In immunology, AbbVie focuses on many conditions, including Crohn’s disease. There are still a significant number of patients who need surgery to relieve their pain. Furthermore, going out socially is especially challenging for these individuals because they must plan where there might be bathrooms on their routes. “That is not a lifestyle thing, but a very serious issue,” Sullivan stresses. “Many patients persevere and have therapies that do bring a benefit, but we need to do much better. We’re working on treatments that can bring remission.” AbbVie’s actions to improve patients’ lives go beyond science. Last year, the organization released an app called WC ASAPP that assists Crohn’s patients in finding the nearest bathroom. Similarly, the pilot project, Activ84worK, investigates how patients with a chronic disease can remain active, for example, by working from home.

In oncology, Venclexta (venetoclax) is AbbVie’s latest achievement. The FDA approved it last month for the treatment of the hematological cancer chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). This drug shows remarkable activity, particularly in patients suffering from the most difficult to treat form of the disease. It’s the result of a journey the company embarked on 20 years ago when it started working on apoptosis, or programmed cell death, after the discovery of a protein called BCL-2 that’s pivotal  to the regulation of apoptosis. The effort to discover a BCL-2 inhibitor that can cause the cancer cells to initiate cell death yielded this new treatment, resulting in a significant impact for patients with hematologic cancers.

There is a looming tsunami when you think about the number of people that could potentially have Alzheimer’s by 2050.

Neuroscience, and particularly Alzheimer’s disease, is a third major area for AbbVie. “Unlike a lot of companies that have exited the area because they think it’s too difficult, we actually think it’s the right time to invest in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease research,” Sullivan says. “That’s why we opened up a new research center in Cambridge that’s going to be focused on identifying new approaches. There is a looming tsunami when you think about the number of people that could potentially have Alzheimer’s by 2050. Healthcare systems are going to face tremendous challenges in terms of care as well as cost,” he adds.

Collaborations above ego

One of the key elements of AbbVie’s strategy is augmenting internal expertise with external innovations. “We’re agnostic to where the best science comes from, internally or externally,” Sullivan says. “If there’s an academic group or a company that has intriguing capabilities, we will always try to talk to them and see if we can accelerate progress together.”

The company has built collaborations around the globe, but Belgium is heavily represented in its pipeline. Currently, there are three significant ongoing collaborations, including one with Galapagos in the area of cystic fibrosis; one with Ablynx in immunology; and one with arGEN-X in the area of immuno-oncology. Belgium is also a top country in the company’s clinical research, with more than 50 trials ongoing for 20 difficult to treat diseases.

The true challenge: understanding aging to revolutionize healthcare

AbbVie tries to find new and innovative ways to address chronic diseases. As aging is the number one risk factor in many  chronic diseases, a better understanding of what drives the aging process would be very  valuable. Technological advances, such as next-generation sequencing, have enabled the availability of cohorts of individuals with specific genotypic and phenotypic data. “A lot of people study the normal aging process. We believe it is important to study the outliers,” Sullivan explains.

Some people are 65 years old, but look and act like they’re 40 and vice versa, why is that?

To uncover these processes, in 2014 AbbVie started a 10-year collaboration with Calico, a biotech company funded by Google. Its mission is to develop a deep understanding of the biology underlying aging using state-of-the-art data analytics, genetic tools, and physiological approaches. In the collaboration, the pioneering biology of Calico is combined with AbbVie’s ability to translate those findings into therapeutic molecules.

“Together, we’re taking a very broad approach. As we understand the biology better, targets for any of the chronic diseases related to aging can be uncovered,” Sullivan says. This kind of transformational science doesn’t follow traditional procedures. “How do you find early-stage biomarkers if a patient is not even showing symptoms yet? How do you set up a clinical trial for the prevention of a disease? What is the regulatory approval process for a drug that will be administered before the patient is sick? That’s the great thing about working with Calico. Given their Google origin, unraveling these unknown paths is what gets these guys excited. That’s the challenge we’re up against, and we’re very happy to be a part of it.”