It has been the holy grail of the international scientific community for decades. Some 115 years since German neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer conducted the autopsy that allowed him to identify the disease which came to bear his name, around 50 million people around the world afflicted by it are still waiting for a cure.
Alzheimer’s is among the top 10 causes of death in the United States, but it is the only one of those causes that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed down. A disease that costs the American medical system alone 1 trillion dollars a year and is estimated to affect as many as 130 million people by 2050 remains very much an unsolved puzzle for the medical and pharmaceutical sectors.
So the recent news that the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) gave the green light to an Alzheimer’s drug developed by Biogen marks a moment of triumph not just for the American pharmaceutical giant (which saw its stock soar 34% in a single day) and its CEO Michel Vounatsos, but also for millions of families affected by the disease.
A French citizen who hails from Greece but was born in Casablanca, Morocco, Vounatsos is a true citizen of the world. He speaks six languages, has worked at major pharma industries in as many countries, and has run marathons on three continents. For 25 years, his doctor wife Martine and their three children have followed him everywhere in a career that has taken him from France and Poland all the way to Saudi Arabia and China. After 20 years at Merck, he became CEO of Biogen in 2017, settling in the US city of Boston.
When he took over the reins at Biogen from Greek American George Scangos, the company had already spent several years trying to develop an Alzheimer’s drug and aducanumab was supposed to become the next big revolution in medicine. But the disease proved tough to beat and after many failed clinical trials, Biogen was about to give up – until 2019, when Vounatsos decided to take a huge risk and revive the effort.
With the decision announced by the FDA on Monday, Aduhelm – the drug’s brand name – became the first treatment for Alzheimer’s to be approved in 20 years.
Even though the company stands to make billions from Aduhelm, questions have already started emerging about its effectiveness as well as the very high cost of treatment, which Biogen has set at $56,000 a year, way above the $10,000-25,000 expected by the market.
Speaking to CNBC, Vounatsos explained that the cost of the drug reflects “two decades of no innovation.” He also vowed that Biogen will not raise the price for the next four years, adding that the company can invest its earnings in developing other important drugs.
Aduhelm is currently under review in Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia and Brazil.
In the meantime, the name Michel Vounatsos joins the ranks of other Greeks at the vanguard of medical innovation, among them Pfizer’s Albert Bourla, AstraZeneca’s Mene Pangalos and Regeneron’s George Yancopoulos, who are known around the world for their contribution to the battle against the coronavirus.