Steven Paul, Former Lilly R&D Chief, Takes Head Seat at Voyager

9/3/14Follow @benthefidler

Steven Paul stepped in to Third Rock Ventures a few years ago to help advise on some of the firm’s biotech startups. Now, however, it appears Eli Lilly’s former R&D chief has found one he likes enough to lead full-time.

Cambridge, MA-based Voyager Therapeutics announced today that Paul has agreed to take over as its full-time CEO. Paul is replacing Third Rock co-founder and former Millennium Pharmaceuticals CEO Mark Levin, who has served as Voyager’s interim CEO since it was launched back in February.

Paul spent almost two decades at Eli Lilly and oversaw development of some of the Indianapolis pharma company’s best-selling central nervous system disorder drugs, like Zyprexa and Cymbalta. He’s also the director of the Helen and Robert Appel Alzheimer’s Disease Research Institute at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, and helped found Cambridge, MA-based Sage Therapeutics (NASDAQ: SAGE) along with Washington University professor Douglas Covey. Paul’s been a venture partner and senior advisor to Third Rock since 2010.

Steven Paul is the co-founder of Sage Therapeutics.

Voyager CEO Steven Paul

Third Rock started up Voyager with a big $45 million Series A commitment and a plan to use gene therapy, and to a certain extent, RNA tools, to try to either cure or significantly reverse the effects of a wide range of central nervous system disorders like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Friedreich’s Ataxia, and Parkinson’s. The company would do so by injecting modified viruses—specifically, adeno-associated viruses, or AAVs—into the spine or brain. These AAVs would contain either specific proteins, or micro RNA silencing molecules, that are supposed to replace a faulty gene or shut down a disease-causing one. It’s a tall order, of course. There is only one gene therapy approved in Europe, and no gene therapy for a CNS disorder has ever even made it to a Phase 3 trial.

Levin has said that Voyager aims to build up a proprietary in-house library of AAVs that it can use to develop its own gene therapies for rare neurological disorders, or to form licensing deals with pharmaceutical companies for diseases it isn’t interested in working on. Now Paul, who has been serving as Voyager’s interim president of R&D, will try to get that work done.

“Based upon recent advances in our understanding of the genetic basis of a variety of CNS diseases, I am extremely enthusiastic about the scientific possibilities that Voyager’s AAV gene therapy approach holds in potentially changing the lives of patients with these often fatal and highly debilitating diseases,” Paul said in a statement. “We have seen encouraging early data demonstrating that Voyager’s approach could be successful in replacing or knocking down faulty genes in diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Friedreich’s ataxia. I am proud of Voyager’s position at the forefront of this renewed field of gene therapy, and the potential of the company to make a meaningful difference for CNS patients who currently have limited or no therapeutic options.”

Ben Fidler is Xconomy's Deputy Biotechnology Editor. You can e-mail him at bfidler@xconomy.com Follow @benthefidler

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