Sage Taps Former Shire Exec to Lead CNS Drugs Into Clinical Trials

Xconomy Boston — 

Third Rock Ventures has spent close to two years refining the strategy for startup Sage Therapeutics. Now it’s found the management team to execute it.

Cambridge, MA-based Sage announced today that Jeffrey Jonas, the former head of Shire’s (NASDAQ: SHPG) regenerative medicine unit, has been named its new CEO, taking over for Kevin Starr, the Third Rock partner that has been acting as the company’s chief executive since its inception in October 2011. Sage has made two other management additions as well. Stephen Kanes, a former AstraZeneca executive, will be its chief medical officer. And Kimi Iguchi, who had stints as Millennium Pharmaceuticals and Biogen Idec, has been named its chief financial officer.

The executive appointments come as Sage is gearing up to push a group of experimental drug candidates into clinical trials. Sage was founded by Third Rock with the help of a $35 million Series A round, and aimed to use its platform of “allosteric receptor modulators”—drugs designed to create an equilibrium among the transmitters in the brain—to target common central nervous system, or CNS, disorders such as schizophrenia.

Sage, however, has since changed its focus and is first developing drugs for more rare CNS disorders: one drug, known as SGE-102, for example, is designed to treat a life-threatening form of epilepsy called status epilepticus, which is characterized by continuous or repeating seizures. Sage also plans to use its approach to create a drug that would treat some of the social problems, like fear and anxiety, experienced by patients with Fragile X Syndrome, a rare form of autism. Sage recently won a National Institutes of Health grant worth up to $10 million to help push the Fragile X drug through the end of Phase 1 clinical trials.

“While several pharmaceutical companies have greatly diminished their CNS discovery efforts in recent years due to concerns about its difficulty, Sage has taken a smart approach to CNS discovery by initially focusing on treatments for acute and orphan CNS indications with clear and accelerated paths to regulatory approval in significant commercial markets,” Jonas said in a statement.

Sage is also developing a treatment for traumatic brain injury, which can result from a severe blow to the head, as well as an anesthetic agent designed to get rid of the liabilities associated with propofol (Diprivan).

Starr said in a statement that Sage is in position to move “several programs” into late-stage development by 2015. The first two could begin their first clinical trials at some point this year.

“The company has made significant progress over the past two years and is now poised to make the transition from a discovery stage to a development and commercial stage company,” he said.

Jonas has more than two decades of biotech experience, including stints in various executive roles at Shire, Isis Pharmaceuticals, Forest Laboratories, and Upjohn Laboratories. He was most recently the president of Shire’s regenerative medicine business—created through the company’s $750 million buyout of Advanced Biohealing in 2011—but left the company amidst controversy. Jonas took over as head of the business in November, but was placed on administrative leave earlier this year. He subsequently sued the company, alleging wrongful discharge and age discrimination, according to a report from Bloomberg. Shire denied the charges, but reached an unspecified settlement with Jonas a few weeks ago, according to the report.

Kanes, meanwhile, is a former AstraZeneca executive who currently works as an adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Iguchi has previously held roles at Biogen, Millennium, Santhera Pharmaceuticals, and Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems.