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Biogen is a pharma-biotech company headquartered in Cambridge, MA. Like other pharma-biotech companies in the area, Biogen makes its money by privatizing publicly funded research while aggressively pursuing so-called “intellectual property” control (for example, through patenting) of medications, maximizing its corporate profits at the expense of the access of Global South populations to lifesaving and life-improving medical treatments.

Privatization and profiteering

Co-founded by Harvard biology professor (and Nobel prize winner) Walter Gilbert and MIT professor Phil Sharp (another Nobel laureate), Biogen was one of the early biotechnology firms to privatize molecular biology research performed at universities, in order to maximize its corporate profits. As John Trumpbour explains in How Harvard Rules:

in January 1980, when Harvard biologist Walter Gilbert called a press conference to declare his company, Biogen, the first to produce interferon. This led to an exciting sequence of events: a leap in stock prices for Schering-Plough, an owner of Biogen, and interferon’s appearance on the cover of Time as the cancer-curing wonder drug. Thus, the day of reckoning came as a shock to many. Later that year, both the American Association for Cancer Research and the American Society of Clinical Oncology debunked the claims for interferon, while Genentech, Inc. showed that it could produce the substance 'by a process thousands of times more efficient than Biogen’s.' However, it turned out that Genentech had obtained the cells to make interferon from the lab of a UCLA biologist David Golde, who thought he was sharing them in the spirit of free inquiry and scientific exchange. He exploded angrily when he found out that his experiments were being used less for public benefit and more for commercial gain.

Today, Biogen continues to fight for private control over medicine and against the production of affordable and accessible generic drugs. For example, Biogen fought to retain its patent on the multiple sclerosis drug Tecfidera, prioritizing its profits from the drug over the massive life-saving and life-improving benefits of making the drug more widely and affordably available by producing it generically. According to a Bloomberg News report from 2021, Tecfidera “accounted for more than a quarter of the company’s revenue before generic versions eroded market share.”

Much like Biogen’s founders in the 1980s, academics working on biomedicine in the Boston area today can become quite wealthy through corporate ties and investments. For example, at the height of the Covid 19 pandemic, Harvard Medical School professor Timothy Springer – who was already a millionaire from his investments – became a billionaire, because he had invested millions in the Cambridge-based Covid vaccine maker Moderna.

Contributions to displacement ("gentrification")

Biogen is one of the many companies gobbling up real estate in Cambridge and attracting wealthy transplants into Cambridge and Boston, driving up local housing, rental, and living costs and fueling the ongoing displacement of working-class residents, disproportionately Black and Brown, who are no longer able to afford to live in the neighborhoods they have called home for years if not decades (see image below). As of March 2022, one of Biogen’s Kendall Square sites (on Binney Street) is estimated to be worth over $137M.

(Image source: here)

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