Ice bucket challenge comes to Biogen ... and CNBC

It's the chilly phenomenon sweeping the country.

Propelled by Facebook and Twitter, ice bucket challenges have become viral sensations that have been accepted by celebrities, professional athletes and the Kennedy clan. A challenge has even been issued to President Barack Obama.

On Tuesday, the biotech community jumped in, as dozens of researchers at Biogen Idec doused themselves with buckets of ice water to raise awareness and funds for ALS research.

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The challenges have been working: The national office of the ALS Association said it has received more than $3.6 million since July 29, compared with $24,700 in the same period last year. Association-wide, including national and chapter revenue, it has received $5.7 million in donations, compared to $1.2 million during a year ago.

Nearly 107,000 new donors have given money to the association since the challenge began.

"This is the most visibility ALS has ever received and the fundraising response is completely, 100 percent unprecedented," Carrie Munk, a spokeswoman for the association, said in an email.

Biogen Idec's Doug Williams, the company's executive vice president of research and development, accepted the challenge.
Source: Biogen Idec | Twitter
Biogen Idec's Doug Williams, the company's executive vice president of research and development, accepted the challenge.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a progressive, muscle-wasting disorder that affects about 30,000 Americans at any given time. About 5,600 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with ALS each year, and life expectancy is typically about two to five years.

There is no cure for ALS, and current treatments do little to stop its progression. The ice bucket challenge was started by 29-year-old Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball star who's been living with ALS for two years, the ALS Association said.

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Biogen Idec was a focus of the community's hope two years ago as it was developing a compound called dexpramipexole for ALS. The compound ultimately showed no benefit in the last stage of trials, and Biogen shut the program down. The Cambridge, Massachusetts, company, though, is still working in the area. It started a consortium of academic researchers in ALS as well as a gene sequencing program with Duke University and the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.

Progress against the disease has been difficult, due to a lack of understanding about what causes it, said Cowen & Co. analyst Eric Schmidt. He estimates the market for a drug could be more than $1 billion.

Michael Yee at RBC Capital puts the market between $1 billion and $2 billion, and he also noted a lack of understanding of the disease and good targets for potential medicines as challenges.

Biogen was issued the challenge by researchers at University of Massachusetts Medical School. Doug Williams, the company's executive vice president of research and development, then turned the tables back on CNBC.

CNBC's Scott Wapner accepted the challenge and issued one to Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg. Costolo responded.

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Costolo took the challenge via Vine and passed it on to Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff.

CNBC's Carl Quintanilla followed up with his own Vine outside the New York Stock Exchange. Quintanilla then challenged Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, T-Mobile U.S. CEO John Legere and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Still one important person was missing from the mass soaking: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who was challenged yesterday by CNBC's Scott Wapner as well as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Your move, Zuck.

—By CNBC's Meg Tirrell