Drug Development

Captured in a harsh spotlight, biotech unicorn Moderna names Melissa Moore as its new CSO

Melissa J. Moore

Melissa J. Moore

As Moderna Therapeutics drew a harsh review from Stat, portrayed as a company in turmoil with an often embittered staff, the biotech unicorn named Howard Hughes investigator and University of Massachusetts Medical School Professor Melissa J. Moore as its new CSO, now in command of its full mRNA development platform.

Moore was plucked from the company’s scientific advisory group at a crucial stage in Moderna’s development. The biotech has raised $1.9 billion so far — a huge amount by biotech standards — establishing a broad ranging preclinical effort to use patient cells as drug factories. That effort has now led to 11 development programs and a slate of new therapies waiting to enter the clinic.

“Melissa is an exceptional scientist whose knowledge and expertise in this area will have an enormous impact on Moderna,” said CEO Stephane Bancel. “And, importantly, she shares our vision and commitment to help patients and improve lives. We could not be more thrilled.”

Thrilled is probably the last word you would hear Bancel use to describe the newly posted investigation at Stat, which claims that Moderna’s “caustic work environment” has driven away top staff at a time where “signs” have appeared that the company’s top projects are running into trouble. Bancel himself, reports Stat, is over-controlling, obsessed with secrecy and impatient with setbacks.

The story is heavy with criticism and anonymous finger pointing, but light on details. Moderna’s former CSO, Joseph Bolen, left last fall after two years at the company, which Stat used to illustrate its claims of a toxic work environment at Moderna. Bolen was pushed out, according to unnamed “insiders,” after being relegated to a small role. Bolen himself, though, declined comment. And Bancel says he tried to get him to stay on, unsuccessfully.

Melissa Moore now gets a shot at either proving or disproving Stat’s claims at a time the company is nearing the rapids of mid-stage development, when it will have to start outlining specific proof-of-concept data on what its drugs can do. If the company can accomplish that with several programs, Bancel tells me he plans to file for an IPO.

At this stage, it’s fair to say that everyone is watching to see whether Moderna succeeds or fails. A failure would prove highly embarrassing for a lineup of top industry collaborators. Success would be groundbreaking.

Moore herself had this to say in a prepared statement:

“As a member of Moderna’s Scientific Advisory Board, I’ve had a front row seat to experience their groundbreaking progress first-hand. And through my work at the RTI and with MassTERi, I’ve come to appreciate the power of academic-industry collaboration and entrepreneurship. My new role at Moderna is a natural next step in my own progression as a basic researcher passionate about translating our ever-increasing knowledge of RNA biology into products that improve the human condition. I look forward to working with the incredibly talented Moderna team and building stronger connections and collaborations between Moderna and academia, as we work to advance the promise of mRNA therapeutics as a completely new modality for creating the medicines of the future.”

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