One of the masterminds behind remdesivir, Gilead's Diana Brainard jumps ship to antiviral T cell player AlloVir
As one of the startups tapped to join David Hallal’s disruptive manufacturing outfit ElevateBio in the Boston area, AlloVir has built an aggressive clinical program for its virus-specific T cells. Now, the biotech is tapping as chief a Gilead veteran with her own experience racing a highly touted antiviral to market.
Diana Brainard, one of the key drivers behind Gilead’s push to secure an emergency use authorization for antiviral remdesivir in Covid-19, will take over as CEO of the upstart viral player on May 17.
A longtime Gilead veteran heading the drugmaker’s viral therapeutics area, Brainard has served on AlloVir’s board since and as an independent director since April 2019. Her elevation to AlloVir’s top spot comes as Hallal moves over to the executive chairman role.
Gilead was one of AlloVir’s earliest investors after Hallal tapped the biotech for its next-manufacturing “basecamp” at ElevateBio in early 2019. The company, previously known as ViraCyte and based in Houston, scored a $120 million fundraising round at the time to chase its allogeneic virus-specific T cells.
Brainard will take the helm as AlloVir navigates eight separate clinical trials, part of an R&D program Brainard said has “blown up” over the course of the past year. The most advanced of those candidates, a multi-specific T cell therapy dubbed Viralym-M, targets five viral pathogens and is currently in a Phase III pivotal study against virus-associated hemorrhagic-cystitis. The candidate is being tested in cytomegalovirus, BK virus, adenovirus, Epstein-Barr and human herpesvirus-6.
Jumping into the CEO role is a big leap for Brainard on two fronts: She’s never held the top post, and, as a veteran of Gilead and Merck, she’s never been handed the keys to a nimble biotech.
“To be honest, I’m terrified. It’s a brand new thing for me — but those butterflies are part of the appeal of the job,” she told me. “I think that’s part of the driver for me is missing that, missing that sense of ‘wow, I’m really stretching myself.'”
With a couple months before she starts, Brainard has leaned on her A-list circle of peers for guidance, including Norbert Bischofberger, the former Gilead R&D head who jumped ship to steer Kronos Bio, and Robin Washington, formerly Gilead CFO, now a board member at Google’s Alphabet. Meanwhile, she hopes to model her leadership style off Gilead head Daniel O’Day and incumbent leader Hallal and his experience at Alexion.
“There will be continuity, and we have a great partnership,” Brainard said of Hallal. “We have complementary background and skills, and that will be terrific.”
Hallal will be watching from his executive chair seat as well as steering the biotech that made this all happen: ElevateBio, which has been on a rapid growth clip in its own right. Earlier this month, the startup closed a massive $525 million Series C it will use to keep building its next-gen startup engine and one-stop-shop cell and gene therapy manufacturing “ecosystem.” AlloVir is one of three startups on board at Elevate’s Cambridge, MA site, and Hallal recently said the plan is to add a new company each year moving forward.
The move up the corporate ladder also struck a personal tone for Brainard, who is leaving the Bay Area to return to Boston, where she spent nearly 10 years at Mass General and met her husband, the venture capitalist David Shaywitz. Making the move with three teenage daughters will be no easy task, she said, but the new landing spot feels like a “homecoming.”
AlloVir will immediately lean on Brainard’s lengthy experience at Gilead building and running the hepatitis C portfolio in Foster City as well as her closing act in bringing remdesivir to market. In a conversation with FiercePharma in October, Brainard discussed her team’s role in repurposing remdesivir, an antiviral once developed for Ebola, in record time to treat hospitalized Covid-19 patients. Despite some mixed results in benefitting Covid-19 patients across the treatment spectrum, remdesivir has emerged as an early standard-of-care in hospitalized patients. That rapid scale-up didn’t happen without some sweat equity.
“There was a chance for us to make a difference, and if we were going to do that, we were going to have to work really hard,” she said at the time.