Secretive? Moderna details its pipeline strategy at JPM but at least one critic bites back

Stephane Bancel, Moderna CEO

Moderna outlined its pipeline strategy at JP Morgan this week, focusing specifically on five clinical-stage programs for new vaccines as a relatively low-risk approach to demonstrating that their messenger RNA technology and the platform work. But the kickback didn’t take long to strike, as a persistent critic at Stat picked at one troubled program while raising questions about the overall value of an entry-level approach focused on a high volume, low-margin business like vaccines.

After raising $1.9 billion from a host of deep-pocket investors and partners, the unicorn biotech has become the subject of intense interest, particularly in Boston biotech circles. And Moderna’s reluctance to detail its work in the past has left the biotech with a rep among some reporters as a secretive, punishing place that has seen off a string of staffers who couldn’t maintain the frenzied pace.

Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel, though, says that attack is unwarranted. His presentation at JP Morgan is intended to shine a light on what the company’s top prospects are as it preps for its first clinical data.

Bancel’s strategy is simple: Instead of focusing on a single lead effort, the private biotech chose to ramp up a full pipeline of clinical programs. If one falters, others can step up to make the case that mRNA is on its way to delivering a new approach to therapeutic development with a vast array of potential targets.

“People are going to realize one day that mRNA is a very good way to make medicines,” Bancel says. “We are playing a very long game, a 10, 20-year game. We are a very intense company. We want to get those drugs for patients.” And that means tackling diseases like Zika with their technology.

Moderna went after two pandemic flu strains early, says Bancel, so investigators could accurately measure antibody responses among treatment naive patients who had never been exposed to the virus. In addition to Zika there’s an undisclosed program partnered with Merck that’s now in the clinic and seven preclinical programs, including another Merck partnership on a personalized cancer vaccine.

One of the company’s most prominent critics, Stat’s Damian Garde, reported today that safety issues hobbled a therapy for Crigler-Najjar syndrome — partnered with Alexion — which Bancel promised a year ago would get into the clinic in 2016. That safety issue, Garde added, raised fresh questions about Moderna’s high-stakes gamble on mRNA, undermining its $5 billion valuation it has enjoyed while raising a mountain of cash.

Bancel tells me that a long-anticipated move to cash in on their valuation through an IPO, though, won’t be happening this year.

“We will not go public this year,” he tells me. “This has been discussed by the board. 2017 is not the right time. 2016 and ’17 is a critical time for the company to move from discovery to a development company with scale.”

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