Moderna's Oncology Boss Reportedly Leaving Company

Moderna’s Oncology Boss Reportedly Leaving Company February 21, 2017
By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

According to STAT, Stephen Kelsey, director of Moderna’s oncology division, is leaving for a California startup.

Kelsey joined Moderna as president of Onkaido Therapeutics in July 2014, Moderna’s oncology drug development company. Onkaido was launched in January 2014, Moderna’s first venture company.

Prior to joining Moderna, Kelsey was senior vice president of New Projects at Medivation . Before that, he was executive vice president, Research and Development and chief medical officer at Geron Corporation . From 2002 through 2009, he was vice president of Oncology at Genentech . Kelsey received his MD from the University of Birmingham, UK, and is a fellow of both the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Pathologists, UK.

If news of Kelsey’s leaving is accurate, it’s yet another example of the company’s brain drain in recent years. In September 2016, STAT ran a lengthy, gossipy profile of the company that portrayed Moderna as either an early version of Steve JobsApple with a “we’re-going-to-be-incredibly-great” attitude, or a company that’s based on difficult, questionable technology and an overly demanding top executive with delusions of grandeur.

STAT had interviewed over 20 former and current employees, who overall painted a picture of a “caustic work environment (that) has for years driven away top talent and that behind its obsession with secrecy, there are signs Moderna has run into roadblocks with its most ambitious projects.”

Over the last four years, the heads of the company’s finance department, technology division, manufacturing, and science left. In the last fifteen or sixteen months, the heads of its cancer and rare disease programs resigned. Both had been with the company less than a year-and-a-half.

One of the notable exits was Joseph Bolen, who joined the company in 2013 to head its research-and-development activities. He is an experienced chief scientific officer who was behind Millennium Pharmaceuticals’ blockbuster drug Velcade. He now chief scientific officer of PureTech Health .

Most recently, Moderna ran into a potentially significant legal problem. A British Columbia Supreme Court Justice, Dev Dley, granted a Canadian company, Arbutus Biopharma, a pre-trial injunction that stops another very small company, Acuitus, from sublicensing Arbutus’ lipid nanoparticle delivery technology until at least the end of October.

Acuitas sublicensed that technology to Moderna four times. And it seems that Moderna is using that technology for two of its leading products currently in clinical trials. Forbes wrote in mid-February, “The ruling also makes clear that Judge Dley believes that Acuitas was never authorized to sublicense Arbutus’ delivery system for use in vaccines. The first two products Moderna put in human trials were vaccines and four of the five products Moderna has in the clinic are vaccines.”

Stephane Bancel, Moderna’s chief executive officer, has said before that Moderna doesn’t use Acuitas’ delivery system for its new drugs. He also claims that the company was developing its own delivery system as well as licensing another from Merck . Forbes contacted Moderna about the most recent court ruling, and the company said, “the injunction does not affect our agreements with Acuitas.”

Arbutus, however, claims that Acuitas doesn’t have the right to sublicense Arbutus’ technology for vaccines. Judge Dley, in his opinion, wrote, “I agree that Arbutus has a strong case. Acuitas has sub-licensed Arbutus’ technology with respect to vaccines when such vaccines fall outside the provisions of the cross-license agreement.”

It’s not clear if this is a real problem for Moderna. It has been pointed out that, although Moderna claims that its own technology is superior, it continues to use Acuitas/Arbutus technology for some of its products. It’s also puzzling why Moderna sublicensed the technology from Acuitas rather than directly from Arbutus.

Moderna focuses on messenger RNA (mRNA) products, and has more than 12 development candidates, which include vaccines and therapeutics in infectious diseases, immuno-oncology and cardiovascular diseases.

The delivery technology involved in the licensing dispute is how the mRNA is delivered into the cells, where it can then take over and start churning out whatever products it is engineered to deliver.

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