Oncorus poaches Moderna cancer executive Ted Ashburn as CEO | Tech Science

The 2016 Fierce 15 winner Oncorus has nabbed Moderna’s head of oncology development, Theodore () T. Ashburn, M.D., Ph.D., as its new chief executive and president.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based oncolytic virus biotech says that former CEO Mitchell Finer, Ph.D., also the company’s co-founder and MPM capital managing director, will now become executive chairman, succeeding MPM Capital co-founder Luke B. Evnin, Ph.D., who will continue to serve on Oncorus’ board.

Ashburn, who’s also had stints at Dicerna, Sanofi Oncology, Genzyme and Pfizer, will “leverage his leadership experience […] to guide Oncorus’ current development programs and drive strategic initiatives that advance the company’s leadership in the field of therapeutic oncolytic viruses,” the company says in a statement.

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The Celgene-backed startup got off a $57 million series A back in 2016 and earned the title of Fierce 15 winner that year for its work on next-gen oncolytic viruses to treat a range of cancers, including a type of brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM)one of the toughest oncology targets out there, with low treatment success rates.

Its immunotherapy platform uses next-generation oncolytic herpes simplex virus. The company is based on patent rights from the University of Pittsburgh based on the work of Joseph Glorioso III and Paola Grandi.

This is one of a new class of cancer therapies, although one that has seen some clinical setbacks and a weak showing when on the market.

Back in October 2015, Amgen gained FDA approval for the first oncolytic virus-based drug, Imlygic (talimogene laherparepvec), for the treatment of melanoma lesions in the skin and lymph nodes.

Amgen gained access to the drug, which uses a re-engineered form of the herpesvirus, in 2011, when it paid $425 million, plus $575 million in potential milestone payments, to acquire Imlygic from its original inventor Biovex.

Amgen’s drug however had a rocky road to approval with several trial hiccoughs and is estimated by analysts to only make around $200 million a year in peak sales.

A handful of other smaller biotechs and pharmas, such as upstarts Turnstone Biologics and of course Oncorus, as well as Big Pharma Boehringer and even Duke University, are also looking to create similar therapies, with stronger modes of actions and better sales potential.

But this departure now leaves Moderna without Ashburn’s experience, as he exits the private biotech with a billion-dollar valuation as it begins work on new cancer vaccines, including a recent expanded R&D partnership with Merck.

RELATED: Moderna grabs $125M in expanded Merck collaboration

According to Ashburn’s LinkedIn profile, he’s had his position at Moderna for around 11 months, after spending around 18 months as its head of operations at Caperna, a Moderna venture focused on personalized cancer vaccines.

This also comes amid some changes at Moderna this year, as well as ongoing investigations into its working practices, and whether it can match its promise and value with , from STAT, as well as questions over what has been a fairly secretive setup.  

Just over a year ago, the mRNA biotech said it “decided to move from its venture-based R&D model to a therapeutic area R&D model,” bringing four former units back under one umbrella corp.

The company said: “We’ve decided to set aside our venture model (i.e., names and branding going away) in favor of ‘Therapeutic Area’ R&D. There will be three main TAs: infectious diseases, immuno-oncology and rare diseases.

“As we continue to progress more programs into and through the clinic, the ventures were inadvertently creating unnecessary silos given all the sharing we do across programs since we’re all based on a common platform.”

The company said this would not involve any job/headcount cuts from the mini startups.

“More just changing reporting structures internally to allow more cross-team collaboration. And then no more venture brands,” as Valera, Elpidera, Onkaido, and Caperna, Ashburn’s old company, will all be dissolved. “All just one Moderna,” the company said.

His former employer had little to say to FierceBiotech on his exit, and when asked why he left, and who will be replacing him, the company simply said: “We wish Ted the very best leading his new venture and appreciate his contributions to Moderna.”

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