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Moderna Chief Medical Officer Paul Burton looks to build on culture of innovation and speed to advance COVID-19 vaccine and develop new therapies based on its novel mRNA platform, spreading hope to patients around the world.
Sitting by his father’s side as a child, learning how to woodwork, Paul Burton didn’t realize the valuable lessons he was absorbing. His interest in crafting objects fostered an interest in surgery, and the skills he acquired through furniture-making would even translate later into drug development.
“You have to think the whole process through,” says Burton, who became chief medical officer of Moderna in July. “You can’t go from point to point to point, because you’ll get to the end and then realize something won’t work. That is drug development. You cannot think about Phase I and II and III. You have to have a high-level, holistic view of exactly who the patient is at the end, who you’re trying to solve a problem for, and really understand what medicine or development plan needs to be created that’s going to fix their issue.”
After earning his Doctor of Medicine from the University of London, Burton received a PhD in cardiovascular molecular and cellular biology from Imperial College in London. He is board certified in surgery and is a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons, with specialist training in cardiothoracic surgery. He is also a Fellow of the American College of Cardiology.
Burton looks fondly at his early years as a cardiologist and surgeon, saying it taught him two valuable lessons—resilience and humility. “You see people receiving terrible diagnoses, and you often cannot bring therapies and treatments to them,” he says. “You can’t cure everybody, and I think of those patients every day. That’s what drives me. It’s difficult training as well. Being in this industry, if you’re really going to make a difference, it’s very hard. People don’t always understand the hours you put in, the dedication, the training. So having that very intense medical training was a good background.”
It wasn’t until Burton was pursuing his PhD that he realized the world of opportunity pharma afforded. “If I was really going to make a difference in patient’s lives, then the biopharmaceutical world was the place to do that,” he says. “It was the entrepreneurial, science-based approach of Immunex that was so attractive, coupled with its amazing people.”
After becoming a staff scientist at Immunex, Burton held positions at Amgen and Millennium Pharmaceuticals, then Johnson & Johnson, where he spent 16 years of his career. Most recently, he was chief global medical affairs officer of Janssen, where he was responsible for worldwide medical affairs strategy and execution.
Burton’s training and experience have exposed him to many different areas of development, clinical operations, and medical affairs. He now brings the sum of that knowledge to Moderna. “Drug development really is an apprenticeship,” he says. “No matter how much you think you’re prepared for it or how smart you are, it isn’t something you can just go into and do. You need to have seen it, done it, taught others, and learned from great people. I’ve been privileged to have had amazing training at J&J, Millennium, and Amgen. I’ve been able to learn from highly experienced drug developers, which has prepared me for this role.”
As Moderna’s CMO, Burton now oversees medical affairs and safety. He knows his work is cut out for him as the company advances its COVID vaccine and pursues new therapeutic avenues based on its novel messenger RNA (mRNA) technology. But he is using the attention as much as possible to help provide confidence in vaccination, educate in the mRNA platform, and develop more research in this area, to help as many people around the world as possible.
“The platform is a remarkable therapeutic, prophylactic opportunity to potentially treat so many diseases worldwide,” he says. “It’s clearly shown itself to be highly effective in the setting of COVID. But what is so important is the speed and adaptability of it. In the setting of global public health, it’s a hugely important tool.”
Moderna’s goals are currently centered on stopping hospitalizations and deaths due to respiratory viruses like COVID-19 and influenza, thwarting the devastating impact of viruses such as cytomegalovirus, and using the mRNA platform not only to prevent but also therapeutically treat diseases, including rare diseases, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.
“By doing this, we hope to help people live longer, healthier lives,” says Burton. “The next phase is to continue to expand into other areas of unmet medical need and develop our therapeutic modalities around mRNA.”
Burton realizes collaboration is key in these efforts. Its partnering with governments around the world regarding the provision and supply of its COVID vaccine has become a critical component to the global fight against COVID. As an extension of pandemic response, the company announced a collaboration with the Canadian government in August, to build a state-of-the-art mRNA vaccine manufacturing facility in Canada, including access to Moderna’s mRNA development engine. The goals of the agreement are to support Canada with direct access to rapid pandemic response capabilities and to provide access to Moderna’s vaccines in development for respiratory viruses.
Looking beyond pandemic preparedness, the company recently announced a collaboration with the Institute for Life Changing Medicines to help develop a therapeutic for an ultra-rare disease, Crigler-Najjar syndrome, with no upfront fees and without any downstream payments.
Another area of collaboration that Burton sees as ripe for growth is the integration of data science and digital technologies with pharma. “Many companies are working on this, and I believe it is a critical area of opportunity,” he says. “Digital algorithms, based on large data sets, can markedly improve the speed and accuracy as well as treatment choice selection for many different diseases.”
As Burton settles into Moderna, he ponders what it takes to be an effective CMO in this day and age. “Being entrepreneurial is very important, and of course being science-based and focused on the details of the clinical science we produce,”
he says. “Keeping the needs of people and patients at the center of what we do is also critically important for success.”
He believes in the saying “flower where you are planted,” and feels it is important to focus on the job at hand in order to excel in that specific area. He also values focusing on priorities. Right now, he’s looking at what needs to get accomplished in the next 12 to 24 months and plans to dedicate his efforts to that, without distraction.
No matter the task at hand, Burton strives to produce the best work he possibly can. “People and patients are really depending on us, especially people who have run out of options and time,” he says. “Those people need us to do quality work, quickly and collaboratively.”
Bringing Moderna’s platform to programs beyond COVID, to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, is something that “obsesses” Burton. He is currently analyzing the most efficient development programs and ways to translate the data into knowledge that patients, physicians, payers, systems, and governments can then take and use to implement Moderna’s therapeutics to bring about change in clinical outcomes.
“Data are ones and zeros, we produce a lot of it, this industry produces a lot of it,” he says. “But it’s on me and us as an industry to translate those data into knowledge that people can use to then drive outcome. That’s what I think about all the time. How can we help systems today to be more efficient and to bring better outcomes for patients?”
In order to reach patients quickly, you need speed, and that’s something which drew Burton to Moderna. “The platform has massive optionality for different diseases and unbridled ambition to bring that to help as many people as possible. That’s a similar mantra of many companies in our industry, but Moderna has this amazing passion to bring this new technology. It really is a revolution for us. We’re building on the shoulders of giants who have brought this technology to life. But for patients to now have a whole new avenue, a whole new suite of therapeutics, of vaccines, it’s just an incredibly exciting opportunity.”
Burton sees Moderna as being small enough, nimble enough, and unencumbered by decades of history that might bog down progress, to succeed in this mission. “We’re still young enough to be able to say, ‘Our North Star is over there, and we’re going to go after it,’” he says. “And that’s what we’re doing.”
Being dedicated to a career mission and his family doesn’t leave much opportunity for personal pursuits, but Burton does enjoy finding some quiet time to keep up with his furniture-making. He has now taken on the role of teacher, however, having shared his craftsmanship with his own children at the workshop bench when they were smaller.
“It is so important in our intense industry to have some kind of release that is very different,” he says. “For me, that’s always been being able to woodwork. I am not particularly good—it’s more like joinery rather than fine woodworking—but I love nothing more than the idea of making a table or a bench or something like that.”
Whether creating furniture or new drugs, Burton enjoys the entire process and being able to, in the end, deliver a product that people find useful.
Elaine Quilici is a Senior Editor for Pharm Exec. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.