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Novartis’ Bradner steps down as research head amid company shake-up

Jay Bradner is stepping down as head of the Novartis Institutes of BioMedical Research after more than six years steering the Swiss pharmaceutical company’s efforts to reinvigorate its drug research.

In a statement Thursday, Novartis said Bradner will leave his post on the company’s executive committee on Oct. 31. He will be replaced by Fiona Marshall, a drug discovery and development executive at Merck & Co. who will begin running NIBR in November and report to Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan.

“I am very excited to join Novartis and lead the discovery teams who are renowned for their collaborative research and use of cutting-edge technologies,” said Marshall, in the announcement.

Bradner did not say what led to his decision or indicate where he will head next. “Leading NIBR has been a privilege for which I will forever be grateful,” he wrote in a post on LinkedIn. “I look forward to continuing to provide scientific contribution and leadership beyond Novartis and will continue to be laser-focused on delivering definitive medicines for life-threatening diseases. More to follow.”

A chemical biologist by training and co-founder of several biotechnology startups, Bradner was an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and a laboratory head at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute when he took over NIBR, the company’s Cambridge, Massachusetts-based research hub, in March 2016. Bradner succeeded the organization’s longtime leader Mark Fishman and has overseen its drug discovery and early clinical development efforts since.

During Bradner’s tenure, Novartis dove deeper into cancer research, while shaking up its R&D organization. Novartis has pursued new approaches to gene therapy and cancer cell therapies, too. One recent initiative is looking into faster ways to manufacture the personalized CAR-T treatments Novartis specializes in.

Novartis has also invested heavily in what Bradner has termed “disruptive next-generation therapies.” Alliances with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Precision BioSciences aim to develop what would be a more convenient and accessible genetic medicine for sickle cell disease than ones currently in testing.

During his time at NIBR, Bradner also tried to make Novartis more open to startups and change what had been a bureaucratic and slow-moving culture at the Swiss company. In an interview in 2019, he noted how a startup he had founded “came to Novartis, got beaten up, and got sent home with a black eye.”

“[Novartis] had some tough personalities around the table,” he said at the time, adding that he and his colleagues were working to change that perception.

Investments in early research point to some success on that front. The company has acquired venture capital-backed startups like gene therapy developer Vedere Bio and neuroscience drug developer Cadent Therapeutics. It partnered with startup Artios Pharma in a deal focused on “synthetic lethality,” a way of using drugs to exploit genetic vulnerabilities in cancer cells. It also worked with Blackstone to form and fund a heart disease startup, Anthos Therapeutics, and has struck academic partnerships with researchers at Harvard, the Wyss Institute, Mass. Eye & Ear and others.

In the LinkedIn post, Bradner pointed to applications to bring 75 new drugs into human testing and 90 proof-of-concept studies as evidence that NIBR has become a “productive and impactful” research organization.

“I am deeply grateful to Jay for his invaluable contributions to reimagining how we discover innovative medicines, recruiting world-class scientific leaders and expanding our collaborations with leading biotech companies and academic institutions,” Narasimhan said in a statement.

Bradner’s decision to step aside comes during a broader organizational shake-up within Novartis, which this year has detailed plans to lay off up to 8,000 workers amid a yearslong effort to slim down its operations. The company has reshuffled its top leadership and already announced the departures of three other top executives, among them chief medical officer John Tsai.

Bradner’s replacement, Merck’s Marshall, was a founder and former chief scientific officer of Heptares Therapeutics, which Sosei Co. acquired in 2015. She previously held executive positions at Millennium Pharmaceuticals and GSK.