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Woman of the Week: Alltrna’s Michelle Werner

Welcome to the Woman of the Week podcast, a weekly discussion that illuminates the unique stories of women leaders who are catalyzing change throughout the life sciences industry. You can check out all our podcast episodes here.

Michelle Werner’s ascension to the top spot at Alltrna, which bills itself as the “first tRNA platform company to decipher tRNA biology,” has been a career journey decades in the making. After holding senior-level late-stage development and commercialization roles at Novartis, AstraZeneca and Bristol Myers Squibb, what brought her to the start-up Flagship Pioneering company, where she is also a CEO-partner, was much more personal.

Three years ago, Werner’s son was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare and genetic disorder that triggers irreversible and progressive muscle weakening.

“This was a huge shock to my husband and I,” Werner said. “He’s just one of those unfortunate ones where he had a de novo mutation in the dystrophin gene, which causes this catastrophic diagnosis. I describe it as falling into a black hole for a period of time. It was hard to really think about what to do, and even just putting one foot in front of the other felt difficult at that time. My son’s diagnosis is certainly one of the main reasons why I decided to come to Alltrna because I was so inspired by our mission to make a difference for patients with rare and ultra-rare diseases.”

Because transfer RNA, or tRNA, plays a universal role in the protein translation process — no matter which gene, protein or mRNA — Wener said the company has the potential to create new modalities for rare genetic diseases.

“We are addressing a specific type of mutation called premature stop codon mutations, which occur in thousands of different diseases,” she said. “Our engineered tRNAs can bind that premature termination codon, know exactly what the instructions need to be for that next amino acid, and the translation process can continue as it normally would. And it can do that role across a number of different genes as long as that same mutation exists from gene to gene to gene, which it does.”

In addition to fostering an environment that allows for innovative science, Werner is excited by the prospect of structuring the company for long-term success based on a unified culture and vision.

“I’ve worked in big companies where all of that already existed, and so for the first time I have the opportunity to actually do this with the team directly, which is really fun,” she said.

In this episode of the Woman of the Week podcast, Werner, who spent most of her career in the oncology space working on immunotherapies and targeted therapies, talks about how this experience framed her perspective on developing a bold new future for patients, leadership strengths for managing through adversity, and why it’s critical that commercial and development teams work hand in hand.

Welcome to WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice powered by Industry Dive.

In this episode, Taren Grom, editor and chief emeritus at PharmaVoice, meets with Michelle Werner, CEO of Alltrna, and CEO-partner of Flagship Pioneering.

Taren: Michelle, welcome to the WoW podcast program.

Michelle: Well, thank you so much, Taren. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Taren: I’m eager to dig in with you. You joined Alltrna as CEO just about a year ago. Let’s start off, what has been your biggest challenge and your biggest ‘aha’ moment as CEO?

Michelle: So, for me, this has been a really wonderful experience so far. And it’s my first time in the CEO role, and so there’s been a lot of learning along the way about what it really takes to lead a startup biotech company like Alltrna. I’d say, for me, it’s really about shifting my mindset because I’ve spent much of my career in late-stage development and commercialization, and now I’m thrust into the exciting opportunity of being in the early stages of a company preclinical. And so for me, the biggest challenge really has been just to have a little bit of patience as we build the company and build the platform forward and because I’m so excited about what we’re doing and have quite a bit of ambition to be able to make a difference for patients, which is what it’s all about. So, for me, I’d say it’s really about just shifting my mindset that has been the biggest challenge, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job over the course of this year.

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