Thursday, September 27, 2007

Nature Publishes Reassuring Study by Alnylam on the in vivo Delivery of siRNAs and their Effect on the Endogenous microRNA Pathway

Given that therapeutic RNAi takes advantage of an endogenous biological pathway, the introduction of very high levels of small RNAs certainly has the potential to interfere with related small RNA pathways, such as microRNA function.

Indeed, competition with the microRNA pathway in vivo which in some cases caused the death of mice, were first reported in a study by Grimm and colleagues in the journal Nature last year. Ironically, rather than a demonstrating a failure of the viral delivery system used in that study, it was the extreme efficiency with which small RNAs could be expressed with the double-stranded AAV vectors that allowed the competition to be observed. In what is an often overlooked aspect of these studies, compared to non-viral delivery methods, silencing efficiencies of over 95% can be easily achieved with these vectors at doses that have no adverse effects on either the microRNA pathway or the viability of mice.

In an ideal world, the Grimm et al. studies would have been embraced as an opportunity to study the dose-limiting steps of therapeutic RNAi to inform future RNAi therapeutics strategies. Instead, as the Press lives from feeding the public the simple messages, rather than reporting complicated truths, it decided to label the studies as yet another example of the dangers of gene therapy, and - somewhat understandably- caused some companies involved in developing RNAi Therapeutics to distance themselves from DNA-directed RNAi for political reasons.

As the trusted leader of RNAi Therapeutics, Alnylam was therefore given the platform to reassure the RNAi community this week in Nature that, unlike AAV-RNAi, liposomally delivered siRNAs had no obvious adverse effects on the endogenous microRNA pathway (John et al., 2007). The study further highlighted that liposomal siRNA delivery has advanced to a point where around 80% gene silencing in hepatocytes can routinely be achieved following systemic administration of therapeutically viable doses of siRNAs, including their repeat administration.

Although I welcome Nature’s decision to document progress in the important area of RNAi therapeutics, and understand Alnylam’s desire to publish in the highest profile journals, I would like to take this opportunity to address a few misconceptions about the studies. One important misconception is that delivering RNAi with AAV per se is more toxic. To make this point, a direct comparison of the intrahepatic levels of small RNA levels following both routes of administration would have been necessary. Given the >99% transduction efficiency of double-stranded AAV in mice and the consequently extremely high gene silencing efficiencies, it is quite likely that double-strand AAV vectors are currently the most potent delivery system to the liver in terms of small RNA delivery and gene knockdown.

I would therefore not be surprised at all to see similar competition with microRNA function following administration of very high siRNA dosages. This is supported by numerous studies that have shown competition for gene silencing when very high levels of two or more siRNAs were introduced simultaneously into tissue culture cells. However, given the ability of hundreds of microRNAs to function in a given cell at any time, such observations represent only extreme cases and suggest a wide therapeutic index. Unfortunately, the relatively small range of doses used in the John et al. studies (2mg/kg to 5mg/kg) did allow for a careful evaluation of related competition in vivo and concomitant dose-limiting toxicities.

I guess the purpose of this Blog really is my plea to the field of RNAi Therapeutics to keep learning from each other, instead of letting the Press and uninformed “analysts” play on the fears of investors, through their indiscriminate use of buzzwords, thereby polarising and separating what really belongs together. In this spirit, I would like to stress that this study is yet another proof-point of the viability of RNAi for therapy leading up to the possibly first proof-of-concept gene silencing results in Man to be revealed in the coming months- once again by Alnylam.

PS: Although a combination of liposomal delivery methods were used in these studies, the details were not disclosed. Apparently, another study on lipidoid-delivered siRNAs, a technology developed by the Langer and Anderson groups at the MIT, has been submitted to Nature Biotech and is about to be published. Lipidoids differ slightly from the Tekmira-owned SNALP technology, and looks likely to be the technology used for Alnylam’s first clinical systemic RNAi program (liver cancer or hypercholesterolemia), for which an IND is expected by the end of 2007. More than knockdown efficiency, we should be looking for the toxicity profile as I regard this to be the big unknown that will determine the success of this program, particularly if it turns out to be for hypercholesterolemia.


Enumerate said...

Following your blog on RNAi and microRNA. Just wondering if you have much exposure to the Australian CSIRO work on ddRNA/shRNA and Hellsgate delivery vectors?

As you are at Stanford - I expect you are well aware of G Kay and the HCV therapy being readied for IND by Tacere?

Dirk Haussecker said...

Good questions. Please understand, however, that I would rather not comment on this issue since this involves my PI, Mark Kay, and I would not like to interfere here.

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