Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A new player in RNAi Therapeutics: Dicerna Pharmaceuticals

IN VIVO Blog ( reported today that a new RNAi Therapeutics company, Dicerna Pharmaceuticals, is about to debut. According to the same source, a $13M Series A financing round is expected to be announced in November. This company is aptly named after an enzyme in the RNAi pathway, as it is founded on the slightly unorthodox way to induce RNAi by providing synthetic Dicer-substrate siRNAs (D-siRNAs) of 26-30bp in length to effect gene silencing.

Dicer is this cool enzyme that digests ('dicerna' in Malay means: 'digested') long double-stranded RNAs into the shorter 21-23bp siRNAs with 3’ overhangs, the structure discovered by Tuschl and colleagues to efficiently induce gene silencing by RNAi in mammalian cells. Once delivered inside the cells, D-siRNAs are then processed by Dicer into 21-23bp effector siRNAs which then are incorporated into the RiSC complex to mediate gene silencing. Tuschl-like 21-23bp siRNAs are currently by far the most widely used method of inducing RNAi in human cells and fairly well understood.

In an elegant Nature Biotech paper in 2005 (Kim et al.: “Synthetic dsRNA Dicer substrates enhance RNAi potency and efficacy”), Drs. Kim and Rossi from the City of Hope, in collaboration with Mark Behlke from the nucleic acids synthesis company IDT, found that D-siRNAs can effect remarkably potent RNAi in human cell culture, often more potent than siRNAs of the same sequence. Importantly, in this and follow-up work they worked out some of the basic rules that would make D-siRNAs more practical inducers of RNAi such as better predicting strand incorporation and blocking one end of the dsRNA with non-RNA residues and modifications to force directional Dicer processing.

This Nature Biotech paper was accompanied by a similar paper from the Hannon group in Cold Spring Harbor which found that DNA-directed small hairpin RNAs (shRNAs) with double-stranded RNA stems longer than minimal 19-21base pairs similarly make them often more potent inducers of RNAi. Like Rossi and colleagues, it was speculated that this is due to biochemical coupling of Dicer processing to the RiSC effector complex. In addition to certain advantages in terms of potency, which I feel need further validation on a larger scale, D-siRNAs may in some instances facilitate RNAi delivery where covalent linkage of parts of the RNAi delivery system with D-siRNA is helpful as the active siRNA would be freed from the carrier by Dicer cleavage, although again it remains to be shown that the covalent attachment of e.g. peptides by itself is not inhibitory to Dicer processing.

[Erratum: The 2005 Hannon paper described the use of synthetic, not DNA-directed hairpins, with extended duplex length.]

In addition to these potential biological advantages, certainly a big part of the motivation that went into founding the company from an investors’ perspective is that Dicerna should be sufficiently distinct from the Tuschl siRNAs, a space clearly dominated both in terms of IP and know-how by Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. One can therefore expect that the new chairman and co-founder Douglas Fambrough from Oxford Bioscience Partners will do his best to make Dicerna his second Sirna Therapeutics, which he and his partners sold to Merck last year for a whopping return on their investment.

However, like with Sirna Therapeutics his claims of having freedom-to-operate will likely be clouded by uncertainty as there are a number of areas where Alnylam’s pre-dating IP will significantly overlap with Dicerna’s claims. This is not helped by comments, also cited in the IN VIVO Blog, of new CEO James Jenson stating that Tuschl’s landmark work had been conducted in flies, when Tuschl II –which by the way has issued and is exclusively licensed to Alnylam- is all about RNAi in mammalian cells, all this after laying the groundwork in work described in Tuschl I (also claimed by Sirna and CytRx, but has not issued) through amazing biochemical work in flies: Tuschl the prolific!

Importantly, Tuschl’s work as described in Tuschl II essentially discovered that RNAi operates in mammals and defined the basic rules of synthetic siRNAs. This, in my mind, should go a long way in the patent courts. In its worst case, D-siRNAs could therefore be regarded as simple pro-drugs of siRNAs. This also includes the 3’end overhangs which are thought to be beneficial for D-siRNAs since they are an important recognition element for Dicer.

Kreutzer-Limmer is another important cornerstone of Alnylam’s IP strategy, indeed important enough for them to buy the company (Ribopharma AG) that owned it very early on. Kreutzer-Limmer pertains to dsRNA-mediated gene silencing in mammalian cells, including predicted Dicer substrates, and although less well known in the scientific community due to lack of scientific publication, it is actually thought to have been the first demonstration of such gene silencing. Scientifically, my heart is with Tuschl’s detailed work, but Alnylam played it safe by just removing the uncertainty.

In addition, I would not be surprised if there wasn’t a note-book entry or publication that made use of long siRNAs either by design or accident. This would not be unlike early in the shRNA arena where scientists have made use of shRNAs with minimal and relatively long dsRNA stems alike.

Practically, the relatively small field of D-siRNAs will have to achieve what thousands of researchers around the world have done for siRNAs, namely coming up with siRNA design rules that consider all of potency, off-targeting potential, and the induction cytokines, as Rossi’s work has shown that these rules may differ from that of siRNAs. For these and other reason, I expect the complexity of developing D-siRNA therapeutics to be probably increased.

Nevertheless, I am curious to see more data come out that carefully characterize and compare the potencies of siRNAs and D-siRNAs. Comparative gene tiling studies would be an obvious experiment. This reminds me of the finding of hyperfunctional siRNAs, i.e. the odd siRNA that will be active in the low to mid picomolar range, and I could imagine a situation where efforts to find such siRNAs prove difficult for certain genes, while a D-siRNA is hyperfunctional, and vice versa.

I certainly look forward to Dicerna as a new member of the RNAi Therapeutics community. The science is certainly sound and innovative, and should be tested for use as a human therapy, which we all know would not happen without patent protection.

PS: This new development makes me wonder where that leaves Nastech Pharmaceuticals which has built so much of their RNAi program on Dicer substrates and is about to spin out mdRNA as their pure play RNAi Therapeutics subsidiary. It is clear that COH granted them 5 exclusive targets, but I am less sure about the other rights to Dicer substrates they had obtained.

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By Dirk Haussecker. All rights reserved.

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