Sunday, December 30, 2007

2008: The Year of the Liver

It is true that next year could bring the first human proof-of-concept for an RNAi therapeutic. But since results from the experimental infection studies for ALN-RSV01 were originally expected in late 2007 and the results would be an overhang of work done in ’07, I find it more appropriate to pick a fresh candidate. It is also true that the lung may rival the liver in the number of programs moving into the clinic in ‘08 given recent data that suggest delivery of siRNAs to the lung by nebulizer to be fairly innocuous, and the fact that AstraZeneca and GSK should be busy working in that area following their agreements with Silence and Sirna Therapeutics, respectively.

Nevertheless, I feel that most systematic progress has been made in delivering RNAi to the liver with more progress likely to follow. There have now been a fair number of publications that clearly show target-specific RNAi knockdown in the liver, unlike maybe some of the lung studies where there were occasional data interpretation issues. Of course, in declaring 2008 ‘The Year of the Liver’, I should disclose that I am somewhat biased due to the hepatotropic focus of the laboratory that I work in.

For siRNA-mediated RNAi in the liver, I currently see three front-runners, although it is possible that among the considerable work that is ongoing and not yet published, others have reached a similar stage of technological maturity. These are the in-famous SNALPs, Mirus Bio’s “Dynamic PolyConjugates”, and MIT’s lipidoids. SNALPs, being worked on by Protiva, Tekmira, Alnylam, and Sirna/Merck, are probably 12-18 months ahead of the game and best characterized, whereas the data on PolyConjugates and lipidoids are very promising, but still somewhat spotty.

SNALPs, stable nucleic acid lipid particles, are set to enter the clinic in 2008 with programs in hypercholesterolemia and liver cancer (both Alnylam) and possibly a clinical candidate chosen by Tekmira. The hypercholesterolemia program is also an opportunity to get an early measure of therapeutic efficacy, possibly in ‘08. Protiva’s and Sirna/Merck’s intentions are less clear and I believe that Big Pharma often chooses to keep phase I programs secret for competitive reasons, so that it is theoretically possible that Sirna has already entered the clinic or is about to do so with the long-anticipated SNALP RNAi for Hepatitis C.

It is obvious that there were some delays in bringing SNALP RNAi to the clinic, and I believe that this is largely due to dosing and safety issues. Both of these concerns may come down to the propensity of SNALP liposomes to be taken up by immune cells such as Kupffer cells in the liver and plasmacytoid dendritic cells which a) function like a sink for the liposomes when they enter the liver so that SNALPs become available for entering the desired hepatocytes only after the sink is saturated, something that complicates dosing; and b) increases the risk of triggering unwanted cytokine responses. I am optimistic, however, that by varying the composition of SNALPs, safe and efficacious formulations may be found, particularly if the liposome uptake mechanism by the professional immune surveillance system were to be different from that by the hepatocytes, which I think is quite reasonable to assume. I therefore hope that the fact that so many scientists are working on SNALP RNAi is a sign of its promise rather than desperation. As such, the number of R&D staff at Tekmira has more than doubled from 17 to 39 in the year ending September 2006 largely due to work on SNALPs.

As I have written before, I am much taken by Mirus’ PolyConjugate work, although this is based on only a single paper published in the middle of ‘07 (see 24 July 07 Blog: “Mirus Scientists Publish Elegant Paper on Targeted siRNA Delivery to Hepatocytes”). The neat aspect of that work was that it showed that it should be possible to avoid the Kupffer cells in the liver and specifically target hepatocytes for knockdown with the help of carbohydrate ligands (I am curious whether similar targeting ligands would also work in the context of other formulations). As we know, this work is partnered with Pfizer, and I wonder whether the upcoming loss of exclusive marketing rights for their wonder-drug Lipitor will spur them into action here.

I am still waiting for more data on lipidoid-mediated RNAi which hopefully will become available soon as was indicated in the footnotes of an October 2007 paper on the effect of siRNA delivery on microRNA function. From both a business and scientific perspective, it will be interesting to see whether Alnylam may choose lipidoids over SNALPs for its first liver RNAi programs and the overlap of SNALP and lipidoid both in IP and manufacturing terms.

The liver may get further attention from the targeting of microRNA-122 for the treatment of hypercholesterolemia and Hepatitis C, and other programs on targeting certain microRNAs for the treatment of hepatocellular carcinoma. There are various programs by Santaris, Regulus and others that have progressed into larger animals and we may even see a first IND being filed for one of these applications by the end of 2008. Development in the antisense field, particularly the partnering of ISIS’ mipomersen, should also generate heightened awareness for RNA-based therapeutics of liver disease.

Other predictions for 2008:

1) Unpredicted delivery technologies
2) Pfizer finally makes its move
3) News on RNAi for wet AMD- good and/or bad?
4) Protiva-Tekmira dispute resolved (wishful thinking)

For a nice presentation on the powers of SNALPs by Protiva chief scientist Ian MacLachlan, please visit:

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By Dirk Haussecker. All rights reserved.

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