Saturday, June 28, 2008
Alnylam’s RSV Program Causes Excitement Among Lung Transplant Surgeons- An Example for a Shrewd RNAi Therapeutics Development Strategy?
Despite close to half a century of lung transplantation, with more than 2000 procedures performed annually world-wide, there has been very little progress in the 2-5 year morbidity and mortality, meaning that less than half of transplant recipients survive beyond 5 years. Community-acquired viral infections in the immuno-suppressed patients are responsible for roughly a third of such chronic rejection and declining lung function cases, with the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) clearly topping the list.
Stanford is a fairly large lung transplant center, and the situation is not much different here. The seminar I attended concerned a review of the history of 25 lung transplant patients that had acquired either RSV or paraflu viral infections (23 of which with RSV) and were treated with the broad-spectrum antiviral ribavirin either alone or in addition to pavlizumab, a neutralizing antibody that is normally used for and really only effective in the prophylaxis of RSV.
Without going into the details, at the end of the presentation it was clear that, in the absence of any effective treatment, ribavirin and pavlizumab are given as a last resort and desperate effort (yes, despite of what you read in the press these days, these people really seem to care about improving the health of their patients) to make a dent against RSV, but that nobody was really convinced that this would more good than harm. Actually, inhaled ribavirin is even considered a safety hazard to attending nurses and docs.
Then suddenly, there was a commotion in the room as somebody mentioned the word “s-i-r-n-a”. Wasn’t there something in clinical trials right now that would attack the virus directly, a treatment that would even work in immuno-compromised patients? And yes, hadn’t it shown already some kind of antiviral activity in the clinic? Wow, maybe we should give it a try- anything that had been shown anywhere to inhibit RSV in man… There was a lot of excitement and confusion, for example about the mechanism of action, and "some commercial company” was mentioned. Probably worth revisiting.
This experience told me that, no, I am not living in an RNAi Therapeutics bubble, but that RNAi Therapeutics slowly, but surely is making its way into mainstream medicine. Given that there was confusion about what exactly RNAi was even among Stanford lung transplant surgeons, maybe some education would help. A better understanding should also help in recruiting the best centers for clinical trials and consequently facilitate drug development, and maybe if Alnylam reads this, they may want to approach them and spend a couple of minutes educating them what ALN-RSV01 is about. I'm confident they would find receptive ears.
It also changed my view about the prospect for ALN-RSV01 and the development path Alnylam has taken. It is clear that the experimental infection model studies were not, as sometimes criticized, an advertisement ploy irrelevant to the development path and future use of ALN-RSV01. With no alternatives, it appears that having shown some type of antiviral activity, ALN-RSV01, similar to ribavirin, could be widely applied for the treatment of RSV infection even if only approved for a small sub-population of RSV patients.
Testing ALN-RSV01 in the lung transplant setting therefore makes a lot of sense, as this may turn out to be the setting where ALN-RSV01 could be approved first. Lung transplant patients have the highest medical need for such a treatment, even more so than other immuno-suppressed transplant patients as the infection affects the graft itself and may lead to graft failure. Moreover, any type of therapy that depends on the immune system is unlikely to work in this setting due to the immuno-suppression therefore increasing the competitiveness of an RNAi Therapeutics. As the early detection of RSV should be critical for the success of ALN-RSV01, the fact that lung transplant patients are regularly monitored for and highly sensitized to the possibility of RSV infections is highly advantageous. And finally, as I learned this Friday, the viral shedding of RSV is prolonged in immuno-suppressed patients, meaning that instead of the typical 5 day RSV infection window, ALN-RSV01 gets more time to attack RSV. An interesting aside to the immuno-suppression theme here is that any efficacy of ALN-RSV01 would be much less likely due to non-specific immune responses elicited by the unmodified siRNA.
When the RNAi Therapeutics story has have been written and taught in business schools, one of the main lessons for which ALN-RSV01 could be a prime example should be that by applying innovation to areas of large medical unmet need, a sweet spot can easily develop into a large market opportunity. Due to its unique mechanism of action, RNAi Therapeutics is ideally positioned to repeatedly take advantage of that strategy.
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