Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bristol-Myers Squibb Deal Further Positions Tekmira as RNAi Therapeutics Delivery Hub

Yesterday, Tekmira added Bristol-Myers Squibb to an already impressive line-up of RNAi Therapeutics delivery partners that further include Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, Roche, Merck, and Takeda. The new research collaboration specifically aims at developing SNALP RNAi for delivery beyond the liver. It follows a previously undisclosed target validation collaboration between BMS and former Protiva (now merged into New Tekmira), and is yet another vote of confidence for the clinical viability of SNALP RNAi delivery.

SNALP RNAi delivery is well validated for gene knockdown in the liver, including in non-human primates. Just this week, Alnylam published in the scientific journal PNAS the lowering of PCSK9, a cardiovascular disease target, in rodent and monkey liver using SNALP liposomes. For clarification purposes since there has been much confusion on the issue of SNALPs and lipidoids, while the particular SNALP formulation used in the publication contained lipidoids, lipidoids are just one of the various other lipids that could be used with SNALP technology. Moreover, Tekmira has non-exclusive access to lipidoids from the MIT via Alnylam in case they wanted to incorporate them into their own SNALPs.

Investing in SNALP delivery outside the liver (Tekmira expects to receive $450k from BMS for the second half of 2008) should therefore expand the therapeutic potential of this technology and directly aid the development of a broad and balanced Tekmira RNAi Therapeutics pipeline. Strategically, it should also provide Tekmira with a potential future development partner and access to disease know-how and gene targets.

Cancer is the most obvious non-liver target given what we know from the passive targeting of SNALP/liposomal particles to solid cancer tissues. Further validation for the concept of using liposomal RNAi delivery for cancer comes from plasmid delivery data from Tekmira itself and various liposomal RNAi publications by others. Some of that research made use of active tumor targeting, and it is not far-fetched that the research collaboration will also consider such active targeting strategies. These may also hold promise for indications outside solid cancer such as hematological malignancies, blood vessel-related disorders (e.g. cardiovascular/metabolic disorders), and immunological diseases.

Cancer and metabolic/cardiovascular disease would also make sense as the two focus areas of BMS research and development. While the scope of the Tekmira-BMS collaboration may indicate that the returns of investing in SNALP delivery to the liver are diminishing with first INDs expected to be filed within the next 12 months, it may also be interpreted as accommodating Alnylam or even point towards a follow-on deal with Alnylam which may not want to further dilute the perceived value of what it has granted its previous platform licensing partners.

Cancer on the other hand is a genetically highly diverse set of diseases, and with SNALP and RNAi, Big Pharma must feel like kids in a candy store with more than enough targets and unmet needs for everybody to pick from. One note of caution though is that while SNALP RNAi has demonstrated potent activity in pre-clinical models of liver cancer, much less is known about its actual knockdown activity in other cancer types. It will therefore be important to confirm the clinical feasibility of SNALP RNAi for cancer through conference presentations and scientific publications.

BMS’ decision, of course, has also to be seen as part of the rush by Big Pharma to transform themselves into developers of innovative biotech drugs. Offers by Roche and BMS itself for Genentech and Imclone, respectively, are just two recent high-profile examples. The deal also demonstrates BMS’ increasing commitment towards the RNAi platform. Only last year, BMS entered into an antisense collaboration with ISIS Pharmaceuticals for PCSK9 knockdown in cardiovascular disease. Interestingly, this was largely based on BMS’ successful validation of PCSK9 as a cardiovascular target using RNAi (and as we now know most likely SNALP-enabled as part of the BMS-Protiva target validation collaboration), data of which was presented at last year’s OTS meeting in Berlin. When asked why BMS decided on antisense, not RNAi in light of the impressive RNAi data presented, the response was that ISIS’ mipomersen represented clinical proof-of-concept that antisense could knock down genes in human liver. It now seems that like other pharmaceutical companies, positive experience with RNAi as a target validation tool has translated into embracing it as a therapeutic platform in its own right.

The one-million-dollar question weighing on the minds of Alnylam investors will be whether yesterday’s development heralds the next Alnylam platform alliance deal. In the past, partners tended to come to Tekmira as Alnylam sub-licensees. Although details of the deal are lacking, due to otherwise too many potential conflicts-of-interests and the importance of Alnylam to Tekmira, it is unlikely that BMS will turn out to be a Merck-like star in the Alnylam-Tekmira constellation. Given that Tekmira has inherited a number of additional technology feasibility partnerships with Big Pharma and biotech from Protiva, further such deals are likely to materialize with Tekmira functioning as one of Alnylam's baits.

An interesting aspect in this context is that the corresponding author of this week’s paper, Kevin Fitzgerald, came to Alnylam (leader of the oncology and cardiovascular/metabolic disease group) from BMS. At BMS, he had been part of the target validation group, very likely the same group that had been involved in the BMS-Protiva collaboration. Obviously, RNAi has not disappointed him, but beyond that, is this part of a larger puzzle?

Now that Tekmira has RNAi delivery partnerships with Alnylam, Roche, Merck, Takeda, and BMS, and more to come, the 100-employee strong Tekmira is slowly emerging as the RNAi Therapeutics delivery hub. This also starts to pay off financially with essentially no appreciable decrease in cash reserves over the last quarter. It will also be interesting whether Tekmira will pursue interests beyond liposomal RNAi delivery. Combining various delivery technologies into one operation, whether as an independent company or not, would have a number of synergies as many of the same questions need to be addressed with the different technologies.


Derek said...


I agree that Tekmira seems to be getting the most traction becoming an RNAi delivery hub. However, they only get a very small piece of the pie if and when any SNALP RNAi therapeutics are delivered. If I read correctly, I believe they get a maximum amount of $16MM per therapeutic (and that is only if cumulative sales break $500MM). It will take a lot of successful therapeutics for Tekmira to achieve a bump in valuation. Further handcuffing them, I would assume that anybody that deals with Alnylam will get the same license agreement with Tekmira.

One other comment and question. I see that Tekmira is pursuing their own ApoB program. Do they have a license from Alnylam to pursue ApoB with RNAi? Why are they doing this, if, as you said in an earlier post, ApoB seems to be an inferior target compared to PCSK9?


Anonymous said...

Derek: Tekmira receives up to US$16.0 million in "milestones" on each and every RNAi therapeutic advanced by Alnylam or its partners that utilizes the TKM's technology. Tekmira also gets royalties on product sales, with the $500 million hurdle you mention applying to royalties not milestones. So, assuming multiple drugs using SNALP get FDA approval, the potential payoff to Tekmira is enormous. My guess is Alnylam will buy Tekmira well before they pay much in milestones or any royalties.

Dirk Haussecker said...

You are right, it seems that TKM has limited strategic options following the Alnylam deal. BUT, in return they got 3 exclusive and 4 non-exclusive target picks from Alnylam, the real crown jewels of the deal. Everything else serves to fund TKM's own pipeline efforts in the least dilutive way possible.

In addition to the undisclosed royalties, Tekmira also gets funding through their research collaboration and manufacturing agreements. Taken all this together, the trickle adds up to quite a nice revenue stream as the unchanged cash balance over the last quarter supports. Equally important is that the research collaborations further Tekmira's own pipeline efforts.

As for ApoB vs PCSK9, I agree with you that PCSK9 is my personal favorite. But judging from the ISIS-Genzyme deal there is certainly interest in ApoB as a drug target and it is very common to see half the pharma world willing to pay for a clinically validated target.

Also, ApoB is the odd one out in the deal with Alnylam. All the target picks undergo a review process with Alnylam, the one exception being ApoB. My feeling is that Protiva and Alnylam once competed on ApoB and this, in addition to the certainly credible scientific arguments, led Alnylam to have a slightly negative view on the program last summer when there was a whirlwind of activity around Tekmira-Protiva-Alnylam-Merck. It is also possible that the exception is a result of one of Alnylam's other partners, e.g. Novartis, having already selected ApoB.

Anonymous said...

Derek is correct actually.

It is 16M in milestones, out of which 4.5M are linked to pre-approval events and the balance due upon the 500M cummulative sales hurdle.

The royalties are mid-single digits and not subject to the 500M hurdle.

(see p. 40 of the prospectus)

I tend to agree that TKM does not get a very big piece of the pie here but the pie could eventually get quite big.

You also need to put this in perspective with the strategic benefit derived by TKM in terms of positioning itself in the RNAi field in that, thru ALNY, big pharma seriously developing RNAi will have access to and the opportunity to embrace TKM's technology. This creates a market for any improvements that TKM may develop (note that with respect to any IP created after 9 October 2008, ALNY's license is nonexclusive which means TKM can sell improvements directly). Finally, one should not underestimate the value of the 7 target picks that TKM received. These can be used by TKM to forge product-specific partnerships with big pharma that do not otherwise have access to ALNY's fundamental IP.


Dirk Haussecker said...

Martin- thank you for your perspectives. Just to add to your observation that Tekmira's market potential is larger than it sometimes appears to be. Not only is Alnylam Tekmira's best marketing partner for RNAi Therapeutics, Tekmira's technology is also highly relevant to small molecule and large DNA delivery and this could be monetized on Tekmira's terms only.

As an investor in Tekmira, at this point I am quite satisfied with their business strategy and position, and it's now up to their scientific and clinical execution.

Anonymous said...

Dirk, I have a question related to TKM's ApoB SANLP program that you discuss above.

Recently, ISIS was issued a patent that ISIS claims is very broad and covers any ApoB targeting. Do you know if this patent also covers ApoB targeting through RNAi mechanism of action? If so, TKM will presumably have to go to ISIS for a license at some point.


Anonymous said...

Dirk Haussecker said...

Martin- I will address the ApoB patent issue in my next entry. ISIS certainly emphasized the "double-stranded antisense" (??) in the press release quite a bit.

Anonymous- Thanks for the interesting article. With regard to the application of RNAi Therapeutics, I do not think that it will complicate matters too much. Merck and others e.g. are well aware that many of the future RNAi targets will require a good understanding of gene networks, so that's already being taken into account.
With regards to IP, I would still think gene-specific patents are reasonable, but maybe in 10-20 years our perception of genetics has changed so much that it is networks that will be the focus of IP claims.

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