Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The RNAi Therapeutics Blog Will Take a Break

While on vacation (and far away from the financial markets mess…), I had plenty of time to re-prioritize my research and investment efforts.  To my pleasant surprise, the blog has turned out to be a very rich (not monetary) experience for me with many new contacts that allowed me to learn about the various aspects of biotech R&D and financing. Thank you for this! 

As I don’t know how long I will have the privilege to discover science with my own hands and knowing of some of the challenges of RNAi Therapeutics, I decided to expand my research efforts into looking at the molecular aspects of DNA-directed RNAi which I believe is very underappreciated by the investment community for its therapeutic potential.   What is lacking, is a champion similar to Alnylam in siRNA-mediated RNAi Therapeutics combining basic RNAi science leadership, business and therapeutic development know-how, and in the case of DNA-directed RNAi (viral) vector expertise for delivery. 

Should my plans change or should my boss boot me out of the lab for under-performing, I might be back, and then it would probably be full-time.  In the meantime, I hope everybody and RNAi Therapeutics in particular to get through the economic turmoil well.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

RNAi Therapeutics and Innate Immunity- Keeping the Field Honest

As part of the RNAi Therapeutics review series in Human Gene Therapy earlier this year, former Protiva scientists Adam Judge and Ian MacLachlan (both now with Tekmira following the Protiva-Tekmira reunion) made some rather bold statements with regards to the interpretations of a number of pre-clinical RNAi Therapeutics validation papers (‘Overcoming the innate immune response to small interfering RNA’). As part of the same reviews series, in the risk section of “The Business of RNAi Therapeutics”, I also cautioned that some of the first RNAi Therapeutics candidates may show clinical efficacy, but not necessarily for all the right reasons.

The reason for this should not come as a surprise to anybody in the oligonucleotide therapeutics field: long known from the experience with antisense and other oligonucleotide therapeutics classes, oligonucleotides such as siRNAs have the potential to induce innate immune responses which can have antiviral and anti-angiogenic activity independent of their gene knockdown capacity. In fact, there are significant efforts to harness this biological property for therapy in its own right, particularly the TLR responses. Furthermore, the potential for inducing innate immune responses by synthetic and DNA-directed RNAi has been well documented since 2003 and many of the pathways involved elucidated. Nevertheless, one should not ignore the fact that while RNAi Therapeutics may actually be able to take advantage of such activity as part of synergistically acting immunostimulatory RNAi Therapeutics, the risk is that the oligo-dependent immune responses are quite complex and therefore often difficult to predict and in the worst case may cause serious adverse events.

Since many of the early RNAi Therapeutics validation papers involved antiviral and anticancer applications, it was therefore reasonable to suspect that some of the studies misinterpreted therapeutic effects as the result of RNAi gene knockdown when, in fact, innate immune responses accounted for the majority of the activity. In support, the Tekmira researchers now report that almost all of the unmodified siRNAs reported in a sample of such papers were immunostimulatory whereas a single siRNA that, somewhat disturbingly so, was used as the control siRNA in many of the studies proved to be the exception having no such detectable activity. I should add, however, that the assay conditions were rather stringent (types of cells used and high siRNA concentrations) and just because an siRNA may induce immune responses under these conditions does not prove that these were actually responsible for the treatment effect seen in each of the cited studies. Also, if TLR therapeutics history is any guide, oligonucleotides that elicit immune responses in small animal models, do not necessarily do so in primates.

Given its potential as a whole new class of therapeutics, the scientific and clinical bar for RNAi Therapeutics is set particularly high and reports like the effect of TLR3 stimulation by siRNAs on preclinical models for wet AMD and the present paper by Tekmira tend to get quite a bit of press. While they remind us of the complexities involved in establishing a functional new drug discovery platform, they should also be regarded as promoting that process. In fact, the handful of bona fide RNAi Therapeutics groups, pure-plays and Big Pharma subsidiaries alike, are already taking oligo-induced innate immune responses very seriously and have taken advantage of the rapid progress in the field by applying best practices for identifying and correcting these responses (modification, siRNA structure) in developing the latest crop of RNAi Therapeutics candidates.

The acquisition of former TLR therapeutics company Coley Pharmaceuticals by Pfizer for example may be interpreted as Pfizer investing in solving siRNA-induced innate immune responses as one of the main challenges for RNAi Therapeutics they had identified. Similarly, Sirna Therapeutics and Protiva in their prominent 2005 Nature Biotech paper on RNAi delivery in a mouse model of hepatitis B recognized the potential of unmodified siRNAs to elicit non-specific viral suppression and solved the issue by appropriately modifying the siRNAs. Around the same time, Alnylam somewhat quietly generated IP related to double-strand RNA immune stimulation that it then exclusively licensed to Tekmira. Clearly, the main players in the field have not chosen to ignore the issue, but have invested considerable efforts with tangible results.

But what about the current RNAi Therapeutics clinical candidates that have already entered the clinic? There are one phase III (Opko Health) and two phase II (Sirna/Merck-Allergan and Quark-Pfizer) siRNA candidates for the treatment of wet AMD that obviously have naturally come under increased scrutiny. As far as I am aware, all three of these are ‘unformulated’, intravitreally injected siRNAs with one of them, Opko’s, being an unmodified siRNA. While it is not clear how well the mouse TLR3 studies translate into humans, they certainly raise the concern that non-specific responses might be responsible for any thus far clinically observed therapeutic effects, particularly since in the recent Nature study gene knockdown by this route was very limited at best (cholesterol-conjugated siRNAs, however, administered by the same route were shown to mediate functional gene silencing in the same study).

As is the case with Alnylam’s lead candidate ALN-RSV01 for the treatment of RSV infection which has raised similar concerns, it will be important to be forthcoming in the interactions with the regulatory agencies such that safe trials can be designed based on our best understanding of the mechanisms of action of the different siRNAs. While I haven’t read the documents, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time if such non-specific effects were noted as potentially contributing to treatment. In the future, it would not surprise me at all to see openly declared immunostimulatory siRNA drug candidates enter the clinic. If, however, these issues are not addressed upfront, and should adverse events occur as a result, this could easily backfire and future trials rendered much more onerous- something that should be in nobody’s interest. As for the prospects of the individual drug candidates in question, even if non-specific effects contributed to the therapeutic efficacy of these candidates, as long as they are safe and well tolerated they may very well be viable drugs.

Finally, it is curious as to what exactly motivated Tekmira to re-test an entire battery of published siRNAs for their potential of inducing non-specific effects. It is possible that Tekmira has evaluated siRNA therapeutics for a number of the same applications like flu and wet AMD and were frustrated to see publications come out that according to their experience should have been artefacts (scientists tend to measure themselves by the number of publications and their impact factors and don’t like to see their own published work de-valued this way). Another part of the answer may also have been to keep the field honest at this early stage of RNAi Therapeutics drug development before long-term damage is caused: “However, surprisingly few of the reported studies have adequately tested, or controlled, for the potential effects of siRNA-mediated immune stimulation, making the many published claims of therapeutic efficacy a collective liability for the RNAi field that remains to be addressed.” By setting a rigorous new standard, Tekmira also signals their expertise not only in RNAi delivery, but also in siRNA chemistry and safety (like Coley, Tekmira has a long-standing interest in the use of immunostimulatory oligonucleotides for therapy). Supporting their claim, Tekmira/Protiva’s publications on abrogating TLR7/8 responses and SNALP RNAi delivery have proven to be extremely reproducible in many different laboratories.

The road to RNAi Therapeutics reality won’t be smooth. As much as it is important to tackle the scientific hurdles head-on, investors and the press should also make an effort to discriminate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ science.
By Dirk Haussecker. All rights reserved.

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