Not a day goes by in RNAi Therapeutics land without hearing the sounds from the RNAi trigger IP battle grounds. Today is no exception…
Wading through the court documents from the Alnylam-Max Planck suit on how the Whitehead prosecuted the Tuschl I (T-I) patent application (aka the 'Tuschl Tussle'), it struck me that while it was Whitehead, their hired patent counsel, and UMass that apparently conceived of the strategy of how to incorporate data from the T-II patent into T-I against the interests of Alnylam and Max Planck, the MIT seemed to merely go along unwittingly. As a result, MIT not only became a victim in that they were deprived of the benefits from the therapeutic agreement they were part of with Max Planck and the Whitehead, which to my knowledge anticipated equal sharing of the profits from therapeutic licenses derived from the combined T-I and T-II estate, but also because they ended up as defendants in the suit.
Perhaps realizing this, Alnylam announced today that it will leave the MIT off the hook in return that they will be bound by any ruling in favor of Alnylam/Max Planck. It could also help drive a wedge between the former co-defendants as the MIT will now feel less fearful about telling their side of the story which could turn out to be quite revelatory. The MIT should have every reason to be unhappy with the Whitehead and the way T-I was handled. The argument that Whitehead, and implicitly, the MIT, aided UMass for political reasons, thereby leaving therapeutic licensing money on the table, never really flew with me since a) institutions just don’t give away money like this, and b) I could never imagine a research institution of the stature of Whitehead as being nationalistic and therefore anti-Max Planck.
While the Tuschl Tussle is going on, there is another Tuschl loophole movement in the field that appears to be gaining some traction. It initially started with mdRNA’s claims that the mere inclusion of a single ‘funny-looking’ nucleotide into an siRNA, unlocked nucleic acids (UNAs), would help it get around the Tuschls. It long cited evidence by outside patent counsel that supposedly supported their belief that they had freedom-to-operate in the RNAi trigger space. The news that Quark Pharmaceuticals had just initiated dosing for their 5th (!) clinical RNAi program for a neuroprotective agent of the eye, it reminded me of their similar claims about ‘proprietary siRNAs’. To find out about the nature of these claims, I looked up what potentially applicable patent applications they had filed, and came up with the following main claim:
"1. A compound having structure (IX) set forth below:
(IX) 5' (N)x - Z 3' (antisense strand)
3' Z'-(N')y- z" 5' (sense strand) wherein each of N and N' is a ribonucleotide which may be unmodified or modified, or an unconventional moiety; wherein each of (N)x and (N')y is an oligonucleotide in which each consecutive N or N' is joined to the next N or N' by a covalent bond; wherein Z and Z' may be present or absent, but if present is independently 1-5 consecutive nucleotides covalently attached at the 3' terminus of the strand in which it is present; wherein z" may be present or absent, but if present is a capping moiety covalently attached at the 5' terminus of (N')y; wherein x =18 to 27; wherein y =18 to 27; wherein (N)x comprises modified and unmodified ribonucleotides, each modified ribonucleotide having a 2'-O-methyl on its sugar, wherein N at the 3' terminus of (N)x is a modified ribonucleotide, (N)x comprises at least five alternating modified ribonucleotides beginning at the 3' end and at least nine modified ribonucleotides in total and each remaining N is an unmodified ribonucleotide; wherein in (N')y at least one unconventional moiety is present, which unconventional moiety may be an abasic ribose moiety, an abasic deoxyribose moiety, a modified or unmodified deoxyribonucleotide, a mirror nucleotide, and a nucleotide joined to an adjacent nucleotide by a 2 '-5' internucleotide phosphate bond; and wherein the sequence of (N)x is substantially complementary to the sequence of (N')y; and the sequence of (N')y is substantially identical to the sequence of an mRNA encoded by a target gene."
As the red highlight shows, the ‘proprietary’ claim of the Quark siRNAs rests on the sense/passenger strand similarly containing at least one ‘funny-looking’ nucleotide. I was disappointed, however, that the specifications did not explain why this should have any unique advantages. Since in addition to novelty (that's where they will likely try to focus their arguments on), a patent has to also fulfill the demands of non-obviousness and utility, I have my serious doubts that this and the usiRNA patent applications will stand up to closer scrutiny, and if they did get by any patent offices, Alnylam would ultimately challenge them. It suggests, however, that while patent protection for these RNAi triggers is unlikely, a number of players increasingly view this strategy as a way to at least gain independence from the Tuschls. The exact reasoning behind this is mysterious to me, since these modifications should already be explicitly covered by the Tuschls when they refer to 'nucleoside analogues' which usiRNAs are. And even if the Tuschls did not explicitly mention them, it would appear obvious that an siRNA is an siRNA whether it contains a limited number of ‘funny’ nucleotides or not.
As I said, I have yet to hear a convincing argument by the companies what their belief is based on. Just stating that they believe so is not enough to convince investors and potential partners. I am always willing to listen to such arguments.