Last week, Silence Therapeutics announced that the European Patent Office has granted a patent from the Zamore RNAi trigger design IP estate (EP 1633890 B1). This follows the issuance of related patents over the summer in the US. This IP is assigned to the University of Massachusetts and exclusively licensed to Silence Therapeutics.
What is newsworthy in this latest patent issuance is that very broad claims were allowed which would almost require a company with RNAi Therapeutics platform ambitions to take a license. As I have discussed here before, Zamore made the highly influential finding that it is both the absolute and relative base-pairing strength (relative to the base-pairing strength on the other end of an siRNA duplex) at the 5’ end of the guide strand that determines its RNAi effector complex (RISC) incorporation as well as discourages passenger strand incorporation. Accordingly, the rules have implications for both efficacy and specificity of RNAi gene silencing. It has to be assumed that the end-stability rule figures in one form or another into the siRNA design algorithms used by companies as part of the siRNA screening process, and it should also be an important guiding principle in optimizing an initial candidate siRNA.
A strong patent, of course, does not necessarily follow such fundamental biological insights. In this instance, it could well turn out to be the case. The US claims cover methods focussed on the reduction of off-targeting effect, including first assessing the off-targeting of a first siRNA, and then changing it according to the end-stability rules. As the recent Merck paper illustrates, companies in the field undertake such modification-RISC incorporation studies. Since a given siRNA structure can theoretically be arrived at via a number of different routes, such methods papers are more difficult to enforce. In addition, the direct value of the US claims may somewhat affected as they emphasized the reduction of off-targeting aspect of the design rules rather than the enhanced efficacy aspect which might be considered the more attractive feature of the invention.
What is therefore different in the European patent issuance is that not only does it emphasize the efficacy aspect, but it also importantly includes very broad composition of matter claims relating to the structure of an siRNA. It should be very straight forward to enforce these.
The breadth of the claims is striking: siRNAs with small features already that lessen the base pairing at the 5’ end of a guide RNA are covered in these claims. This can be a mismatched base pair, relatively widely employed for example at the very 5’ end of the guide RNA, or a single nucleotide modification. One of the methods claims even covers siRNAs solely characterized by having fewer G:C base-pairs at the guide strand 5’ end compared to the 3’ end. I would expect many if not most siRNAs to fall into that bucket.
In a phone conversation last night with Phil Haworth, the CEO of Silence Therapeutics said that Silence Therapeutics are naturally excited of having been granted these broad claims. When asked, he added that similar efficacy and composition of matter claims derived from the original Zamore patent application are also being considered in the US (note: due to a restriction requirement, the off-target reduction elements of the invention were initially pursued in the US and the efficacy aspects put on the back-burner). I also agree with him that given the strength of the claims and because this is a European patent prosecution, competing RNAi Therapeutics companies can be expected to challenge the validity of the patent. This should also be a good indicator whether Alnylam really meant what it said when it stated that it saw nothing of value in the Zamore siRNA design IP estate.
Given the importance of the siRNA end-stability rules and broad-ening claims, will we therefore see Silence Therapeutics soon swim in cash? Here, Phil Haworth was a bit more cautious and said that Silence’s RNAi trigger IP estate would be just one element in the discussions they are having right now with pharmaceutical companies.
As you will be aware, Silence Therapeutics has been ‘approached’ by a company a few weeks ago, an approach that could lead to an offer, and Dr. Haworth confirmed that these discussions were still ongoing. Without going into any more details, he also said that they are conducting a number of platform partnership talks in parallel and that the ‘approach’ and platform conversations would be separate discussions.
Phil Haworth did not disagree when I speculated on the potential strategic value of the Zamore end-stability IP to particularly Merck, given the one billion dollar+ Merck spent on Sirna Therapeutics for access to the 3’ overhang IP which it now stands to lose (see coverage on the 'RNAi Litigation Blog'). He emphasized, however, that the company does not spent much time speculating internally what other companies might be scheming and instead focus their limited resources on building strong science and IP. In the end, the value of the Zamore siRNA design rules will be closely tied to advancements in the delivery of RNAi triggers and in that regard they are pleased with the continued dose escalation of Silence’s first clinical candidate Atu-027 (6th of planned 11 dose cohorts ongoing).