The writing has certainly been on the wall. First, in an August 2010 interview, Roche’s Head of Pharma Research and Early Development, Jean-Jaques Garaud, was a bit lukewarm about the maturity of RNAi Therapeutics. While acknowledging that ‘siRNA' was a 'hot field’, this Roche executive who assumed his current role in 2009 following the retirement of Jonathan Knowles, stated that RNAi Therapeutics was a ‘bit like science fiction right now’, but that within 2-5 years Roche should make progress in that direction. Then in September, a tight-lipped Roche informed development partner Tekmira that it won’t meet its earlier guidance of filing for an LNP-enabled RNAi Therapeutics IND before the end of the year.
Of course, 2-5 years in today’s pharma world, a world challenged by patent expirations, poor pipeline productivity, ailing healthcare systems, and an ultra-conservative FDA, equates to ‘not relevant to our bottom line’ and are considered an investment with expected negative returns. Roche in particular has been hit hard recently by setbacks in their late-stage pipeline, as well as several blows to their all-important Avastin franchise which now makes the Genentech acquisition look a bit pricey. This is in stark contrast to what appeared to be the healthiest pipeline in the industry in 2007 when it took a license to Alnylam’s RNAi Therapeutics IP and when it acquired RNAi delivery company Mirus Bio in 2008.
So as Roche struggles to meet earnings expectations for the coming quarters, it is maybe not that surprising that as it cuts costs where it can, its in-house ‘siRNA’ research in Kulmbach, Germany, and Madison, Wisconsin, have to go as part of the large-scale re-structuring of the Company announced today.
I have today returned from the RNAiAsia meeting in Singapore, and it was during this trip that I have been particularly struck by just how conservative Big Pharma has become again when it comes to new therapeutic modalities. Only 3 years ago Big Pharma seemed committed not to repeat its mistake of not having participated early on in the development of recombinant proteins and monoclonal antibodies and then pay a hefty premium for acquiring biologics companies later on in the game, yet today the same companies don’t even want to give the impression that they want to lead in the unchartered waters of RNAi Therapeutics. Potential and promise are just that, and it seems like that there is no way around the conclusion that proof-of-concept has to be provided by the smaller pure-play companies before Big Pharma (re-)commits in a big way.
In addition, despite some attempts to improve Big Pharma’s capacity to innovate by setting up pseudo-independent ‘Centers of Excellence’, Big Pharma seems to be fundamentally organizationally challenged in maturing cutting-edge technologies like RNAi Therapeutics as a result of inflexible bureaucracies and insufficient/inefficient communication between the relevant groups within sprawling organizations.
I do not want to deny that some of Roche’s RNAi expectations were probably disappointed, and not all of it is Roche's fault. I wonder how mature Roche considered dynamic polyconjugate delivery to be when it purchased Mirus for $125M, or what exactly it got from Alnylam in return for over $300M in 2007. Not to say that these were outrageously overvalued deals if put in the proper context, but Roche management, watching their peers pull back from RNAi Therapeutics, must feel a bit exposed now.
The full impact of Roche’s own pull-back from internal RNAi research on its RNAi Therapeutics partners Alnylam and Tekmira remains to be seen. After having spent north of $500M on RNAi Therapeutics, it is hard for me to imagine that Roche will write this investment off just like that.
It is possible that Tekmira and Alnylam get a shot at Roche’s RNAi assets, including the one candidate that seems pretty close to the clinic (Tekmira reported Roche revenues in the latest quarter of $0.7M, mainly for the development of this candidate). With Severin Schwan, Roche's CEO, stating that Roche may ‘spin off’ or ‘find a partner’ for its RNAi assets, one may even speculate as to whether Roche has plans to float its RNAi Therapeutics division on the stock exchange. These are strange times in RNAi Therapeutics and the pharmaceutical industry and stranger things have happened.