The media coverage on Roche’s decision to ‘abandon’ all things RNAi Therapeutics almost makes one believe that we have just witnessed the demise of RNAi as a therapeutic modality. The naysayers of the technology had their heyday, apparently delighted by the that Roche's decision is absolute proof that RNAi has failed in its quest to improve human health. Nevermind that the Roche news has to be seen in the context of Big Pharma’s crisis of confidence in its own ability to innovate and investor pressure to cut almost everything that does not immediately produce positive cash flow. Even Roche has to admit that in the 3 years since it took the $300M+ license from Alnylam and the 2 years since it bought Mirus Bio for $125M, nothing fundamental has changed with the science, except for maybe that the potency of LNP delivery has improved by 100-fold for some applications.
On the other hand, it is also the time to acknowledge the significant financial support that Big Pharma, including Roche, has provided to RNAi R&D at times in the capital markets that were otherwise quite hostile for companies based on novel biotechnologies. I’m quite hopeful that measured investments in RNAi Therapeutics by larger pharmaceutical companies will continue, and even increase again in the not-so-distant future as results confirming gene-specific knockdown in Man emerge from a number of the ongoing clinical studies.
Unfortunately, the Roche news has done much damage to investor confidence. As valuations of RNAi companies have dropped to levels that may sicken some investors, companies in the space will have to change how they conduct business.
If done smartly, there is an amazing amount of progress to take advantage of, not only as described in the literally thousands and thousands of RNAi-related papers coming out at ever increasing speed, but also progress in disciplines as varied as human genetics, ‘omic’ technologies and bioinformatics, nucleic acid chemistry, and IT and how it has allowed for business models with increased capital efficiency. By judiciously combining the growing knowledge of human biology with technologies that lower the barriers of entry by the day, biotechnology in general is poised to become one of the major pillars in many of the world’s economies, similar to how the eroding cost of computing power has changed the way we lead our lives.
Not all companies, of course, will adapt equally well. Humble Tekmira, as the re-incarnation of Protiva, may serve as a great example in how it is possible to make speedy technology progress without having to throw millions at the wall and hope that something will stick, and without building corporate structures to rival that of Big Pharma. It is also my hope, and expectation, that chastised Alnylam will find back to its roots and put technology and clinical results front and center without letting empire building take primacy as I believe it did when Alnylam let go of its Kulmbach operations. A market cap of less than $400M for a company with a financial profile that is the envy of the biotech industry, and with a pipeline poised to yield critical proof-of-concept data for a potentially transformative technology…I would not have dreamt to see such bargain prices for ALNY again.
I will now take a little writing break. After a good year of re-commencing this blog, I am at the risk of repeating myself. As the RNAi research engine powers ahead just as swiftly without my commentary, I will dive into the literature and take a more detailed look at some of the technologies. It is truly amazing how far we have come in understanding human biology and rationally interfere with it, also for therapeutic purposes.