Monday, November 5, 2012

Bullish on RNAi Therapeutics

Attending the Oligonucleotide Therapeutics Society meeting last week in Boston, I could sense a new bullishness around RNAi Therapeutics like I haven’t in a long time.   

Big Pharma: Tipping the Scales in Favor of RNAi Therapeutics

Over the last year, we have been witness to the clinical successes of Tekmira’s SNALP delivery that literally saved the sector.  After nightmarish years, these results had investors enjoy the doubling and tripling of the share prices of companies like Alnylam, Tekmira, and even non-SNALP players such as Silence Therapeutics.

For the next leg of expanding investments in RNAi Therapeutics, a renewed, publicly visible commitment by Big Pharma would be important.  With Genzyme taking a license to Alnylam’s transthyretin amyloidosis program, a first step in that direction has been just made.  On the platform side, it is worth noting that the two most significant Big Pharma players in RNAi Therapeutics, Merck and Novartis, were also represented at the conference.  One can only hope that the current RNAi Therapeutics clinical and scientific tailwind will give their internal champions the ammunition to push the technology into the clinic in the next 2-3 years and therefore escape the Sword of Damocles that surely must have been felt dangling above them.

Unfortunately, if these two companies, like so many others it seems, big and small, insist on using ‘their’ own delivery technologies, chances for that will be much reduced.  With all due respect, but the presentation on RNAi delivery by Merck was just a review of the most advanced systemic delivery technologies, SNALP (Tekmira), DPCs (Arrowhead Research), and GalNAcs (Alnylam) exemplified by Merck’s homebrew versions.  Somebody needs to show me the math behind it- I just don’t get it.  The only explanation for me is pride and the resistance against collaborating after having invested internally so much.

A re-commitment towards RNAi Therapeutics should also be at the expense of ‘naked’ RNaseH antisense.  Although in his keynote speech, Alnylam’s CEO made a point of congratulating ISIS CEO Stan Crooke (sitting in the first row) on the recent mipomersen Advisory Panel, there was considerable talk during the conference about antisense-related toxicity, also as regards the high-affinity versions.   And even Stan Crooke could not help but admit that the RNAi Therapeutics results have ‘exceeded [his] expectations’.  However, since ISIS claims ownership over RNAi Therapeutics, as it does indeed over most of oligonucleotide therapeutics anyway, his pain should be limited if indeed he believes what he is saying [note: Dr. Crooke in discussing the safety of mipomersen went as far as saying that there has been no imbalance in its safety profile compared to placebo, and when there was an imbalance, it was in favor of mipomersen...for a starkly different view, see here].

A Breath of Fresh Air in Delivery

A conference highlight were the new results from Arrowhead Research on their new DPC delivery, a conjugate approach.  Potent gene knockdowns in the liver with an apparently reassuring safety profile in non-human primates using subcutaneous delivery is certainly deserving of some serious attention.  Having had systemic delivery of synthetic RNAi triggers almost for themselves for the last few years, Tekmira seems to be finally getting some company- although in terms of validation, SNALP is still years ahead and more de-risked.  Such increased diversity of approaches should also be good for attracting general interest to the sector as it would be viewed as more vibrant and with more disease opportunities.

5 Reasons to be Bullish on RNAi Therapeutics

1)      Clinical results show that RNAi Therapeutics in Man can be made to work (Tekmira’s SNALP delivery);
2)      RNAi Therapeutics ideally suited to address orphan disease, the hottest category in drug development;
3)      RNAi Therapeutics has taken the lead over RNaseH antisense for gene knockdown;
4)      Big Pharma coming back to RNAi Therapeutics;
      5)      Vibrancy of sector increasing (e.g. recent results on Arrowhead’s DPC technology). 

A Side Note on the Conference

To some degree reflecting the increasing maturity of Oligonucleotide Therapeutics, the 4-day program did not include important programs in the field.  Not only was Tekmira notably missing, but also efforts such as Dynavax’ important HepB vaccine candidate that could soon allow oligonucleotide ‘therapeutics’ to touch many lives.  Moreover, the industry-academia balance was tilted in favor of industry like I have not seen before.   


Jerry said...

Care to speculate on why Tekmira was a no show at such a prominent international meeting on oligotherapeutics?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps because they don’t have much new. Dirk’s paean to Tekmira notwithstanding, another way to look at it is that back circa 2010, big pharma looked at SNALP state-of-the-art and threw in the towel. The question is how much Tekmira have accomplished since then. There’s MC3, which seems to be therapeutically viable, but it’s an open question as to how Tekmira contributed—whether it was merely “based” on Tekmira work or whether they did more. In any case, aside from lawsuits, there has not been a lot of news concerning recent Tekmira developments or progress in the scientific/therapeutic area.

Dirk Haussecker said...

I enjoyed the meeting, but it could have been broader in scope. An Alnylam person organized the meeting. Alnylam had 5 talks, ISIS 6. That could explain the absence of a number of groups/companies, but I'm speculating here.

Why would Tekmira have to disclose much? Seems like Alnylam has been spilling the beans for them. The latest from the meeting is that Akinc and Maier get elevated as the key persons that made all the SNALP LNP progress possible. Ex-Tekmira/AlCana people were in the acknowledgment section, but like Tekmira, there was zero verbal mention of them. This is amazing. Alnylam is now essentially taking all the scientific credit.

Jerry said...


The jury trial is supposed to be underway now as I recall. If anyone has an idea of the timeline, please post.

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