Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why Marina Biotech Deserves a Chance

Oligonucleotide Therapeutics is hot.  Outside of immune-oncology which is breaking new ground in cancer, Oligonucleotide Therapeutics is where the real innovation in drug development happens today. In fact, Oligonucleotide Therapeutics already has become the third major drug discovery engine and I posit that at the development stage it has already surpassed monoclonal antibodies.
This is also reflected by the valuations of the two best known proponents in the field, Alnylam and ISIS Pharmaceuticals which are both worth around $8 billion, a valuation that given its purchasing power that comes along with it positions them to become major pharmaceutical companies.

It is then long after the behemoths and mid-tier companies like Arrowhead Research and Regulus Therapeutics which struggle for similar recognition with market caps in the 0.5 to 1 billion dollar range, that Marina Biotech comes in with an anemic, fully diluted market cap of ~30M.

Vicious circle

A 300x valuation difference to the leaders will put off most investors from conducting more in-depth research.  Surely, a $30M valuation shows that its technology does not work.
This detrimental circular logic extends into business development where Marina Biotech has essentially given away valuable pieces of its technology stable for pennies.  Licenses to CRN technology to Novartis for a mere $1M or UNA technology to Arcturus for a few hundred thousand dollars are sad examples of this.

Of course, at the time the deal were done, Marina Biotech was in dire straits financially and this was exploited in cold blood by its partners.

OK, that’s business, nothing personal, and good on Novartis and Arcturus for their bargains.

Overall, Marina Biotech is probably one of the two most prolific deal makers in the industry along with ISIS Pharmaceuticals, reflecting its broad assets in Oligonucleotide Therapeutics.

UNA-CRN Antisense Oligos, it’s as simple as that

This, however, is also a distraction for management and I am afraid that the CEO, Michael French, keeps looking under the wrong lamp posts for capital.

In his opinion, Marina Biotech should be the one-shot shop for Big Pharma looking for solutions against certain disease targets where the best mechanism of action is not apparent. 

Myotonic dystrophy type I, a muscle wasting disease caused by a toxic nuclear RNA, is probably a good example of this, and this is also Marina’s lead development project if we ignore for a moment its legacy program in familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) now in phase I clinical development.

I, however, struggle to come up with many more examples of this, and if I were a Big Pharma, I would just evaluate the different strategies in-house and, if necessary, then gain access to that one most promising mechanism of action.

This blogger, on the other hand, believes that the public markets should be Mr French’s audience.  Times have changed and the public markets have become a much more attractive source of capital for supporting platform companies like Marina Biotech. Big Pharma, on the other, likes to talk about innovation, but ends up acquiring only specific development candidates close to the finish line.  And if it engages in innovation, it usually fails as a result of their organizational rigidity and leaders better suited to run fast-food companies than technology companies.

Imagine how the simple message that Marina Biotech has a chemistry strategy that can do what ISIS Pharmaceuticals has achieved would resonate with investors?  

I am referring here to the potential of combining UNA with CRN (similar to 2.5 cET by ISIS Pharm or LNA by Santaris/Roche) chemistry which just as proposed for usiRNAi triggers  could evade some fundamental IP in the field by virtue of UNAs not being your typical modified base, an idea that has gained wide support in RNAi Therapeutics (à Tekmira, Arrowhead Research, Arcturus).

It should also be noted that only Marina Biotech has the ability to combine both UNAs and CRNs. Despite their licenses, neither Arcturus nor Novartis can do that.

What I also like about the UNA-CRN antisense focus is that such a simple molecule is ideal for a small company like Marina Biotech which does not have much research to speak of.  The antisense concept is so simple that even a blogger would be able to translate it into the clinic from the comfort of his home.

Marina Biotech, of course, is no ISIS Pharmaceuticals, and I should state that my ‘never-touch portfolio’ which I established last summer almost exclusively consists of ISIS Pharmaceuticals which, at the time, accounted for more than half of my stock holding.

Marina’s Outlook

Depending on risk tolerance (an investment in Marina Biotech is still a survival play), however, Marina Biotech has its rightful place in the investment space which explains this blog entry in the first place.  If Michael French could only get himself to commit to a simple CRN-UNA ASO strategy and show some data from its Myotonic Dystrophy program, Marina’s severe undervaluation relative to peers would instantly become obvious.

It’s OK, however, to analyze clinical data from its FAP program as long as it does not cannibalize investments in the ASO platform.  It may also be an excuse to enter the GI ASO space which, following a $700M+ license from Nogra Pharma to Celgene, has come into high demand among Big Pharma.  Although I do not think GI-ASO is technically a robust opportunity as the liver and CNS, if Big Pharma likes to part with $$$, why not cater to them?

Following the filing of an S-1 securities registration statement and in light of Marina’s financial position (cash runway until mid-2015), it is obvious that Marina Biotech will raise capital in the near future.  It will be telling on what terms this will be done and who will participate.  While you will read in most biotech investment textbooks not to invest in those times, remember that in 2013 somewhat similar circumstances set up Arrowhead Research for a more than 10x return in less than a year.


Anonymous said...

Didn't you once say you're holding a significant position in this?

Forgive me if I'm wrong but I didn't see any disclosure of that here. Did you sell?

If not then this article appears like a pump piece.

Chris said...

I appreciate Dirk's insight in this field useful information/updates can definitely be learned from his writing. However, let the reader beware, the vast majority of positive blog entries he writes are pump pieces. It's his blog so he has every right to do this. Isis, referenced in this entry, is the perfect example. He was hypercritical and down on this stock for years until he decided to invest. Literally, overnight it went from an overvalued company who gave away its best assets and a CEO who cannot be trusted to THE most spectacular investment opportunities of a life time. Nothing fundamental had changed about the company except the fact that his money was now invested in it.

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