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RNAi: Is It Still Worth Investing?


The New York Times published an article yesterday describing the hyperbolic trajectory of Big Pharma interest in the RNAi field. Discovered little more than a decade ago, it has already garnered Nobel prizes for two scientists credited for ilucidating its mechanism. In 2006, Merck puchased a small company focused on RNAi drug development, Sirna, for a whopping $1.1 billion; five years later, the largest independent company is valued at about half that. And as for Sirna, Merk is using its technology for laboratory studies. “Happy with its investment” says the company.

It may be an understatement to say RNAi technology was overhyped. The technology is quite amazing, to be sure. Much more potent and longer lasting than antisense, RNAi quickly became the tool of choice in scientific laboratories. It seemed only a short leap from the benchtop to the countertop. “Undruggable” targets were now within reach.

Not surprisingly, RNAi drug development has been considerably slower than previously imagined. After about 20 years, only now are antisense drugs beginning to gain traction in the clinic. It has required significant work improving the molecules. RNAi drug development should not have been expected to be much faster.

Now that research budgets are being cut, large pharmaceutical companies have followed each other in lock-step, dropping their RNAi programs one after the other. High profile cases include Roche and Novartis both ending large research projects. Pfizer shut down a 100 person RNAi unit.

A bit of a surprise on Roche's part seeing how it was one of the early movers in antibody technology. But pharma never seemed too fond of RNA technology to begin with due to the lack of progress. This leaves biotechs once again to lead the way in the development of new technologies, with pharma certain to play catch-up in the near future. The story never changes.

Abandoned, RNAi has lost some luster. Still, work continues and the products are improving. Progess is even being made on the crucial drug delivery stage. Commentators have noted RNAi is beautiful in concept; I believe it is only a matter of time before we will see the beauty of its design.