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Jumping into the RNA fray
LONDON—Joining the ranks of other industry heavy-hitters like Roche and Merck, AstraZeneca has made the jump to invest heavily in RNAi technology for drug design—as opposed to the more long-standing uses for the technology, such as gene screening and target identification and validation. In AstraZeneca's case, it has done so by penning a deal with London- and Berlin-based Silence Therapeutics plc. Roche took a similar tack in a licensing and research site purchase deal with Alnylam (see story page 1), while Merck took the route of buying a company outright in the RNAi field—Sirna Therapeutics.
Under the three-year research and development collaboration with Silence announced in July, AstraZeneca is looking to discover and develop proprietary siRNA molecules against up to five specific targets in the respiratory disease area, keeping open the possibility that it might later extend the collaboration into other disease areas of interest. For the work, Silence Therapeutics will receive initial access fees, clinical development and commercial milestone payments of up to approximately $400 million, plus royalties on product sales. The initial access fees include Silence Therapeutics providing AstraZeneca with a license to its proprietary siRNA technology for a fee of approximately $15 million, of which around $10 million is an equity investment in Silence that would give AstraZeneca just under 3 percent of the total voting rights in the company.
Silence Therapeutics and AstraZeneca will jointly collaborate in the early phase of identification and optimization of novel siRNA molecules. AstraZeneca will retain full responsibility for the clinical development and commercialization.
AstraZeneca has no other deals at this time involving siRNA technologies, notes Dr. Frances A. Sutcliffe, communications director for AstraZeneca's global R&D division. Some industry watchers have couched this RNAi deal as the latest move in the company's efforts—following the recent deal to buy U.S. biotech firm MedImmune for more than $15 billion—to build up its development pipeline, particularly in biotechnology, with an eye toward dealing with industry pressures such as competition from generics.
Sutcliffe does acknowledge that both deals are part of a core externalization strategy to access new technology and innovative science, but didn't draw any specific parallels between the deals or their potential impact on responding to stressors like generic competition.
"The [MedImmune] acquisition creates a new fully functioning biologics and vaccines business within AstraZeneca and enhances our R&D science base through which we will deliver a stronger product pipeline," Sutcliffe says. "The acquisition delivers our biologics strategy faster than anticipated and offers a complementary fit with our existing therapeutic area strengths in oncology, infection and inflammation."
As for the more recent silence deal, Sutcliffe says: "AstraZeneca identified gene silencing by siRNA as a promising technology for intracellular targeting, which is expected to open up new product concepts."
Among those concepts is identifying and creating therapeutics that are not currently feasible using either small molecules or conventional monoclonals, notes Jan M. Lundberg, AstraZeneca's executive vice president, discovery research. "We are delighted to partner with Silence Therapeutics in developing their siRNA technology and build on our investments made in biopharmaceutical and vaccine areas," he adds.
Silence Therapeutics, for its part, says it is excited to delve into this collaboration with AstraZeneca, which Silence Chairman Iain Ross notes "has a significant franchise in the respiratory area."
"We look forward to working with AstraZeneca to develop new RNAi therapeutics for the treatment of respiratory diseases," Ross says, "whilst concurrently continuing to create further significant shareholder value via the development of our proprietary oncology pipeline."