Alnylam Hires Chief Scientist, Jack Schmidt, To Help Build RNAi Pipeline

10/1/08Follow @xconomy

Alnylam Pharmaceuticals has been getting by for years without a full-time chief scientific officer, but no more. The Cambridge, MA-based developer of drugs based on RNA interference (RNAi) technology said today it has hired Jack Schmidt, a former vice president at French drugmaker Sanofi-Aventis and a member of the global discovery leadership team there, to fill the role.

Schmidt, 58, will take over the role of chief scientist from Alnylam CEO John Maraganore, who has been pulling this double-duty for years. Schmidt received his postdoctoral training in immunology at the National Institutes of Health, before joining Merck Research Laboratories and then moving to Aventis. While at Aventis, he built up lots of experience with drugs at their earliest stages of development, helping introduce 15 new drugs into animal testing. Some of that was with conventional small-molecule pharmaceuticals, and some with protein-based drugs. Now he’s itching to help load up Alnylam’s pipeline with a third class of drug, RNA-based therapeutics that block the activity of problematic genes.

“This was an opportunity to get in on the ground floor on a major event in therapeutics,” Schmidt says.

Schmidt has been following the scientific literature on RNAi, or gene silencing, techniques for the past couple years, he says. He tried, but wasn’t able to get his bosses at Sanofi-Aventis to make a big push in the field as have other major pharma companies, like Merck and Roche. “Perhaps out of frustration, I continued to pursue this,” he says.

That led him to Alnylam (NASDAQ: ALNY). His job will be to help Alnylam move drug candidates ahead into clinical trials. He wouldn’t say how many candidates he expects to advance, although he predicted that an RNAi product will reach the market in five to seven years. Right now, Alnylam has just one such candidate in clinical trials, for respiratory syncytial virus. Delivery of the RNAi drugs has been a real bugaboo, but Schmidt says he has confidence in Alnylam’s strategy of forming partnerships around a variety of delivery techniques to hedge its bets.

“I wouldn’t take the job if I didn’t think this could be solved,” Schmidt says.

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