Alnylam, Tekmira and New Northwest Firm, AlCana, Push Boundaries of RNAi Delivery

8/13/09Follow @xconomy

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from this two-year collaboration, in which his company is agreeing to sponsor “a handful” of former Tekmira employees who have set up shop at AlCana Technologies, in a close collaboration with Pieter Cullis, a prominent nanomedicine researcher at the University of British Columbia.

This requires a little background explanation. The existing Tekmira technology, using lipid nanoparticles, has been shown in rodents and primates to deliver RNAi drugs throughout the body at relatively low doses of as little as 0.1 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, and as much as 1 milligram per kilogram of body weight, Maraganore says. By developing much smaller lipids and lipid particles, researchers now believe it’s possible to bring that dose down much further, so drugs are effective at “single-digit microgram per kilogram” territory, Maraganore says. In basic business terms, this is a tantalizing thing. It means you could have a drug that’s equally or more effective, but which requires very little in the way of raw materials for manufacturing—what’s known on income statements as cost of goods sold. If it works, you can charge the same price. That translates directly to higher profit margins.

What may be even more important is that such miniscule drug delivery packages make it possible to deliver RNAi molecules more broadly throughout the body than the current state-of-the-art lipid nanoparticles. The current products are made to circulate through the body, but Maraganore says they tend to accumulate in two tissue types—liver and tumors. That’s why Alnylam is pursuing its first systemically-delivered RNAi drug as a treatment for liver cancer. But Alnylam has a much bigger vision of delivering drugs for other diseases as well. Maraganore pointed out that Alnylam also has an important drug delivery research partnership with MIT.

“Delivery is really a long term technology investment for us,” Maraganore says.

AlCana, at least when I first heard the name, sounded an awful lot like a Canadian subsidiary of Alnylam, but Maraganore says that’s not the case. It’s a new operating business that has agreed to carry out sponsored research for Alnylam on lipid drug delivery, but Alnylam has taken no equity ownership stake in it, Maraganore says. Alnylam is getting exclusive rights to intellectual property that comes from within the terms of the research agreement, but AlCana is free to invent other things and do what it wants with them, Maraganore says.

“They are their own entity,” Maraganore says. “They took some inspiration from our name, which we found flattering. They aspire to be like Alnylam in the future.” He added, with a laugh, “We don’t have a trademark on a company name that starts with the letters A and L. Not yet.”

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