Alnylam cutting third of jobs to devote cash to lead RNAi programs

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Alnylam Pharmaceuticals ($ALNY), a developer of RNA-interference (RNAi) drugs, is axing about 33% of its workforce in a restructuring plan that aims to steer the company's dollars into developmental programs, the company said Thursday. And the layoffs come after Big Pharma outfits such as Roche and Merck ($MRK) have made major cutbacks to research in the RNAi field, which has yet to yield any marketed drugs.

With its smaller staff, Cambridge, MA-based Alnylam plans to make its early-stage RNAi therapies for transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis and hemophilia its lead candidates. Though neither of the programs has advanced beyond Phase I, according to the company's website, and the projects will require significant investment to take through clinical trials. The company expects the restructuring to save $20 million in 2012 and cost $4 million in one-time expenses.

Alnylam has shifted from a fast-growing biotech several years back when it was bagging major licensing and R&D deals with Novartis ($NVS), Roche, Takeda Pharmaceutical and others to a company that is shrinking. The company axed 25% to 30% of its workers in September 2010, shortly after its 5-year research deal with Novartis ended. Major drugmakers pledged or spent billions of dollars on RNAi drug research in the 2000s, yet more recently companies have made cutbacks in the field amid major challenges in translating the gene-silencing tech into drugs. Merck, which spent $1.1 billion to acquire the South San Francisco-based RNAi drug research group Sirna Therapeutics in 2006, closed the former Sirna shop last summer.

As one would expect, Alnylam CEO John Maraganore (who didn't even hint about the restructuring during a meeting with FierceBiotech at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference last week) has kept the faith that RNAi will yield great new drugs. His recent strategy calls for the company to focus on products after years of investing in early research, and his group ended 2011 with about $260 million in cash to make it happen.

"Now is the time to focus our near-term efforts and resources on what we believe to be our highest value opportunities; specifically, accelerated clinical development plans for our programs in transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis and hemophilia," Maraganore said in a statement.

- here's the company's release
- check out Dow Jones Newswires' report
- and Xconomy's article

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