Alnylam stakes out a new opportunity

Alnylam Pharmaceuticals is one of the original pioneers in the biotech industry, widely recognized for its role in establishing RNA interference as one of the most promising fields in drug discovery.

But there's more than new drug programs that Alnylam (ALNY) can inspire. In a one-on-one with FierceBiotech focusing on the company's R&D advances, CEO John Maraganore explained how its gene silencing know-how can be put to profitable use to increase productivity in the manufacturing of biologics. And the Cambridge, MA-based developer has mapped out an ambitious new venture dubbed Alnylam Biotherapeutics to partner up with manufacturers interested in putting the technology to work.

By interfering with cell death, apoptosis, and cutting down on toxins in Chinese hamster ovary cells--the mammalian CHO cells commonly used to cultivate proteins in biologics manufacturing--Alnylam says it can greatly enhance protein production. And Alnylam CEO John Maraganore (pictured) is talking about increased productivity rates of 40 percent to more than 60 percent.

"We have a completely different opportunity that can be leveraged in for existing, marketed products, drugs in development and with biosimilars that are emerging," Maraganore tells me. The goal: Partner up with established manufacturers that can put the technology to work and selling the services and products they'll need to do it.

It's a significant near-term opportunity for Alnylam, which has a lead RNAi program for RSV--ALN-RSV01--marching slowly and deliberately through mid-stage clinical development. Sales of biologics are pushing past $100 billion. As more biotech therapies which are produced with CHO cells hit the market, there will be a growing demand for more efficient manufacturing processes.

Alnylam is just the kind of company that can make swift progress on the partnering side. The developer is on track to end the year with $430 million in cash and equivalents in the bank, making it one of the few sizeable players in the industry. And it keeps growing at a steady pace.  

"We're going to grow just a little bit," Maraganore says about 2010. "We're a big believer in the benefit of staying relatively small." Still, he says, a workforce of 180 is likely to grow to 200 next year as Alnylam stays focused on drug development, technology partnerships and its new venture in manufacturing. - John Carroll