Another setback for RNAi research as Merck shutters R&D outpost

As Merck laid out plans to furlough thousands of workers as it pares back expenses, the Big Pharma company spread the word that it is shuttering an RNAi research facility in San Francisco which was obtained as part of its $1.1 billion buyout of Sirna and laying off 50 workers. Xconomy reports that Merck still plans to use its RNAi know-how throughout its R&D operation, but the news nevertheless sounds another alarm for a drug research field that has been chilled by widespread cutbacks in the face of daunting R&D challenges.

"We continue to invest significantly in the RNA research field, which we believe represents a potentially transformative technology," Merck spokesman Ian McConnell tells Luke Timmerman. "It's a difficult decision."

Merck agreed to buy Sirna 5 years ago for $1.1 billion, a significant offering for a company engaged in a high-risk research field. But at the time valuations for RNAi companies were skyrocketing as drug companies hitched their wagons to the gene-silencing phenomenon. Companies like Alnylam benefited from a string of big-dollar partnerships. Since then, though, investigators have been frustrated by problems delivering RNAi treatments and leading companies in the field have reported that the work is slow going. Last February The New York Times' Andrew Pollack pointed out that new research has also raised doubts about the scientific potential of RNAi, noting that stimulated immune systems may be behind the tumor responses detected by researchers.

Over the past year there have been a number of setbacks in the field, with Roche dropping its RNAi work and Abbott and Pfizer both following suit.

- here's the story from Xconomy