As early hype fades, pharma steadily backs away from RNAi

The New York Times' Andrew Pollack gives RNAi the treatment in a lengthy feature looking at the trials and tribulations of a field once slated to become the hottest new thing since antibodies. Roche triggered the alarm last fall when it announced plans to shutter its work in the field. Abbott followed up by silently pulling out, and just days ago Pfizer added RNAi to the list of casualties in its big pipeline restructuring plan.

"I have no doubt that at a certain point in time RNAi will make it to the market," Roche's Klaus Stein tells Pollack. But "when we looked into this, we came to the conclusion that we have opportunities that have higher priorities."

There have been a number of dour assessments of RNAi in recent months, but what sets Pollack's story apart is its careful attention to new doubts about the science of turning off genes. Studies tracking the efficacy of these treatments may actually be seeing a reflection of a stimulated immune system, which can trigger a tumor effect. And while researchers have been making significant progress overcoming the challenge of delivering RNAi drugs, that issue is far from resolved. Inactivating genes was also thought the best way to prevent the production of certain proteins, offering pathways to what had been unapproachable targets. But new programs are finding success with more conventional technologies.

Some companies seem to be developing a classic case of cold feet. Before antibodies became a blockbuster hit, researchers had to journey through 20 years of R&D work. As pharma companies recognize the long road that still lies ahead for basic RNAi science, many are willing to leave the field to a handful of determined pioneers like Alnylam.

- here's the NYT story