As FierceBiotech reported yesterday, Roche singled out its work in RNAi when choosing its R&D targets for the budget axe, announcing plans to shutter the work underway in Kulmbach, Germany, Nutley, NJ and Madison, WI. That may not be a major cutback in the broad scope of the restructuring now going on in Big Pharma R&D these days, but it triggered a dark night of soul searching for companies in the RNAi field.
Over at In The Pipeline, Derek Lowe called the Roche move "the biggest vote of no-confidence yet for RNAi." And he goes on to note that while no one knows what the other big players are thinking, you have to wonder what comes next. "Are they wondering what in the world Roche is up to? Looking at it as a market opportunity, and glad to see less competition? Or wishing that they could do the same thing?"
Roche, for its part, made clear that RNAi still faces some big hurdles. Given the pharma company's new strategic direction, the science was also no longer a good fit.
"While there has been some progress in solving the scientific and technical hurdles with RNAi, the hurdles remain, in particular cell specific delivery. Also, the most promising indications where we could achieve successful delivery do not fit with our strategy," Roche spokesman Darien E. Wilson told BioWorld Today.
Shortly after Roche dropped the bomb on RNAi, Tekmira announced that the R&D shift included an end to its partnership with Roche struck in May, 2009, when the two companies agreed to take Roche's first two RNAi candidates into the clinic. Tekmira hastened to reassure investors that it still could rely on partnerships with Alnylam and others to deliver fresh revenue, but its stock price took a 13 percent hit.
But as a number of analysts have noted, there are some implications here for Alnylam as well. The RNAi pioneer is partnered with Roche, among others, and that deal has an uncertain future at best. And Alnylam had to significantly cut its staff back in September after Novartis wrapped its own contract and walked away without picking up a $100 million option on Alnylam's targets.