Merck writes off RNAi, punts Sirna to Alnylam for $175M

While Roche ($RHHBY) and Sanofi ($SNY) are expanding their investments in RNAi, Merck ($MRK) is getting out.

The pharma giant struck a deal to sell Sirna Therapeutics to the biotech company for $175 million in cash and stock, up to $105 million in milestones for any new products that emerge from the deal plus a separate $10 million milestone on Alnylam products covered by Sirna's patent estate. Alnylam ($ALNY) is covering $150 million of that down payment with stock, contributing only $25 million in cash.

The deal marks another big writeoff for Merck, which is going through the process of deciding just what kind of drug developer it wants to be. Merck paid $1.1 billion for Sirna back in the go-go days of 2006. But two years ago Merck officials locked up a San Francisco facility it got in the buyout, laid off dozens of workers and said they would absorb the research effort in its global operations.

That was just about the last anyone heard about Merck's RNAi work. Today, though, Alnylam says it will gain the fruits of the effort: siRNA-conjugate and other delivery technologies, a big issue in RNAi. And there are some preclinical products that can be added to the pipeline.

Iain Dukes, the head of Merck's business development team, said in a statement that the move to jettison RNAi "is consistent with our strategy to reduce emphasis on platform technologies and prioritize our R&D efforts to focus on product candidates capable of providing unambiguous promotable advantages to patients and payers."

Merck announced in 2013 that it would restructure R&D, looking to jump-start its product development efforts after a long dry spell in the clinic.

- read Alnylam's release