by ilene - February 10th, 2011 12:45 pm
By ANDREW POLLACK
When RNA interference first electrified biologists several years ago, pharmaceutical companies rushed to harness what looked like a swift and surefire way to develop new drugs.
Billions of dollars later, however, some of those same companies are now losing their enthusiasm for RNAi, as it is called. And that is raising doubts about how quickly, if at all, the Nobel Prize-winning technique for turning off specific genes will yield the promised bounty of innovative medicines.
The biggest bombshell was dropped in November, when the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche said it would end its efforts to develop drugs using RNAi, after it had invested half a billion dollars in the field over four years.
Just last week, as part of a broader research cutback, Pfizer decided to shut down its 100-person unit working on RNAi and related technologies. Abbott Laboratories has also quietly shelved its RNAi drug development work.
“In 2005 and 2006, there was a very sudden buildup of expectation that RNAi was going to cure many diseases in a very short time frame,” said Dr. Johannes Fruehauf, vice president for research at Aura Biosciences, a small company pursuing the field. “Some of the hype, I believe, is going away and a more realistic view is setting in.”
The issue is that while drugs working through the RNAi mechanism can indeed shut off genes, it has been difficult to deliver such drugs to the cells where they are needed. At a time when hard-pressed pharmaceutical companies are already scaling back research expenditures, RNAi is losing out to alternatives that seem closer to producing marketable drugs.
“I have no doubt that at a certain point in time RNAi will make it to the market,” said Klaus Stein, head of therapeutic modalities for Roche. But he added, “When we looked into this, we came to the conclusion that we have opportunities that have higher priorities.”