Parting ways on RNAi

Alnylam and Merck agree to end their ongoing RNAi drug-development alliance

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—RNAi therapeutics company Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc. announced in mid-September that it and Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck & Co. had "mutually agreed to terminate their July 2006 amended and restated agreement."

As part of this action, Alnylam rescinded all grants of its intellectual property related to current and future Merck development programs, including the partnership's former co-development programs.

Back in July of last year, Alnylam amended its two RNAi collaboration agreements with Merck and consolidated them into a single collaboration, focusing on nine new therapeutic targets for Merck, at least one of which related to treatments for spinal cord injuries. Under the deal, Alnylam was to identify three of the nine new programs as joint development programs, with Merck assuming primary responsibility for the remaining six. The deal represented more than $120 million for milestone payments and royalties for Alnylam.

But toward the end of last year, Merck acquired Sirna Therapeutics—one of Alnylam's most significant competitors in the RNAi space—for more than a billion dollars, and that changed everything.

For his part, Barry Greene, COO at Alnylam, says the scuttling of the collaboration deal won't impact his company that much. Other major collaborations have been made since the original deal with Merck, and Alnylam recently formed Regulus Therapeutics with Isis Pharmaceuticals—a joint venture focused on microRNA therapeutics.

"The Merck collaboration was very early on in the spectrum of our work in RNAi," Greene says, "so this collaboration wasn't as significant as some other more recent ones like with Roche and Medtronic. The Merck work was not as fundamental to our success moving forward. Also, in December, Merck acquired Sirna and decided to continue action ongoing at Sirna to oppose some of our patents in Europe. So, it made sense at this time to terminate the relationship."

As to why it took more than eight months after the Sirna acquisition to decide to break off with Merck, Greene said there wasn't a need for urgency.

"We have tremendous respect for Merck and for their researchers, so we wanted to make sure to reach out to them and find out want they wanted going forward and what their goals were," he said. "When it became clear that they were choosing the path of competition, we had to protect our intellectual property and could no longer share that with them without compromising ourselves."

Amy Satkofsky, a spokesperson for Merck, agrees that neither company was interested in rushing to hasty decisions.

"What I can tell you is that Merck wanted the strategic freedom to explore all avenues of research in RNAi-based therapeutic development and the best way to do that was to focus efforts on Sirna," Satkofsky explains. "Merck is now strategically focusing its scientific expertise and resources on fully realizing the potential of Sirna's RNAi technology and programs. This technology is likely to be used across all of Merck's therapeutic areas. We do not believe this could have been achieved within the confines of our agreement with Alnylam and wish our colleagues at Alnylam good luck in their efforts."

Alnylam was likewise cordial in announcing the termination of the agreement, with Dr. John Maraganore, president and CEO, saying in a news release, "It is fundamentally in our best interests to terminate our Merck collaboration. We wish our colleagues at Merck the best of luck in their efforts."

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