Sirna to ally with GlaxoSmithKline
Biotech inks a deal with U.K. drugmaking giant, GlaxoSmithKline; will focus squarely on new asthma medicines.
By John Simons, FORTUNE reporter

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - It's been quite a week for Sirna Therapeutics (Research) -- and it's still only Monday.

The San Francisco-based biotech firm announced today that it inked a deal with U.K. drugmaking giant, GlaxoSmithKline (Research). GSK will invest $700 million in Sirna to co-develop respiratory medicines.

Sirna CEO Howard Robin says the two companies will first focus squarely on RNA-based asthma medicines, then possibly branch out into other lung diseases. The ultimate form the product will take: an inhalable mist of some kind.

Says Robin of the GSK's commitment, "This deal shows the robustness of this technology and our skill set to move it forward rapidly. You're going to see a lot from us in the next few years."

Sirna's deal with GSK is limited to respiratory research. Robin says Sirna aims to reproduce this type of agreement with other Big Pharma companies in a host of therapeutic areas such as dermatology or diabetes.

The GSK/Sirna alliance is not the first of its kind. In late 2003, for instance, Merck (Research) formed an partnership with Cambridge-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (Research) to discover and develop RNAi-based drugs across a range of therapeutic areas. The terms of that deal were not disclosed by either company.

Sirna certainly has scientific know-how. On Tuesday, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office plans to award Sirna the nation's first patent for using any so-called short interfering RNA (or siRNA) to "silence" a particular gene involved in a number of diseases. Sirna's technology can be used to prevent the "IKK gamma" gene from producing excess proteins that cause ailments including asthma, arthritis, cancer and heart disease. The patent allows the company to own any therapy of this kind used on the IKK gamma gene.

Sirna's patent is the first of what it hopes will be many. The company has filed more than 250 additional patents to use RNAi-based therapies to combat ailments and diseases such as Alzheimer's, Avian Flu, HIV, Parkinson's -- and even baldness.

By mid-afternoon, Sirna's shares, trading on NASDAQ, were up more than 14 percent from Friday's close to $7.71.

Sirna's announcement highlights the growing importance of RNA (ribonucleic acid) interference to drug development. What is RNAi? Well, RNA is a messenger molecule that translates DNA coding into the synthesis of new proteins in the body.

RNA interference is a technology wherein those natural defenses are used to disrupt certain genetic messages, such as those that instigate the growth of viruses or other diseases.

The technology is only in its infancy. Its potential was first discovered in 1990, by botanist Rich Jorgensen while attempting to infuse petunias with a purple pigment gene.

It wasn't until later in the decade that Drs. Roland Kreutzer and Stefan Limmer found a way to use RNA to silence genes in mammal cells. Since the early 1990s a number of companies have been formed to take advantage of the research. Sirna was founded in 1992. Top of page

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