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November 1, 2006

Pharmaceuticals

Merck Is To Acquire Sirna

Move signals big pharma's confidence in RNAi therapeutics

Lisa M. Jarvis

Looking to stay on the cutting edge of drug discovery, Merck & Co. has agreed to shell out $1.1 billion for Sirna Therapeutics, a San Francisco-based biotech firm focused on drugs based on RNA interference.

Merck says Sirna's RNAi technology complements internal efforts on RNA expression that have been under way since its 2001 acquisition of Rosetta Inpharmatics. The company believes the technology combination could significantly change the way drugs are discovered and developed.

RNAi has stirred a flood of interest, most recently via this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine (C&EN Online Latest News, Oct. 9), but the technology has yet to be proven by the launch of a drug. Needham & Co. stock analyst Mark Monane says the Sirna purchase "signals a major shift in perception by large pharma about the prospects for RNAi therapeutics as a novel therapeutic class, joining the ranks of small molecules and antibodies as key drug modalities."

Monane adds that the deal validates other RNAi companies, including Nastech Pharmaceutical and Alnylam, as well as those pursuing oligonucleotide drugs, such as Isis Pharmaceuticals. Although big pharma has flirted with RNAi—Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, and Merck all have entered RNAi drug discovery pacts—the Sirna acquisition is the industry's first long-term commitment to the technology.

For Merck, the purchase is the latest in a buying spree intended to revitalize its drug pipeline. The deal provides access to a short-interfering RNA drug that Sirna and Allergan are codeveloping to treat age-related wet macular degeneration. Earlier this year, the company paid almost $500 million combined for the biotech firms GlycoFi and Abmaxis.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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