On September 26, the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (“MassBio”) hosted the fourth part of its “Adventures in Biotech” Forum series entitled, “Executing the Dream II: Eyes on the Price – Strategic Science Tactics & the Pursuit of Business Objectives” . The purpose of this Forum was to discuss ways that scientific strategy may be worked into the philosophy of a new company, how the scientific strategy can propel the growth of the company, and how the scientific strategy may change over time as a result of that growth. The speakers included Birgit Schoeberl, Vice President, Early Stage Discovery, Merrimack Pharmaceuticals (“Merrimack”); Muthiah Manoharan, Ph.D., Senior Vice President Drug Discovery, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (“Alnylam”); Laurence Reid, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, Chief Business Officer, Alnylam; and Steven Tregay, Ph.D., Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer, Forma Therapeutics (“Forma”).
Each of the speakers had a different approach as to how they incorporated their scientific strategy into their business. Tregay, for example, described Forma as a “sustainable research and development discovery engine” focused on oncology therapies that can screen 30-40 individual (not combinational) targets a year using an iterative process that includes: computational and medicinal chemistry, parallel synthesis, X-ray crystallography and relevant biology studies. According to Tregay, Forma’s science permits it to mitigate risk by running in parallel a large number of discovery programs while continuously assessing the molecules, prioritizing targets for their pipeline at the appropriate scale, and maintaining communication between all scientists, and project teams. As part of its strategy, Forma first goes broad to investigate a cancer target technology and then more specific as aspects of that technology are validated and ready for candidate screening. Integral in Forma’s strategy is forming partnerships with companies interested in screening many potential cancer candidates quickly rather than few candidates exhaustively, where it already has formed partnerships with Celgene, Boehringer Ingelheim, Genentech, and Johnson & Johnson, as well as some research universities.
Reid explained that Alnylam’s focus has been on building its platform technology on ribonucleic acid interference (“RNAi”), a natural mechanism for silencing specific genes. RNAi is a biological process in which ribonucleic acid (“RNA”) molecules inhibit gene expression, typically by causing the destruction of specific messenger RNA (“mRNA”) molecules. RNAi has gone by other names in the past, including co-suppression, post transcriptional gene silencing (“PTGS”), and quelling. Genes provide cells with the instructions for making proteins, and abnormal proteins are frequently the cause of human disease. The theory behind RNAi therapy, therefore, is to use double-stranded RND (“dsRNA”) to silence certain genes involved in the diseased state and reduce the occurrence of the associated disease. Scientists at Alnylam developed a new strategy to trigger RNAi in mammalian cells using relatively-small dsRNAs–long enough to induce RNAi, but small enough to avoid inducing an immune response–to permit RNAi to be considered as a new therapeutic strategy.