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Roche signs licensing deal with Alnylam

The Swiss drug maker is granted rights to gene-silencing technology from the Massachusetts firm.

July 10, 2007|From the Associated Press

BOSTON — Switzerland-based Roche on Monday licensed rights to gene-silencing technology in a potential $1-billion deal -- the second recent move by a large drug maker to develop novel disease treatments based on Nobel Prize-winning research.

Roche is licensing technology in the emerging field of RNA interference from Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc., a small Cambridge, Mass.-based biotechnology firm, whose shares soared 52% in trading Monday.

The announcement comes seven months after Merck & Co. completed a $1.1-billion acquisition of San Francisco-based Sirna Therapeutics Inc. -- another case of a big drug maker pairing with a smaller firm to capitalize on technology that may yield treatments for diseases including diabetes, asthma and cancer.

Within the next decade, the first batch of drugs that act by "silencing" the specific genes at the root of a disease are expected to come to market.

The Roche-Alnylam deal "just speaks to how valuable this technology is," said analyst Douglas Chow of Caris & Co.

Unlike the Merck-Sirna deal, in which a developer of so-called RNAi therapy was bought, Roche is merely licensing technology from Alnylam. Roche will pay $331 million upfront, including cash payments and a more-than-$42-million investment to buy nearly 5% of Alnylam's stock.

The firms said the total deal could reach more than $1 billion, including future payments to Alnylam if certain milestones are met in bringing products to market. The Swiss company also is acquiring Alnylam's 40-employee European research center in Kumbach, Germany.

The companies' RNAi work will initially target cancer, respiratory diseases, metabolic diseases and liver diseases.

Alnylam is granting Roche nonexclusive rights and said it "maintains the right to nonexclusively license its intellectual property to additional partners in potential future agreements."

Roche will use the technology to develop products for its own pipeline, and Roche and Alnylam plan to jointly develop one or more products.

John Maraganore, Alnylam's chief executive, said his company "has a significant number of additional discussions that we think will lead to new relationships" with other firms, which he declined to identify.

Monday's deal is huge for 5-year-old Alnylam, which employs 110 at its Cambridge headquarters and recorded nearly $27 million in revenue last year, compared with Roche's $33.7 billion in sales.

Analysts say Alnylam's wealth of intellectual property covering RNAi techniques in mammals makes the company a key player in bringing the technology to market.

"They've got the management, they've got the partnerships, they've got the intellectual property, and this deal is a massively positive surprise," said Edward Tenthoff, a Piper Jaffray & Co. analyst.

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