Cerulean Shows Progress in Cancer, Tests Nano-Drug Platform in RNAi

Xconomy Boston — 

[Updated 8/15/11 8:00 am. See below.] In mid-July, Cambridge, MA-based Cerulean Pharma began a new clinical trial of its cancer drug CRLX101, which is a “nanoparticle”—a powerful chemical wrapped in a tiny package that can burrow its way into cancer cells and kill them. Cerulean is one of a handful of companies laboring to apply nanotechnology to drug delivery. The trial, which will involve 150 patients with non-small cell lung cancer, should shed some light on the potential of nano-drugs in the cancer setting when top line results are released next year.

But CEO Oliver Fetzer isn’t waiting for proof that Cerulean’s approach works. He’s so optimistic that he has already set his sights on a big new opportunity for the company’s tiny drug platform: RNA interference (RNAi). About a decade ago, the pharmaceutical industry started pouring research dollars into RNAi—a new method for shutting off disease-causing genes and proteins. But there was a problem. “If you just inject RNA into the patient, enzymes degrade it very quickly,” Fetzer told Xconomy in a recent sit-down interview. So last year, Cerulean started testing its nanoparticles to see if they might offer a better way to deliver RNAi therapeutics.

Cerulean isn’t the only company to spot an opportunity for nanoparticles in RNAi. On July 25, Cambridge-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALNY)—one of the pioneers in RNAi—announced that it and its collaborators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered novel nanoparticles that might facilitate the delivery of RNAi drugs directly into cells. Alnylam is developing RNAi approaches for several diseases, including cancer.

The difficulty of translating the promise of RNAi into drugs has been a major downer for the field. Last November, Swiss drug giant Roche unexpectedly pulled the plug on its RNAi program, which included ending a research alliance with Alnylam that once had the potential to earn the Cambridge company … Next Page »

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