Pharmaceutical companies became very interested in using siRNAs as potential new drugs. Theoretically, siRNA molecules could be used to knock down expression of any protein that was believed to be harmful in a disease. In the same year that Fire and Mello were awarded their Nobel Prize, the giant pharmaceutical company Merck paid over one billion US dollars for a siRNA company in California called Sirna Therapeutics. Other large pharmaceutical companies have also invested heavily. But in 2010 a bit of a chill breeze began to drift through the pharmaceutical industry. Roche, the giant Swiss company, announced that it was stopping its siRNA programmes, despite having spent more than $500 million on them over three years. Its neighbouring Swiss corporation, Novartis, pulled out of a collaboration with a siRNA company called Alnylam in Massachusetts. There are still plenty of other companies who have stayed in this particular game, but it would probably be fair to say there’s a bit more nervousness around this technology than in the past. One of the major problems with using this kind of approach therapeutically may sound rather mundane. Nucleic acids, such as DNA and RNA, are just difficult to turn into good drugs. Most good existing drugs – ibuprofen, Viagra, anti-histamines – have certain characteristics in common. You can swallow them, they get across your gut wall, they get distributed around your body, they don’t get destroyed too quickly by your liver, they get taken up by cells, and they work their effects on the molecules in or on the cells. Those all sound like really simple things, but they’re often the most difficult things to get right when developing a new drug. Companies will spend tens of millions of dollars – at least – getting this bit right, and it is still a surprisingly hit-and-miss process. It’s so much worse when trying to create drugs around nucleic acids. This is partly because of their size. An average siRNA molecule is over 50 times larger than a drug like ibuprofen. When creating drugs (especially ones to be taken orally rather than injected) the general rule is, the smaller the better. The larger a drug is, the greater the problems with getting high enough doses into patients, and keeping them in the body for long enough. This may be why a company like Roche has decided it can spend its money more effectively elsewhere. This doesn’t mean that siRNA won’t ever work in the treatment of illnesses, it’s just quite high risk as a business venture.
Nessa Carey (The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance)