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RNAi Roundup: Ambion Plans to Use $10.5M Financing for Acquisitions, Licensing, Etc.; Isis Talks Up New siRNA Production Method; RNAi Conference in Boston Next Week

NEW YORK, May 2 - Ambion is sitting pretty these days. The Austin, Texas-based RNA provider not only finds itself in the center of the RNAi technology explosion, it has the luxury of having raised $10.5 million in venture capital financing this week, just to have in its coffers in case it wants to make an acquisition or expand a business area.


"We didn't need this funding for ongoing operations, we just took the opportunity at this point in time to raise some relatively inexpensive working capital, " Ambion president Bruce Leander told GenomeWeb. "We just put it in the bank and if an opportunity comes up in the next year or two, we will have the opportunity to make an acquisition or do aggressive licensing."


The financing, which comes from San Francisco VC Telegraph Hill Partners, will not be earmarked only for growth of Ambion's burgeoning RNAi business, said Leander, but the company does see siRNA as one of the places where it may choose to use its extra funds to expand.


Ambion is one of four companies to hold a license to the MIT's pool of patent applications for short interfering RNAs for use in target validation. The company markets its Silencer siRNA expression kits and sells them in the USfor $380.


SiRNA "is just exploding, especially in the research segment, said Leander. "It's so inexpensive for a researcher anywhere at any institution to try, that's the beauty of it."


But even before this growth in the siRNA business, the company was profitable, according to Leander. Its only VC money comes from Growth Capital partners, which led an initial round of financing in Ambion seven years ago, and has a minority stake in the company. The majority of the company is held by founder and CEO Matt Winkler, Leander said.


Contacts at Growth Capital made the initial connection between Ambion's management and Telegraph Hill, according to Leander. As part of the financing deal, J. Matthew Mackowski, a partner in Telegraph Hill, will now serve on Board of Directors.  Mackowski is the founder of Kinetikos Medical and initial CFO of Health Systems Design, as well as a former partner at Robertson Stephens. He also has served on the board of Genomic Solutions, Micro Interventional Systems, and Managed Health Network.


While this round of investment does not as explicitly back siRNA as much as the recent $48 million round of investment in Sirna therapeutics, it's just another sign that RNAi continues to be a hot word on the lips of otherwise burnt out life science investors.


In the licensing arena, OxfordUniversity's technology transfer arm, Isis Innovation, is (politely) touting the benefits of a new method for producing siRNA in vitro, which it claims is an improvement over existing methods and is less expensive.
The method, developed by Mohammed Sohail in the biochemistry lab of microarray pioneer Edwin Southern, involves first conducting RNA transcription reactions in vitro using T7/T3 or SP6 promoters, and adding a 5' leader sequence to the transcripts, then using  deoxyribozymes to digest RNA. Sohail and colleagues published a full description of this method in the 1 April issue of Nucleic Acids Research (Vol. 31, No. 7, e.38)


Isishas applied for patents on this method in the USand the UK, and is interested in licensing this technology out to commercial RNAi providers. The company is "talking to a number of entities," about the terms of licensing, according to Taj Mattu, a project manager for Isis.


Onthe research front, a slew of new papers were published this week utilizing both general RNA interference and siRNA, including a piece in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, RNA interference by expression of short-interfering RNAs and hairpin RNAs in mammalian cells; as well as comments in the May issue of Nature Biotechnology on expression of siRNA in human cells, and expansion of RNA interference.


This conversation about RNAi and siRNA promises to go from print to the microphone in the coming week, as Gene Expression Systems sponsors the first "RNA Inteference Technology in Drug Validation & Development" event in Walthamon May 5 and 6th.


GenomeWeb will feature coverage of the event in next week's installment of this weekly RNAi Roundup.

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