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Asuragen Spinning Out miRNA Drugs IP, Assets into Mirna Therapeutics

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Asuragen has begun the process of spinning out its microRNA-based therapeutics programs and intellectual property into a new company called Mirna Therapeutics, and has provided the startup with $3 million in seed financing, a company official confirmed this week.
 
According to Matt Winkler, Asuragen’s founder, CEO, and CSO, the move would allow Asuragen to focus on its miRNA diagnostics and services operations.
 
He declined to provide details about the structure of the spinout, noting that “there are a lot of organization details we want to get all lined up before we talk about this publicly. In a month we’ll release substantially more information.”
 
Winkler also was tightlipped about Mirna’s expected pipeline, saying that the microRNA therapeutics field “has become a very competitive area. So until things are ready for prime time, we’re keeping a lid on them.”
 
However, it seems likely that oncology will be at least part of Mirna’s focus in light of a partnership Asuragen struck with Yale University earlier this year. Under that arrangement, the company acquired exclusive rights to inventions developed by Yale researcher Frank Slack related to the use of oncogene-regulating miRNAs, including the therapeutic use of let-7 (see RNAi News, 1/11/2007).
 
As for the decision behind spinning out its drug-development operations into a new company, Winkler said that “it simply makes more sense to have a focused therapeutic effort and a focused diagnostic effort.”
 
The two “have different commercialization strategies, different funding strategies, [require] different types of expertise … and it makes sense to have those in separate companies,” he told RNAi News.
 
Asuragen isn’t alone in thinking that developing miRNA drugs might best be done by a company solely focused on the field. In September, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals and partner Isis Pharmaceuticals announced that they had spun out their miRNA therapeutics programs into a joint venture called Regulus Therapeutics (see RNAi News, 9/13/2007).
 

Therapeutics and diagnostics “have different commercialization strategies, different funding strategies, [require] different types of expertise … and it makes sense to have those in separate companies.”

According to the companies, Regulus has been provided with exclusive access to Alnylam and Isis’ IP related to miRNA drugs, as well as $10 million in start-up funding from the RNAi shop.
 
Still, at least one other company is looking to make a splash in both miRNA therapeutics and diagnostics: Rosetta Genomics.
 
Since at least late 2005, the Israeli firm has had its eye on both markets (see RNAi News, 11/4/2005). After its initial public offering early last year (see RNAi News, 3/1/2007), the company has been moving forward with plans to start introducing miRNA-based diagnostics in order to lay the groundwork for the eventual launch of miRNA-targeting drugs.
 
Currently, Rosetta expects to begin selling its first three miRNA diagnostics this year, including a test for differentiating adenocarcinoma from squamous cell carcinoma in the lung; one for differentiating lung adenocarcinoma from mesothelioma; and one for identifying the source of cancers of unknown primary origin.
 
Rosetta also has diagnostics for breast cancer, prostate cancer, colorectal cancer, and heart disease under development.
 
On the therapeutics front, Rosetta has begun in vivo testing of a miRNA-targeting liver cancer drug in collaboration with Isis (see RNAi News, 11/15/2007) and has other programs in infectious disease.
 
All Quiet
 
Although the creation of Mirna is expected to give Asuragen more freedom to pursue miRNA diagnostics, the company has not released many details about this effort.
 
Winkler told RNAi News this week that “there are a number of tests under development,” but he declined to comment on which diseases the tests would be for other than saying that the company is keeping its attention on cancer — at least in the near term.
 
“It’s possible we’ll expand [to other disease areas] but at this point we’re pretty focused around oncology,” he said.
 
But filings with the US Securities and Exchange Commission by Rosetta indicate that the company has forged a partnership with Asuragen to develop a prostate cancer test, revealing at least one of Asuragen’s diagnostic programs.
 
Winkler declined to comment on when his company may begin introducing any of its diagnostics.