By Doug Macron
Mirina, a Seattle-based startup developing microRNA-targeting therapeutics, has been in discussions with a number of pharmaceutical firms over possible investments in the company, according to a court document related to a trademark-infringement suit with RNAi drug shop Marina Biotech.
And while details about the talks were not provided, the filing indicates that Mirina has been negotiating with Merck, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, MedImmune, Sanofi-Aventis, AstraZeneca, as well as the investment arms of Eli Lilly and GlaxoSmithKline.
Mirina was founded by biotech investment and development firm Accelerator in 2008 to develop miRNA antagonists based on a technology called minor groove binders that was licensed from Nanogen (GSN 8/21/2008).
MGBs are peptide antibiotics that non-covalently bind to the minor grooves of nucleic acid duplexes. Although they were originally developed to treat cancer, they were later found to be useful for stabilizing DNA duplexes. Further in vitro research suggested that they might be able to boost the target selectivity and potency of miRNA inhibitors.
With miRNA therapeutics outside of Nanogen's focus, the company looked to out-license the technology for that application, and eventually found an interested party in Accelerator.
Earlier this year, Mirina began getting its operations underway in earnest after securing an undisclosed amount of Series A-1 financing that Accelerator said would fund the new company for 12 to 15 months as it selected and validated molecule candidates for late-stage preclinical testing (GSN 4/29/2010). Information on recently received grants indicated that Mirina is focusing on cancer and fibrotic liver disease (GSN 11/4/2010).
Despite the Series A-1 funding, Mirina had still been on the lookout for additional investments, but this effort apparently ran into trouble when Marina changed its name from MDRNA this summer (GSN 7/22/2010).
In August, Mirina sued Marina, alleging that its new name is too similar to its own, and would cause "confusion, mistake, or deception" (GSN 8/19/2010).
Mirina said in its suit that that it uses its trade name "when seeking and engaging business and investment partners, customers, and employees," making it a "valuable" asset and an indicator of the "source of Mirina's services."
In a September request for a preliminary injunction to prevent Marina from continuing to use its new moniker, Mirina added that due to the early-stage nature of miRNA therapeutics, it is "a struggle … to secure funding, as well as talented employees, for continuing its quest for research investors, partners, and customers."
Marina's planned expansion into the miRNA field is also a point of concern, Mirina added. In a separate filing, the company said that it had already run into difficulties because of the similarity of the companies' names when a representative of pharmaceutical firm Bristol-Myers Squibb initially dismissed a potential business arrangement with the company after mistaking it for Marina (GSN 9/30/2010).
For its part, Marina maintains that it chose its new name to reflect "the marine nature of our two locations — Puget Sound and Boston Harbor — while preserving our Nasdaq ticker, MRNA, which we have used since June 11, 2008," President and CEO Michael French told Gene Silencing News earlier this year.
Additionally, Marina contends that biopharmaceutical investors and companies are savvy enough to discriminate between itself and Mirina.
According to recently released court papers obtained by Gene Silencing News, a Mirina employee involved in "assisting in partnerships and services discussions … [with] potential partners and investors" reported that, as of October, the company has been in ongoing investment discussions with Merck, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, MedImmune, Sanofi-Aventis, AstraZeneca, Lilly Ventures, and SR One GSK, although none had signed agreements.
Certain of the negotiations, the employee said during a deposition, involved initial "verbal presentations … one-on-one," and were followed by "confidential presentations with [written] materials and, in some cases … at Accelerator, which is the physical home for … Mirina."
The employee added that she has encountered confusion between Mirina and Marina by "individuals from diverse backgrounds."
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