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Fire and Mello Won Nobel Prize Earlier Than Most Expected. Why Won't It Affect RNAi Industry?

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — RNAi pioneers Andy Fire and Craig Mello have won this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology for their discovery of RNAi, an award that for many in the RNAi community came sooner than expected.
Yet despite the magnitude of the award, some stress that the event will likely not have much of an impact on the RNAi industry.
Although it can sometimes take decades before researchers win the Nobel Prize, Rockefeller University’s Tom Tuschl noted that the speed with which the Nobel Foundation recognized Fire and Mello speaks to the importance of their work.

“The Nobel Prize is almost late” in recognizing Fire and Mello.

RNAi “had a profound impact on publication status in journals; it has industry behind it, at least in mammalian systems, [producing] reagents that are used in pharmacologic research for target validation; it [led to] startup businesses that are developing drugs based on siRNAs,” he told GenomeWeb News sister publication RNAi News. “So I don’t know how long you have to wait to see an impact. I don’t know what else you need to make this a more visible field.”
Tuschl likened the discovery of RNAi to Kary Mullis’ development of PCR, after which “every laboratory [began] using it because there was no other way to amplify a gene in a fast period of time.” Mullis invented PCR in 1985 and was awarded the Nobel Prize eight years later in 1993.
In light of the impact RNAi has had, “the Nobel Prize is almost late,” Tuschl added.
Business as Usual?
Moreover, although the award represents the biggest recognition of the importance of RNAi to date, it appears unlikely that the event will have much of an impact on the industry.
“It’s a profound validation of this pathway,” Barry Polisky, senior vice president of research and CSO of Sirna Therapeutics, said. However, “for people in the field … no one is terribly surprised.
“This is already the method of choice for down regulating every gene conceivable in everybody’s laboratory, and big pharma and little pharma use it routinely for target validation,” he told RNAi News.
Douglas Fambrough, a principal at VC firm Oxford Bioscience Partners and member of Sirna’s board, added that while Fire and Mello’s receipt of the Nobel Prize ”is very gratifying and a validation for the field,” its impact on the RNAi industry is likely to be small.
“The field has gotten quite a bit of press attention in the past; it has been trumpeted pretty loudly in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and it was breakthrough of the year in Science magazine” in 2002, he told RNAi News.
Polisky was a little more sanguine about the effects of the Nobel Prize, noting that it may “validate in the minds of investors this technology.” But he agreed that “people who follow this field already know the potential of this technology.”
In the end, the effect Fire and Mello’s Nobel Prize has on RNAi may mostly be seen among laypeople.
“The Science magazine award has a certain amount of impact, but nothing approaches the Nobel Prize in terms of the man on the street beginning to think about this as a validated technology,” Polisky said. “Being a breakthrough in Science — from a scientist’s point of view, that’s probably as good as it gets. But a Nobel Prize everybody understands. That’s a different realm.”

The complete version of this article originally appeared this week in RNAi News, a GenomeWeb News sister publication.

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