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Management Shake-Ups Consistent in RNAi, microRNA Markets Over Two Years

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By Doug Macron

Rosetta Genomics last month disclosed in a US Securities and Exchange Commission filing that Ronen Tamir, its chief commercialization officer, would resign to "pursue other opportunities."

Although details surrounding Tamir's departure were not provided, it comes on the heels of yet another changeup to Rosetta's overall business strategy, and the recent replacement of its president and CEO.

But management shake-ups have been consistent in the biotechnology industry in general, and the RNAi/microRNA space is no exception. Over the past two years, executives from a number of different companies have moved on, including those from RXi Pharmaceuticals, MDRNA, Silence Therapeutics, and Cequent Pharmaceuticals.

Officials from Rosetta did not return a request for comment on Tamir's resignation, but it could be connected with the company's recent efforts to settle on a product-development strategy.

Founded in 2005 to develop both diagnostics and therapeutics based on miRNAs (GSN 11/4/2005), Rosetta has transitioned away from drug development and now characterizes itself strictly as a "molecular diagnostics company."

Although it is a leader in the space, having commercialized three diagnostics based on the small, non-coding RNAs, Rosetta announced in early March that it would put most of its attention on developing tests for screening, rather than diagnosing, disease. The primary focus of this new tack was to be a screen for colon cancer, dubbed miRscreen Colon, which the company expected to launch before the end of 2009.

"We recognize that this new emphasis on miRscreen Colon is a change in our business focus, or more specifically, in the timing and prioritization of activities," Rosetta's then President and CEO Amir Avniel said at the time. "Nevertheless, we believe this focus can potentially provide significant value."

About six months later, the company was backtracking and Avniel was saying that miRscreen Colon would not likely be ready for commercialization until mid-2010 as Rosetta addresses technical difficulties in measuring blood-borne miRNAs (GSN 9/10/2009).

At the same time, Avniel said that he would step down as head of the company in order to take charge of Rosetta's nascent plant biotechnology unit. He was replaced by Kenneth Berlin two months later.

Further changes were in store for Rosetta, however. In December, Berlin said that miRNA-based screens would be put on the backburner and that the firm would refocus on diagnostics (GSN 12/31/2009).

Another company to see the departure of its top executive as it worked through an identity crisis is RXi Pharmaceuticals. Spun out of CytRx in 2007, the RNAi drugs shop has had varied therapeutic interests ranging from neurodegenerative disease to metabolic disorders to cancer, and has had different programs at the head of its pipeline at different times.

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Meanwhile, RXi had been setting and resetting its corporate goals under the leadership of founding President and CEO Tod Woolf. At one time the firm said it would file its first investigational new drug application and strike at least two industry partnerships in 2009. It missed both milestones.

By November, RXi disclosed that Woolf would step down as the company “looks to advance from the research stage to product development and execution of therapeutic collaborations and partnerships" (GSN 11/12/2009).

Taking the helm from Woolf was Noah Beerman, who last month announced that RXi would focus primarily on dermal and ocular diseases, with an IND expected to be filed by the end of 2011 (GSN 6/17/2010).

Experiencing perhaps the biggest management overhaul the RNAi space has seen in some time was MDRNA. The one-time intranasal drug-delivery firm, initially known as Nastech Pharmaceutical, began acquiring access to RNAi drug technologies in 2006 under its former President and CEO Steven Quay (GSN 2/23/2006).

Although it had been planning to spin out its RNAi assets into a new company, Nastech decided to adopt the gene-silencing focus itself amid setbacks with its own drug-development programs (GSN 5/8/2008).

Quay held on as MDRNA's top executive for a few more months until he was replaced by Sirna Therapeutics alum Michael French. Quay hung on as chairman and CSO, but soon thereafter handed off the CSO role to Sirna's former CSO Barry Polisky. The next year, he left the company altogether.

Not all management shakeups resulted from corporate troubles. In December, Silence Therapeutics announced that it would merge with Intradigm (GSN 12/17/2009).

As part of that transaction, Intradigm CEO Philip Haworth became CEO of the merger firm, replacing Silence Chairman and CEO Iain Ross, who remains chairman of the new company.

Another example is Cequent Pharmaceuticals, which earlier this year agreed to be acquired by MDRNA for about $46 million in stock (GSN 4/1/2010). Although the deal has not yet closed, it calls for MDRNA's French to remain president and CEO of the post-transaction company.

Cequent President and CEO Peter Parker will serve as the new company's chairman.

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