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Rift over Termination, New RNAi Startup Led to Shooting of UCSD Researcher

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The recent shooting of University of California, San Diego, researcher and Traversa Therapeutics Co-founder Steven Dowdy allegedly by former Traversa CEO Hans Petersen was prompted by suspicions that Dowdy had been responsible for Petersen's termination and had misappropriated Traversa technology for use in a new startup firm, Gene Silencing News has learned.

Petersen was arrested last week for approaching Dowdy's residence and firing a gun "multiple times" into Dowdy's bedroom, striking Dowdy once in the lower back, according to San Diego police. Petersen later broke into the home of his estranged wife and shot her brother, Ron Fletcher, before being subdued by his brother-in-law and arrested by police.

Dowdy has since been released from the hospital and is recovering.

Specific details of the case have not been disclosed and Petersen's arraignment has been postponed until next week, according to various news outlets. However, discussions with people familiar with the situation, as well as emails from and between Petersen and Dowdy that were obtained by Gene Silencing News, indicate that Petersen held a grudge against Dowdy over the failure of an RNAi drug firm they both helped lead.

Traversa was founded in 2006 to develop an siRNA-delivery technology called PTD-DRBD that was developed in Dowdy's UCSD lab, with Petersen at its helm. Despite a strong start, Traversa ultimately shut down its operations in 2012 after failing to secure needed funding (GSN 5/13/2012).

However, Petersen was fired from the company the prior year, and although no official announcement was made regarding his departure, conflicts with Dowdy appear to be at least partly responsible.

For instance, in an email from Dowdy to Petersen dated April 2009, which was provided by Hans Petersen's brother Scott, Dowdy questioned Petersen's decision to promote an alternative delivery technology, dubbed ribonucleic neutrals, or RNNs, which was less advanced than the PTD-DRBD approach, to potential industry collaborators.

Dowdy also wrote that a significant amount of the research being conducted on the technology in his UCSD lab did not belong to Traversa, and indicated that it could be licensed to a company other than Traversa should it continue to be publicized by Petersen.

Dowdy was unavailable to confirm that he had sent that email.

More indicative of Petersen's mindset is an email dated May 2013 that he sent to the legal counsel for the Traversa trustee overseeing the company's bankruptcy proceedings. In it, Petersen alleged, among other things, that Dowdy and Traversa CSO Curt Bradshaw declined additional investment in the company from Corey Goodman, a pharmaceutical industry veteran and managing partner of venture capital firm VenBio, in order to intentionally drive the firm into bankruptcy.

As part of Traversa's bankruptcy proceedings, intellectual property related to the RNN technology, which had been licensed from UCSD, returned to the institution and relicensed to Dowdy and Bradshaw for use by the new RNAi drug company they founded, Solstice Biologics.

Notably, earlier this year Solstice secured $18 million in Series A funding in a round led by VenBio — a transaction that saw Goodman become Solstice's executive chairman (GSN 1/10/2013).

Meanwhile, a patent application on a technology similar to RNNs was acquired during the bankruptcy proceedings by Scott Petersen, who was once a postdoc in Dowdy's lab and later served as director of chemistry at Traversa. That patent application, No. 20110294869, lists Scott Petersen as the sole inventor.

In an interview with Gene Silencing News, Goodman denied ever having approached Traversa about an investment opportunity, stating that he hadn't even heard of the company until Bradshaw — a former colleague when both worked for Pfizer — approached him about taking a stake in Solstice.

"It wasn't until later in my due diligence process, a number of months later … I learned the name Traversa for the first time," he said. Any stories to the contrary, he added, are "made up."

Goodman also said that in late 2012, after the bankruptcy auction that saw Bradshaw acquire IP from UCSD and Scott Petersen successfully bidding on the patent application he created, he spoke with Scott Petersen regarding a licensing opportunity for the '869 application.

Characterizing their exchanges as "polite" and "dignified," Goodman said that he declined to take Scott Petersen's offer of an exclusive license to the IP, having already seen it and deciding that it wasn't needed by Solstice — a situation Petersen confirmed.

Since that time, neither have had contact with the other, they both said.

However, Goodman said that in May 2013, he received an email from Hans Petersen suggesting that he and his brother "built the IP portfolio" that Solstice licensed from UCSD. Hans Petersen added that Dowdy and Bradshaw should be fired from Traversa and that he and his brother should be hired by Solstice, Goodman added.

"I never responded to him," he said. About a month later, Hans Petersen again emailed Goodman, telling him that "he had been in touch with senior executives at a large pharma company and claiming that 'everyone is wondering how Solstice stole the technology from Traversa,'" Goodman told Gene Silencing News.

"There is no basis for saying that Solstice stole anything from Traversa," he said, adding that Solstice, with the support of VenBio, could have "easily" outbid Scott Petersen for the '869 patent application but opted not to because they saw "so little value in it."

He conceded that he had authorized Bradshaw to bid up to $30,000 for the IP "because it was in a related area to what we were doing … [and] if I could get it cheap, I thought it best to buy it simply to get it off the street so we didn't have somebody else with a patent causing confusion."

Scott Petersen acquired the IP for $40,000.

Further, Goodman said that Solstice's IP has not yet been published by the US Patent and Trademark Office and that the company is keeping it under wraps until then in order to maintain a competitive advantage. As such, there is no way Hans Petersen or anyone else could know if Solstice was using IP that it had not appropriately obtained, he stressed.

"We have nothing from Traversa. We have no IP from Traversa," he said.

According to Goodman, around June of this year, Hans Petersen emailed Dowdy, implying that Dowdy had "ruined his life, that Steve had been responsible for getting him fired, [and] that Steve had destroyed Traversa so that he could start a new company."

A person close to Traversa and familiar with its operations but requested anonymity backed up Goodman's statements, telling Gene Silencing News that while Dowdy and Hans Petersen were at one time good friends and neighbors, their relationship soured over differing opinions over how Traversa should be run.

And while Dowdy was not a company board member and not directly involved in the decision to fire Hans Petersen, which was strictly "a business decision," he felt that Dowdy "betrayed him. Hans took it very personally," said the source.

The source also said that there is no truth to the accusation that Dowdy and Bradshaw rejected offers of funding for Traversa, noting that the RNAi industry as a whole was still reeling from the decisions by Pfizer and Roche to drop their in-house programs based on the gene-silencing technology and that the money to keep Traversa going simply wasn't there.

In an interview with Gene Silencing News, Scott Petersen declined to comment directly on his brother's allegation that Solstice is using Traversa IP, although he did reference an ongoing review by the Traversa trustees of the company's bankruptcy proceedings, including the sale of its assets to Bradshaw.

He also said that he couldn't comment on Hans Petersen's attitude around the time of the shootings. "We were essentially estranged after the demise of Traversa and have been for the last several years," he said, stressing that his brother "has never been associated or affiliated" with his new company, TriPhos Therapeutics (GSN 5/16/2013), or its business activities and ventures.

"Our hearts and our thoughts go out to the families of both Steve Dowdy and Ron Fletcher," he added. "We sincerely hope that Hans' desperate and entirely autonomous acts will not have a lasting effect or impact on their lives or wellbeing."

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