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RNAi Outsider Senetek Looking for Pharma Partner to Develop, Sell Its Brain Cancer Rx

When Senetek announced earlier this month that it had acquired the rights to an investigational RNAi-based treatment for brain cancer, it appeared that a new player had stepped onto the RNAi field.
However, the Napa, Calif.-based company’s primary interest is not so much in developing the drug, which has already been tested in humans, but rather leveraging its contacts in the pharmaceutical industry to find a partner interested in handling development and commercialization, RNAi News has learned.
“Senetek is a product-development company … [and] all of our pipeline is developed via affiliations with research institutions,” William O’Kelly, Senetek’s CFO, told RNAi News this week. “Our business model is that we contract with [researchers and] license their technology. Then we look for marketers on the other end.”
“We have no capabilities at this point in time for doing any type of [development work] with regards to the RNAi technology,” he added. “But what we do have are significant relationships with pharmaceutical companies in the US that … might be appropriate partners.”
Senetek is a publicly traded firm primarily focused on developing skin care products. In line with this, the company was in negotiations with the Polish Academy of Sciences to acquire the rights to three compounds for treating skin aging.
According to O’Kelly, it was through these talks that the company became aware of an RNAi-based drug being developed by the academy for brain cancer. The compound is designed to inhibit the production of tenascin-C, which is believed to influence the malignancy of brain tumors, Senetek said.
“We came to an agreement with them on three compounds that are skin care related,” O’Kelly said. “But during the course of our conversations and meeting with them … they introduced this [RNAi drug] to us.
“I’d be lying to you if I said we had expertise in the RNAi area,” he added. “However, we are very much interested in [the] technology from the standpoint of commercialization.”
While it’s a “huge jump” from skin care to cancer, O’Kelly noted that Senetek’s entrée into the RNAi space does not conflict with the company’s overall strategy.
“What we’re talking about here is an opportunity,” he said.
Under the terms of Senetek’s deal with the Polish Academy of Sciences, the company obtained the rights to the RNAi drug for all applications in exchange for an undisclosed royalty on product sales. The deal does not require Senetek to provide the academy with any research funding.
With the rights to the RNAi drug in hand, Senetek is now looking for a partner to develop it, O’Kelly said.
“Our next step is to start talking to some of our contacts in the pharma [and biotech] industries on the US side … to gauge interest relative to the players, then to determine how it would be best … to partner with them,” he explained.
Currently, the company is approaching only a handful of possible pharma and biotech partners, O’Kelly added. “We have not approached any of the RNAi specialist companies at this point.”
He said that he expects Senetek “could secure some type of a partnership arrangement in 2007” given that Senetek is coming to the bargaining table with clinical data in hand.

“Our business model is that we contract with [researchers and] license their technology. Then we look for marketers on the other end.”

O’Kelly said that the Polish Academy of Sciences has already treated about 50 glioblastoma multiforme patients with the drug, which is administered directly to the tumor. However, he conceded that while the drug’s development might be considered “fairly far advanced” by the Polish Academy of Sciences, this is not necessarily the case for US regulators.
“When this is introduced into the US and goes into the [regulatory] process … it’s a completely different thing,” he said. As such, any further significant development of the drug would likely only happen once a partnership deal has been signed.
O’Kelly noted that it is possible his firm could take over the drug’s development, but only if “we felt it was appropriate strategically … if it represented something that could be significant.
“We could in fact garner the resources through some type of funding arrangement to do [development] ourselves, but I think quite probably we’ll be looking for a significant partner to bring this to market,” he said.
He also said that although Senetek does handle some of the marketing of its skin care products, he doesn’t expect it to do so with an RNAi drug “just because it’s not our strategic focus.” This is not to say the company plans to hand over the cancer therapy entirely to a partner, however.
“I would expect that we would maintain an interest” in the product after a deal is signed, he said.

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