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Sirna s New Head of Pharmacology On Leaving Big Pharma Behind


At A Glance

Name: Ivan Richards

Senior Director of Pharmacology, Sirna Therapeutics

Background: Pharmacia/Pharmacia & Upjohn, senior fellow/distinguished scientist — 1995-2003; Upjohn, research scientist — 1984-1995; PhD, pharmacology, Royal College of Surgeons — 1980

Ivan Richards recently joined Sirna Therapeutics as the company’s new senior director of pharmacology, after spending most of his professional life in research positions for Pharmacia and various predecessor companies. Following Pharmacia’s April merger with Pfizer, Richards was considering a number of opportunities, entertaining job offers from Pfizer and a handful of other big drugmakers. Ultimately, he chose to cast his lot with a small biotech firm.

Just a few weeks into his new position, with a staff of six pharmacologists working under him, Richards spoke with RNAi News about getting into RNA interference and bringing big pharma experience to a growing biotech.

Have you worked with RNAi before?

No. I’m a pharmacologist. Not only have I not worked with RNA interference, I haven’t worked, strictly speaking, in molecular biology as a discipline.

That being the case, what prompted you to move to Sirna?

It’s not quite as simple as that. The choice I had to make was whether I went to another pharmaceutical company, or stayed with Pfizer and continued doing what I’d been doing, or whether I wanted to look around and see whether there were other opportunities out there. When I came to visit Sirna, I found a group of very smart, talented, and hardworking individuals who really believed in what they were doing.

RNA interference, from what I’ve read, appears to have the ability to change the face of medicine. I think this is a great opportunity to work with these sort of people; Sirna has a strong intellectual property position, they’re well-funded, and I think what really tempted me was the fact that they needed somebody with experience with drug discovery and drug development. So I came here as head of pharmacology, but I see my role as wider in terms of helping them get their siRNAs into the clinic through phase I.

Could you describe your experience in drug discovery and development?

As a senior fellow, I was also a program leader, mainly in the respiratory field, and I have experience in all the things that you need to do to get a drug from a chemist’s bench into the clinic, in terms of pharmacokinetics, pharmaceutics, metabolism, and everything that you need to actually get into the clinic. I think smaller companies, smaller biotech companies, they have the molecular biology expertise, but they don’t have a great deal of experience [moving compounds into clinical trials].

Can you comment a little bit on your decision to leave behind the big pharma/small molecule field and step into biotechnology?

That was not an easy decision. To be able to stay doing what I was doing, fairly comfortably as a senior fellow, [to leave] wasn’t an easy decision to make. But think about it: I’m at a stage in my career when I have a choice in what I’m going to do and I think coming to Sirna gives me the opportunity to — it sounds like a cliché — make a difference and make a really important contribution to science. …

Summing up how I feel about this whole thing: I’m 55 years old, and I see that I’ve got 10 years to go in my career and I really want to do something important. It looks like RNAi could provide that opportunity.

It just seems to me that it has more promise than the previous technologies that didn’t realize their expectations.

So you’ve been taking a crash course on RNA interference?

Well, I’m taking a crash course on RNA interference and molecular biology. But it’s working out well; I’ve been here just three weeks now and I’m enjoying it immensely.

Given the differences between Pharmacia/Pfizer and Sirna, what do you expect to be the biggest challenge in your new position, scientifically or in terms of corporate culture?

One difficulty is that we have to be extremely selective in what we do. We can’t do everything, we just don’t have the funding to do everything, but we have the ability and enough funding to get several compounds to an IND. The difficulty is that we just don’t have the financial resources that big pharma has. We certainly can’t go into phase III clinical trials, but we can get as far as phase I and phase II.

How much of a change is the move to a small biotech going to be for you?

The change isn’t as big as people think it might be, because the rules and the guidelines that enable you to take a compound from research into the clinic are the same whether you are at a small company or a large company. So, I don’t like to call it a shopping list, but there really is a shopping list of characteristics that we need for a new drug to get to the clinic. I think that’s the same, so it’s just a matter of focusing our resources on the important things and making it happen.

What are those characteristics?

Clearly, with siRNAs, the biggest difficulty is going to be demonstrating in vivo activity and demonstrating appropriate exposure with those molecules. So not only do we have to have the appropriate pharmacology, we have to be able to get those molecules to the site of action.

Clearly, we also need to take into account safety and pharmaceutics, PK and metabolism.

Sirna has projected having something in the clinic next year, is that correct?

I think that’s a realistic timeline — getting an IND by the fourth quarter of 2004.

An IND or actually beginning clinical testing?

IND [or] clinical testing maybe the fourth quarter. Clinical testing maybe the first quarter of 2005.

Given what you’ve seen of Sirna’s pipeline, Hepatitis C and age-related macular degeneration are the lead programs, is that correct?

They’re the lead programs now, but we are looking at other possibilities. I have a strong background in inflammation and respiratory disease, so clearly we’ll be looking at other targets.

What kind of targets?

I can’t talk to you specifically about the actual targets we’re going to go for, but in terms of therapeutic areas, clearly oncology is important and inflam- mation is important.

The diseases would be, if you’re talking about inflammatory diseases, arthritis and asthma. Clearly there’s an opportunity for siRNAs in treating cancer. But right now, our main focus is on hep C and macular degeneration.

In terms of your goals at Sirna, what kinds of things would you like to see happening over the next couple of years?

Clearly, the first thing is to get into phase I, phase II clinical trials. The second thing is to partner with an- other company to take these drugs further. Where phase III trials might cost two or three hundred million dollars, we’re not in a position to do that. … We are being approached by several companies to work with them on RNAi-based therapeutics.

And I can’t comment any further on that.

Do you think your relationship with big pharma may help out in those negotiations?

I hope so. I certainly hope so.

Do you like Colorado?

Love it.

Do you ski?

Oh, I ski.

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