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Taking RNAi from interesting science to impactful new treatments

13May, 2024

There are many hurdles to clear before a research discovery becomes a life-changing treatment for patients. That’s especially true when the treatments being developed represent an entirely new class of medicines. But overcoming those obstacles can revolutionize our ability to treat diseases.

Few companies exemplify that process better than Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. Alnylam was founded by a group of MIT-affiliated researchers who believed in the promise of a technology — RNA interference, or RNAi.

The researchers had done foundational work to understand how RNAi, which is a naturally occurring process, works to silence genes through the degradation of messenger RNA. But it was their decision to found Alnylam in 2002 that attracted the funding and expertise necessary to turn their discoveries into a new class of medicines. Since that decision, Alnylam has made remarkable progress taking RNAi from an interesting scientific discovery to an impactful new treatment pathway.

Today Alnylam has five medicines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (one Alnylam-discovered RNAi therapeutic is licensed to Novartis) and a rapidly expanding clinical pipeline. The company’s approved medicines are for debilitating, sometimes fatal conditions that many patients have grappled with for decades with few other options.

The company estimates its treatments helped more than 5,000 patients in 2023 alone. Behind that number are patient stories that illustrate how Alnylam has changed lives. A mother of three says Alnylam’s treatments helped her take back control of her life after being bed-ridden with attacks associated with the rare genetic disease acute intermittent porphyria (AIP). Another patient reported that one of the company’s treatments helped her attend her daughter’s wedding. A third patient, who had left college due to frequent AIP attacks, was able to return to school.

These days Alnylam is not the only company developing RNAi-based medicines. But it is still a pioneer in the field, and the company’s founders — MIT Institute Professor Phil Sharp, Professor David Bartel, Professor Emeritus Paul Schimmel, and former MIT postdocs Thomas Tuschl and Phillip Zamore — see Alnylam as a champion for the field more broadly.

“Alnylam has published more than 250 scientific papers over 20 years,” says Sharp, who currently serves as chair of Alnylam’s scientific advisory board. “Not only did we do the science, not only did we translate it to benefit patients, but we also described every step. We established this as a modality to treat patients, and I’m very proud of that record.”

Pioneering RNAi development

MIT’s involvement in RNAi dates back to its discovery. Before Andrew Fire PhD ’83 shared a Nobel Prize for the discovery of RNAi in 1998, he worked on understanding how DNA was transcribed into RNA, as a graduate student in Sharp’s lab.

After leaving MIT, Fire and collaborators showed that double-stranded RNA could be used to silence specific genes in worms. But the biochemical mechanisms that allowed double-stranded RNA to work were unknown until MIT professors Sharp, Bartel, and Ruth Lehmann, along with Zamore and Tuschl, published foundational papers explaining the process. The researchers developed a system for studying RNAi and showed how RNAi can be controlled using different genetic sequences. Soon after Tuschl left MIT, he showed that a similar process could also be used to silence specific genes in human cells, opening up a new frontier in studying genes and ultimately treating diseases.

“Tom showed you could synthesize these small RNAs, transfect them into cells, and get a very specific knockdown of the gene that corresponded to that the small RNAs,” Bartel explains. “That discovery transformed biological research. The ability to specifically knockdown a mammalian gene was huge. You could suddenly study the function of any gene you were interested in by knocking it down and seeing what happens. … The research community immediately started using that approach to study the function of their favorite genes in mammalian cells.”

Beyond illuminating gene function, another application came to mind.

“Because almost all diseases are related to genes, could we take these small RNAs and silence genes to treat patients?” Sharp remembers wondering.

To answer the question, the researchers founded Alnylam in 2002. (They recruited Schimmel, a biotech veteran, around the same time.) But there was a lot of work to be done before the technology could be tried in patients. The main challenge was getting RNAi into the cytoplasm of the patients’ cells.

“Through work in Dave Bartel and Phil Sharp's lab, among others, it became evident that to make RNAi into therapies, there were three problems to solve: delivery, delivery, and delivery,” says Alnylam Chief Scientific Officer Kevin Fitzgerald, who has been with the company since 2005.

Early on, Alnylam collaborated with MIT drug delivery expert and Institute Professor Bob Langer. Eventually, Alnylam developed the first lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) that could be used to encase RNA and deliver it into patient cells. LNPs were later used in the mRNA vaccines for Covid-19.

“Alnylam has invested over 20 years and more than $4 billion in RNAi to develop these new therapeutics,” Sharp says. “That is the means by which innovations can be translated to the benefit of society.”

From scientific breakthrough to patient bedside

Alnylam received its first FDA approval in 2018 for treatment of the polyneuropathy of hereditary transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis, a rare and fatal disease. It doubled as the first RNAi therapeutic to reach the market and the first drug approved to treat that condition in the United States.

“What I keep in mind is, at the end of the day for certain patients, two months is everything,” Fitzgerald says. “The diseases that we’re trying to treat progress month by month, day by day, and patients can get to a point where nothing is helping them. If you can move their disease by a stage, that’s huge.”

Since that first treatment, Alnylam has updated its RNAi delivery system — including by conjugating small interfering RNAs to molecules that help them gain entry to cells — and earned approvals to treat other rare genetic diseases along with high cholesterol (the treatment licensed to Novartis). All of those treatments primarily work by silencing genes that encode for the production of proteins in the liver, which has proven to be the easiest place to deliver RNAi molecules. But Alnylam’s team is confident they can deliver RNAi to other areas of the body, which would unlock a new world of treatment possibilities. The company has reported promising early results in the central nervous system and says a phase one study last year was the first RNAi therapeutic to demonstrate gene silencing in the human brain.

“There’s a lot of work being done at Alnylam and other companies to deliver these RNAis to other tissues: muscles, immune cells, lung cells, etc.,” Sharp says. “But to me the most interesting application is delivery to the brain. We think we have a therapeutic modality that can very specifically control the activity of certain genes in the nervous system. I think that’s extraordinarily important, for diseases from Alzheimer’s to schizophrenia and depression.”

The central nervous system work is particularly significant for Fitzgerald, who watched his father struggle with Parkinson’s.

“Our goal is to be in every organ in the human body, and then combinations of organs, and then combinations of targets within individual organs, and then combinations of targets within multi-organs,” Fitzgerald says. “We’re really at the very beginning of what this technology is going do for human health.



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