Cubist and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals have entered into a strategic alliance which will see the firms develop and commercialise therapeutics targeting respiratory syncytial virus infection using the latter’s RNA interference (RNAi)-based platform.

The companies say the collaboration is structured as a 50/50 co-development and profit share arrangement in North America, and a milestone- and royalty-bearing licence deal in the rest of the world outside of Asia, where Alnylam’s ALN-RSV programme is partnered with Japan’s Kyowa Hakko Kirin. Alnylam will receive an upfront payment of $20 million and is eligible to receive development and sales milestone payments that could total $82.5 million, as well as double-digit royalties on sales outside of North America and Asia.

The programme includes ALN-RSV01, a drug which is in Phase II for the treatment of RSV infection in adult lung transplant patients, as well as several other RNAi-based RSV inhibitors that are in pre-clinical stages. The companies note that RSV is highly contagious and causes infections in both the upper and lower respiratory tract. The virus infects nearly every child at least once by the age of two and is a major cause of hospitalisation.

John Maraganore, chief executive at Alnylam, said that partnering this programme “brings additional critical mass to the advancement of ALN-RSV01 and/or second-generation RSV-specific RNAi therapeutics” which the firm aims to advance towards potential clinical studies “as early as 2010”. He added that the partnership also provides Alnylam with “yet additional financial flexibility to invest beyond RSV in the multiple product opportunities represented by our growing pipeline of novel RNAi therapeutics."

RNAi is perceived by many as one of the hottest new areas of drug research. It involves a naturally-occuring mechanism within cells that potentially forms the basis for a new class of drugs that can selectively silence the inappropriate activity of specific genes within the cell. However there are others who are more sceptical about the technology and point to the fact that it is Cubist and not one of the big pharma players that Alnylam has linked up with for the potentially-huge ALN-RSV01.