AstraZeneca has signed a new agreement with partner Silence Therapeutics of the UK which will see the two firms collaborate in the development of “a range of novel approaches for the delivery of short interfering ribonucleic acid (siRNA) molecules”.

The deal is separate to the alliance the companies already have in place, signed in July last year, which involves developing siRNA molecules against up to five targets provided by AstraZeneca, primarily in the respiratory field. That agreement could net Silence £200 million.

Financial details of the new deal have not been disclosed but AstraZeneca said that under the terms of the pact, both firms will be allowed to commercialise the novel delivery systems they develop together. Silence will retain the right to sign further deals “to capture value from its AtuPLEX delivery technology, as well as any improvements to this technology” that it generates either independently or as part of the collaboration.

RNAi is a naturally occurring mechanism within cells and potentially forms the basis for a new class of therapeutic products that can selectively ‘silence’ genes within the cell. Since many diseases are caused by the inappropriate activity of specific genes, the ability to regulate such genes selectively through RNAi has led to great excitement in the scientific community. The two discoverers of the technology, Andrew Fire and Craig Mello, won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2006.

The technology is still some way from being commercially viable but Claude Bertrand, global vice president of discovery respiratory and inflammation at AstraZeneca, is optimistic. He said that “although both preclinical and clinical development of this novel technology are challenging, we have the potential” to create therapies that are “highly specific, potent, and provide long-lasting effects.”