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Alnylam, Vir expand collaboration to develop coronavirus treatment

Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Vir Biotechnology Inc. expanded their collaboration agreement on utilizing RNAi therapeutics to include additional targets for the new coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19.

The two companies are looking at three targets: angiotensin-converting enzyme-2, or ACE2, transmembrane protease; serine 2, or TMPRSS2; and one expected to come from Vir's ongoing functional genomics efforts.

ACE2 is known as the viral entry receptor for the new coronavirus and other similar viruses, while TMPRSS2 is believed to cleave the coronavirus spike protein to be able to attach to cells.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Alnylam has designed and synthesized over 350 small interfering RNAs that target highly conserved regions of the coronavirus genome.

Lead small interfering RNAs have recently been identified by scientists at Alnylam and are now being further evaluated by scientists at Vir for antiviral activity in support of DC selection. Upon DC selection, Vir will lead development efforts, working with Alnylam to generate the data required to enable clinical studies.

The agreement requires San Francisco-based Vir to lead efforts to develop certain RNA interference therapeutics, including the commencement of clinical studies, and to lead the commercialization of any resulting products that receive regulatory approval.

RNA interference is a natural process of using the gene's own genetic sequence to turn it off, also known as gene silencing. RNAi therapeutics, such as small interfering RNA, prevents the creation of disease-causing proteins by intercepting related messenger RNA.

In the original October 2017 licensing and collaboration agreement, which initially focused on hepatitis B infection, Alnylam received an up-front payment — comprised of cash and shares of Vir common stock — and was eligible to receive more than $1 billion in potential milestone payments related to the advancement of infectious disease programs, as well as tiered royalties on products ultimately commercialized by Vir.