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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Talent vs Experience

I believe it is more important to hire for talent than it is for experience.

Bill Biggs, President of Li Cor

Talent: A special natural ability or aptitude

Experience: A particular instance of personally encountering or undergoing something

What are the lessons from the rise and fall of SIRNA? J. Michael French, former Sr. V.P. of Corporate Development at SIRNA, is currently the CEO of Marina Biotech, another RNAi company. Barry Poliski, former Chief Scientific Officer of SIRNA, is now the Chief Scientific Officer of Marina Biotech. One might think that Marina Biotech is in for a slow painful death. Can these executives make their RNAi company a success? They made Sirna a success story in 2006. Sirna made that success questionable.

How do you separate talent from experience from the pool of RNAi people? In an environment such as biotech R&D, obedient workers are highly desirable. I know a researcher who once worked for Marina when it was called Nastech. This PhD scientist was to use RNAi to knock out one of biotechs favorite targets, TNF alpha. In a one-off experiment, RNAi appeared to reduce joint swelling in a set of three mice (pos control, neg control, RNAi). In the next experiment 300 mice were put to the test. At the end of the treatment each mouse was euthanized and put into a jar with formaldehyde. Without any actual measurements it was clear that the experiment did not reproduce the original results. No measurements were taken. The experiment at this point ended. 300 jars, each containing a dead mouse sat under an unused bench space for a year. The PhD who ran the experiment was a smart person who knew the honest approach would be to take the measurements. But he was also a new father and he needed to keep the job. Contributing to a massive pile of failed RNAi experiments would be detrimental to his career. Whatever scientific talent he had (the ability to bend over backwards to prove yourself wrong, to report all results...) had to be put aside.

Any person who has worked with RNAi can tell stories like this. It is the classic beer and pizza diet research project. The obedient worker is told to go into the lab, put small pieces of RNA in a plate of cells or a mouse and come back with results that indicate the knock out effects of RNAi. Long before the delivery issue was adopted, researchers were pointing fingers at whoever last touched the RNA. After trying to beat that square peg through a round hole, they finally decided to use a chemistry approach to getting the RNA to behave. Nucleic acid analogues, changes in formulation, injection techniques and many more ideas have come and gone. What remains is the decision that it is the delivery of the RNA that is preventing the desired action. At this point in the career of an obedient experienced RNAi lab worker, you should be questioning the talent of the decision makers.

Yet when you hear the talk, it can be some of the finest you've heard. Complex systems are eloquently spelled out with limitations being overcome by clever ideas. The talent is in the discussion. Experienced scientists are accumulating more and more data that is being processed by a talented scientific advisory board that will lead to the successful completion of a RNAi drug development program. We still have Alnylam, Marina and many more smaller players trying to make this work. They have plenty of experience in RNAi research. Do they have the special natural ability/aptitude to translate what they've experienced into a successful drug development project?

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