MDRNA is axing 20 employees — plus its three top executives — as it shifts its focus from intranasal drug treatments toward therapies based on RNA interference, a promising but still undeveloped sector in biotechnology.

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MDRNA said Monday it would lay off nearly 30 percent of its work force, including three top executives, as it seeks to recover from failed late-stage clinical trials by transforming itself into a leaner, discovery-focused biotechnology company.

The Bothell firm, formerly known as Nastech Pharmaceuticals, said it would let go 23 employees, mostly involved with its intranasal-therapeutics programs. Most of the laid-off employees will leave before the end of August.

Company President Gordon Brandt, chief scientific officer for intranasal delivery Henry Costantino and chief business officer Timothy Duffy will go by Sept. 30, according to a statement filed with federal securities regulators.

The changes come as the company shifts its focus from intranasal-drug treatments toward therapies based on RNA interference, a promising but still undeveloped sector in biotechnology.

During an earnings call Monday, the company said it would try to license most of its relatively advanced intranasal programs even as it unveiled a broad pipeline of RNAi-based therapies that are still at an early stage of research.

RNAi therapies seek to treat disease by switching off certain genes that cause problems.

Most of these programs focus on cancer, metabolic disorders and inflammatory diseases. There’s also a research program for an influenza drug, and the company is looking for a partner to start early-stage studies in humans for that product.

It also expects to get a cholesterol-busting treatment into human trials by the end of next year.

After the layoffs, the company will have about 55 full-time employees, down from 235 last October.

The transformation has been “pretty dramatic” and difficult for the corporate culture, said Michael French, recently appointed chief executive. But “we’re focused on where the company is moving forward,” added French, who comes from Sirna Therapeutics, an RNAi company Merck bought in late 2006 for $1.1 billion.

At the end of June, MDRNA had some $16.6 million in cash and cash equivalents. The company may require some capital by the end of the year, executives said Monday.

The company’s management aims to get some cash by licensing its intranasal products or engaging in partnerships. “We feel very strongly that we’ve got enough to make it to key milestones in our program,” said French.

MDRNA’s struggles began when Procter & Gamble pulled out of a potentially lucrative research partnership with the company last November, after it determined a nasal spray for the treatment of osteoporosis wasn’t working as well as expected.

The company said last week that its experimental nasal spray to treat obesity had failed at a midstage clinical trial.

MDRNA released the layoff news after the market closed. In regular trading, the stock lost 10 cents to close at $1.11. In the last year it has traded as high as $17.05 a share.

Ángel González: 206-515-5644 or agonzalez@seattletimes.com

MDRNA’s results
Dollar figures in thousands, except per share; parentheses denote losses.
June 30 %
2nd QTR 2008 2007 CHG
Profit ($14,331) ($12,367) -15.9
Per share (0.48) (0.50) +4.0
Revenue 754 4,860 -84.5
1st HALF 2008 2007 CHG
Profit ($30,849) ($23,907) -22.5
Per share (1.10) (0.97) -13.4
Revenue 2,017 9,852 -79.5