Biopharmconsortium Blog

Expert commentary from Haberman Associates biotechnology and pharmaceutical consulting.

Monthly Archives: August 2010

Can the pharmaceutical/biotechnology industry develop better insulin sensitizers? A breakthrough result in the biochemistry of PPARγ


In part 1 of this three-part series (posted August 23, 2010), we discussed the recent action of the  Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee regarding rosiglitazone (GlaxoSmithKline’s Avandia). The advisory committee, by a close vote, recommended to the FDA that it leave the drug on the market, with new restrictions (e.g., closer supervision and new label warnings).

Avandia and pioglitazone (Takeda’s Actos) are the only marketed members of the thiazolidinedione (TZD) class of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma (PPARγ) agonists. PPARγ is a nuclear receptor that controls glucose metabolism and adipocyte differentiation. In treatment of type 2 diabetes, TZD modulation of PPARγ results in decreased insulin resistance, thus enabling tissues such as muscle and fat to utilize insulin more efficiently for the uptake of glucose. Agents that work by decreasing insulin resistance are known as “insulin sensitizers”.

As discussed in our August 23 article, clinical evidence indicates that both Avandia and Actos induce weight gain in type 2 diabetics (who are usually obese to begin with), and carry an increased risk of edema and heart failure. Avandia also carries a significantly increased risk of myocardial infarction (MI). Critics of Avandia who want the drug removed from the market cite the increased risk of MI, and the availability of a safer TZD, Actos.

Despite the major safety issues with TZDs, there is both animal model and human evidence that these agents may work to preserve and/or enhance beta-cell function, and thus to help prevent progression of type 2 diabetes. Moreover, insulin resistance is a major factor in the pathogenesis of the disease. We therefore asked whether it might be possible to discover and develop better, safer insulin sensitizers that would have the desirable properties of the TZDs with fewer adverse effects. In this article, which is part 2 of the series, we discuss a recent breakthrough in the biochemistry of PPARγ that may enable companies to develop better insulin sensitizers. In part 3 of this series, we shall look at how companies might develop such compounds.

It was Bruce Spiegelman (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, Boston MA) and his colleagues who identified PPARγ as the master regulator of adipocyte biology and differentiation back in 1994. This eventually led to the discovery and development of TZDs such as Avandia and Actos, which are synthetic compounds that are strong agonists of PPARγ. These compounds act as potent insulin sensitizers, and are thus used in the treatment of type 2 diabetes. However, the mechanism of their insulin sensitizing activity is not clear. Administration of  TZDs result in decreased expression in adipose tissue of insulin-resistance inducing hormones such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α), interleukin-1 (IL-1) and resistin. They also induce increased expression of adiponectin, an adipose-derived hormone or adipokine (a member of a class of cytokines that are secreted by adipocytes) that acts as a natural insulin sensitizer.

In a July 2010 research article published in Nature, the Spiegelman group noted that the action of insulin-sensitizing PPARγ agonists does not make biological sense. Obese people and people with insulin resistance (including type 2 diabetics) have no deficiency in PPARγ or PPARγ activity. Therefore, why do synthetic activators of PPARγ have such dramatic insulin sensitizing and antidiabetic activity? Since PPARγ controls adipocyte differentiation, it makes good biological sense that PPARγ agonists can induce weight gain, however. But why do these inducers of weight gain also act as insulin sensitizers, while excessive weight is generally associated with increased insulin resistance? Finally, although the strong PPARγ agonists rosiglitazone and pioglitazone are insulin sensitizing and antidiabetic, some selective PPARγ modulators with poor agonist activity, such as the (non-TZD) benzoyl 2-methyl indole MRL24 (discovered by Merck Research Laboratories) have very good antidiabetic activity.

The Spiegelman group found that the enzyme cyclin-dependent kinase 5 (CDK5) phosphorylates PPARγ at serine 273 (Ser 273). There are no other CDK5 phosphorylation sites on PPARγ. Unlike other members of the CDK family, CDK5 is not a cell-cycle kinase that is regulated by a cyclin, but instead is regulated by p35/25, which are targets of numerous cytokines and other proinflammatory signals. Specifically, cytoplasmic p35, possibly in response to proinflammatory signals, is cleaved to form p25. p25 can then enter the nucleus, where it associates with and activates CDK5. The activated CDK5 can then phosphorylate PPARγ at Ser 273.

Treatment of adipocytes with proinflammatory cytokines or free fatty acids results in enhanced formation of p25, and enhanced phosphorylation of PPARγ at Ser 273. The same results occur in vivo, in mice that are fed a high-fat diet over a prolonged period of time, and thus become obese. It is well known that both free fatty acids and proinflammatory cytokines are elevated in obesity.

The researchers also found that phosphorylation of PPARγ at Ser 273 does not change the ability of PPARγ to upregulate transcription of genes involved in adipocyte differentiation. However, it inhibits the ability of PPARγ to upregulate transcription of certain other genes, including adiponectin. The insulin-sensitizing synthetic compounds rosiglitazone (a strong PPARγ agonist) and MRL24 (a weak PPARγ agonist) both inhibited phosphorylation of PPARγ at Ser 273 in adipocytes. However, treatment of adipocytes with these two compounds gave different results in terms of their effects on PPARγ-regulated genes. Treatment of fat cells with rosiglitazone resulted in upregulation of adiponectin and other genes that are downregulated by Ser 273 phosphorylation. But rosiglitazone treatment also resulted in upregualtion of PPARγ-regulated genes involved in adipogenesis. In contrast, treatment of adipocytes with MRL24 did not upregulate the genes involved in adipogenesis. But it did upregulate the gene set (including adiponectin) that was downregulated by phosphorylation of PPARγ at Ser 273.

Mass spectrometry studies indicated that both rosiglitazone and MRL24 changed the conformation of PPARγ in such a way as to make this protein less favorable for phosphorylation by CDK5. However, rosiglitazone and MRL24 binding results in different conformational changes. The researchers hypothesized that these conformational changes may change the way in which PPARγ interacts with coregulator proteins. Nuclear receptors work together with coregulators to regulate specific sets of genes. Different ligands (natural or synthetic) that modulate nuclear receptor interactions with its coregulators can give different results in terms of which genes are unregulated or downregulated.

The researchers then studied the action of roslglitazone and of MRL24 on phosphorylation of PPARγ at Ser 273 and on modulation of PPARγ-regulated genes in vivo. In mouse models, these two compounds inhibited PPARγ Ser 273 phosphorylation in adipose tissue, and caused similar changes in PPARγ-regulated gene expression as they do in adipose cells in vitro. Moreover, human diabetes patients treated with rosiglitazone usually exhibited decreased phosphorylation of PPARγ at Ser 273 in biopsied subcutaneous fat. However, in some cases, no such decreased phosphorylation was seen. Improvements in insulin sensitivity in these patients correlated with decreased phosphorylation of PPARγ at Ser 273.

On the basis of these results, the researchers concluded that the insulin sensitizing and antidiabetic effects of PPARγ agonists may not be due to the agonistic effects of these compounds on PPARγ, but on their ability to inhibit CDK5 phosphorylation of PPARγ.

In a News and Views article in the same issue of Nature, Riekelt Houtkooper and Johan Auwerx (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne [EPFL] in Switzerland) postulate that the new findings of the Spiegelman group may be used to develop PPARγ modulating drugs that lack full agonist activity, but still inhibit CDK5 phosphorylation of PPARγ. Such compounds (of which MRL24 may be a starting point) would not upregulate adipogenic genes, but would upregulate insulin sensitizing genes such as adiponectin. These authors postulate that these novel compounds may thus have strong insulin sensitizing and antidiabetic effects, but would lack such adverse effects as weight gain, edema, and the risk of heart failure.

We shall discuss strategies for developing improved insulin sensitizers in greater depth in Part 3 of this series.

Phase I trial of Roche/Plexxikon’s PLX4032, a selective targeted therapeutic for metastatic melanoma, published in the New England Journal of Medicine


In March 2010, we published two articles on this blog relating to Roche/Plexxikon’s PLX4032 for metastatic melanoma. The first article, dated March 2, described a Phase I clinical trial of the drug, based on an article about this trial in the New York Times (NYT). The second article, dated March 10, described Plexxikon’s discovery of PLX4032, using its proprietary “scaffold-based drug design” technology platform. The latter post is among the most popular articles on this blog.

Now the results of the Phase I trial of PLX4032 has been published in the August 26, 2010 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). (A subscription is required to read the full article.)

As we discussed in our previous articles, PLX4032 is a B-Raf (called “BRAF” in the NEJM paper and in some other publications) kinase inhibitor that is exquisitely specific for B-Raf carrying the V600E mutation. B-Raf(V600E) is the most common somatic mutation found in human melanomas. Researchers believe that B-Raf(V600E) is a “driver mutation” that is particularly critical for the malignant phenotype of human metastatic melanomas that carry the mutation. B-Raf(V600E) is constitutively activated, and melanomas carrying this mutation can proliferate independently of growth factor signaling, resulting in the runaway proliferation characteristic of the malignant phenotype.

The clinical trial described in the NEJM article was carried out by researchers at Plexxikon and Roche, in collaboration with academic researchers at five institutions in the United States and Australia. The trial was led by Keith T. Flaherty, M.D. (then at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and now at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center [where he is Director of Developmental Therapeutics] and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston) and Paul B. Chapman, MD (Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center).

As discussed in the NEJM article, the researchers conducted a multicenter Phase I dose-escalation trial of PLX4032 (which is orally available), followed by an extension phase in which patients were given the maximum dose that could be administered without adverse effects (960 mg twice daily). (The latter dose is the recommended Phase II dose.) A total of 55 patients (49 of whom had melanoma) were enrolled in the initial, dose-escalation portion of the trial. 32 additional patients, all of whom had metastatic melanoma with the B-Raf(V600E) mutation, were enrolled in the extension phase. Patients were given the drug twice a day until they had disease progression.

In the dose-escalation phase, among the 16 patients with melanoma carrying the B-Raf(V600E) mutation and who were receiving 240 mg or more of PLX4032 twice daily, 10 had a partial response (i.e., tumor shrinkage of at least 30%) and 1 had a complete response. Among the 32 patients in the extension cohort, 24 had a partial response and 2 had a complete response. The latter figure represents an 81% response rate. The estimated median progression-free survival among all patients was over 7 months.

Dose-limiting adverse effects included rash, fatigue, and joint pain.

The published results of this Phase I trial elicited great enthusiasm in the popular press and in such industry media as Fierce Biotech and BioWorld Online, and by oncologists who were interviewed for these articles. The oncologists said that they had never seen such a dramatic response in treatment of metastatic melanoma.

Because PLX4032 is targeted to a specific oncogenic mutation, Plexxikon and several industry commentators refer to the use of the drug as an example of personalized medicine. In parallel with development of PLX4032, Plexxikon and Roche Molecular Systems are developing a DNA-based companion diagnostic to identify patients whose tumors carry the B-Raf(V600E) mutation.

PLX4032 is on an accelerated path to potential registration. Parallel Phase II and Phase III clinical trials are in progress in previously treated and previously untreated patients, respectively, all who have metastatic melanoma carrying the B-Raf(V600E) mutation.

Meanwhile, the results of a Phase III trial (in 676 patients with advanced melanoma) of Medarex/Bristol-Myers Squibb’s (BMS’s) ipilimumab were published in the August 19, 2010 issue of the NEJM.  Ipilimumab, unlike the targeted therapeutic PLX4032, is an immunomodulator that blocks cytotoxic T-lymphocyte-associated antigen 4 (CTLA4) to potentate an antitumor T-cell response. Ipilimumab is a monoclonal antibody, unlike PLX4032 which is a small-molecule compound. In this NEJM article, the researchers reported that ipilimumab–given with or without the gp100 peptide vaccine–showed a median overall survival of 10 months, as compared to 6.4 months in patients receiving gp100 alone. Ipilimumab treatment also gave improved one-year survival compared with gp100 alone–46% versus 25%. Two-year survival was 24% in the ipilimumab group and 14 percent in the gp100 group. BMS has filed a Biologics License Application (BLA) for ipilimumab, and earlier this month (August 2010) received fast-track status from the FDA for the drug.

Ipilimumab treatment is associated with autoimmune toxicities (especially enterocolitis), which can be severe. These are usually reversible by treatment with high-dose steroids.

Decision Resources published our report on development of immunomodulators in treatment of cancer in 2007. This report includes a discussion of ipilimumab, and provides further information on its mechanism of action, adverse effects, etc., as well as on other immunomodualtors for treatment of cancer, some of which are now on the market.

We believe that it is important to pursue development of both targeted therapies and of immunomodulators for metastatic melanoma. This may provide oncologists a range of therapeutics (and of combinations of therapeutics) to treat this disease, which now has very few treatment options and a very poor prognosis.

The results with both PLX4032 and ipilimumab provide hope for better treatment of at least some classes of metastatic melanoma in the near future. However, as discussed in our March 2010 articles, even in the case of PLX4032 treatment of melanoma carrying the B-Raf(V600E) mutation, it will most likely be necessary to develop combination therapies in order to achieve long-lasting remissions or cures.

Aileron Therapeutics partners with Roche


On November 27, 2009, we posted an article on this blog about the use of stapled peptides in targeting intracellular pathways. This technology was originally developed by Dr. Gregory Verdine (Department of Chemical Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge MA, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston MA) and his colleagues. A biotechnology company, Aileron Therapeutics (Cambridge, MA) was founded (with Dr. Verdine among its founders) in 2005 to develop and commercialize stapled peptide drugs. Aileron’s most advanced compounds, which are being developed for the treatment of solid and hematological tumors, are only in the preclinical stage.

On August 24, 2010, Aileron and Roche announced that they had entered into a collaboration to discover, develop, and commercialize stapled peptide drugs designed to address up to five undisclosed targets. These targets are selected from Roche’s key therapeutic areas of interest–oncology, viral diseases, inflammation, metabolic diseases, and central nervous system diseases.

Under the agreement, Roche will provide Aileron guaranteed funding of at least $25 million in R&D support and technology access fees. Aileron will also be eligible to receive up to $1.1 billion in discovery, development, regulatory, and commercialization milestone payments, if drug candidates are developed against all five targets. Aileron will also receive royalties on any future sales of marketed products that result from the collaboration.

In our November 2009 article, we discussed the design of stapled peptides, in which hydrocarbon moieties are used to constrain, or “staple” peptide sequences into an α-helical conformation. These sequences are designed to mimic key binding domains of proteins that are involved in intracellular signaling pathways. We gave two examples of pathways that were addressed by specific stapled peptides: the Notch pathway and a Bcl-2-related apoptotic pathway. In both cases, the stapled peptides modulated protein-protein interactions that are considered “undruggable” by conventional small-molecule drugs.

According to Roche, It is “as yet intractable” intracellular protein-protein interactions that are of special interest to the company in collaborating with Aileron.

According to Aileron, the new alliance with Roche validates the broad potential of their stapled peptide technology platform across multiple therapeutic areas and classes of targets. The alliance also provides Aileron with capital to advance its internal R&D.

The Roche agreement represents Aileron’s first Big Pharma strategic alliance. However, a venture capital consortium that included GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, Roche, and Lilly invested $40 million in Aileron in June 2009.

As we said in our November 2009 article, stapled peptides represent an exciting and innovative technology with the potential to address “undruggable” protein-protein interactions, even though the therapeutic value of stapled peptides has not yet been confirmed in the clinic. (We have discussed several other means of addressing protein-protein interactions in various articles in this blog–these targets represent an area of opportunity for companies that are innovative enough to pursue it.) And as we discussed in a more recent article, Roche is one of the Big Pharma companies that continues to be focused on innovative drug discovery and development, in an era of Big Pharma R&D retrenchment. The Aileron-Roche partnership therefore appears to be an ideal match.

Avandia squeaks through an FDA Advisory Panel. But can the pharmaceutical/biotechnology industry develop better insulin sensitizers?

Avandia (rosiglitazone)

On July 15, 2010, the FDA’s Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee voted to leave the diabetes drug rosiglitazone  (GlaxoSmithKline’s  Avandia) on the market, with some new restrictions (e.g., closer supervision and new label warnings). This is the same committee that voted against FDA approval of Vivus’ anti-obesity drug Qnexa on the same day, as discussed in our August 4 blog post. (Some commentators believe that the Qnexa rejection is connected to the decision on Avandia. We shall reserve judgment on that question.)

The FDA usually follows the advice of its advisory panels, but does not always do so.

Of the 33-member panel, 10 voted to keep Avandia on the market under close supervision, seven voted to keep it on the market but with stronger label warnings, and three voted to keep the drug on the market with no new restrictions. Twelve voted to remove Avandia from the market. One member abstained.

One factor in the recommendations of several panelists to add restrictions or to eliminate Avanida from the market altogether is that a competing drug of the same thiazolidinedione (TZD) class, pioglitazone (Takeda’s Actos), appears to have similar efficacy to Avandia, but fewer adverse effects.

The panel members’ decisions were based on their analysis of large amounts (18 presentations worth) of contradictory data.

TZDs are agonists of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma (PPARγ), a nuclear receptor that controls glucose metabolism and adipocyte differentiation. In treatment of type 2 diabetes, TZD modulation of PPARγ results in decreased insulin resistance. (Insulin resistance is the inability of tissues such as muscle and fat to utilize insulin efficiently for the uptake of glucose.) Thus treatment with these drugs can result in decreased levels of serum glucose, and amelioration of diabetes. Agents that work by decreasing insulin resistance are known as “insulin sensitizers”.

We have been following safety issues with agonists of PPAR receptors for quite some time. For example, there are two articles (here and here) published in 2006 (and available on our website) that include discussion of PPAR agonist safety.

As discussed in these two articles, Steven Nissen, M.D. (now Chairman of the Robert and Suzanne Tomsich Department of Cardiovascular Medicine, Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, OH) has been a leading critic of Avandia’s cardiac safety. This began with his 2007 meta-analysis of clinical studies of the drug, published in the New England Journal of Medicine. This meta-analysis indicated that treatment with Avandia was associated with a significant increase in the risk of myocardial infarction (MI), and an increase in the risk of cardiovascular death that had borderline significance. A 2010 meta-analysis by Dr. Nissen and his colleagues (published online ahead of print in the Archives of Internal Medicine on June 28) indicated that treatment with Avandia was associated with a significant increase in the risk of MI, but no increased risk of cardiovascular death or all-cause mortality. The results also suggest an unfavorable benefit to risk ratio for Avandia.

A retrospective study by FDA researchers of Medicare recipients published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in July 2010 indicated that Avandia treatment is associated with an increased risk of the composite of AMI, stroke, heart failure, and all-cause mortality as compared with Actos, in patients 65 years or older.

The consensus of multiple studies is that both Avandia and Actos induce weight gain, and carry an increased risk of edema and heart failure as compared with placebo, but that Avandia has a higher risk of MI than Actos. (Few studies directly compared the two drugs, however. The 2010 FDA study is an exception). However, some studies presented to the FDA Advisory Committee indicated that the risk of cardiovascular events were comparable between Avandia, Actos, and diabetes medications of other classes.

The panel’s decision was a compromise, based not only on the contradictory nature of the evidence, but also on the contention that Avandia may be a better choice than Actos (or other diabetes drugs) for certain groups of patients, but not others. However, the continuing bad publicity about Avandia’s risks have significantly reduced its sales.

The continuing unfavorable safety findings for Avandia, as well as the findings that both Avandia and Actos induce weight gain in type 2 diabetics (who are usually obese to begin with), and carry an increased risk of edema and heart failure, have given new ammunition to critics who believe that physicians treating diabetes should stick to combinations of the older, cheaper drugs–insulin, metformin, and sulfonylureas, and avoid using not only TZDs, but also newer agents. This point of view also suggests that there is no need to discover and develop new antidiabetic agents.

However, the arguments in our 2008 Genetic Engineering News (GEN) article on diabetes (available on our website) still apply. There are still major unmet needs in type 2 diabetes, especially the need to prevent weight gain in diabetes treatment (and even to promote weight loss), and the need to prevent long-term loss of pancreatic beta-cell function. It is the loss of beta-cell function that results in the progression of type 2 diabetes, such that patients who initially succeed in reaching glycemic goals even with multidrug treatment with older antidiabetics eventually experience poor glycemic control on the same regimens.

As we discussed in earlier blog posts, some of the newer antidiabetics, namely the incretin mimetic exenatide (Amylin/Lilly’s Byetta) and liraglutide (Novo Nordisk’s Victoza), may give increased glycemic control while promoting weight loss. There is also evidence from animal studies that these drugs might help to preserve beta-cell function.

Ironically, despite the major safety issues with TZDs, there is both animal model and human evidence that these agents may work to preserve and/or enhance beta-cell function. Moreover, insulin resistance is a major factor in the pathogenesis of type 2 diabetes. Therefore, it would be very advantageous, and perhaps essential, for physicians and patients to have access to safer insulin sensitizers, especially if they work to prevent diabetes progression by preserving and enhancing beta-cell function.

Might it be possible to discover and develop better, safer insulin sensitizers than the TZDs? We shall discuss this question in Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.

It’s still tough to get an antiobesity drug through the FDA



2010 was supposed to be the year in which one or more new obesity drugs would be approved by the FDA and reach the market. Three new drugs developed by small California companies–Vivus Pharmaceuticals’ Qnexa, Orexigen Therapeutics’ Contrave, and Arena Therapeutics’ lorcaserin, were up for review by the FDA. This follows a long hiatus, since the FDA has approved no anti-obesity drug since 1999.

On July 15, 2010, the FDA’s Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee voted against FDA approval of Vivus’ Qnexa (phentermine/topiramate), with six votes in favor and 10 against. The FDA usually follows the advice of its advisory panels, but does not always do so.

The advisory committee agreed that the drug caused significant weight loss, with patients who took the highest doses of the drug having lost over 10 percent of their weight in a year. But many panelists questioned the lack of long-term data on efficacy, since the real issue with weight loss regimens (whether diet and exercise alone or with drug treatments) is the inability of patients to keep weight off once it has been lost.

But above all, panelists had concerns about Qnexa’s safety. Major concerns included the potential for fetal exposure during pregnancy and birth defects, depression, cognitive issues, and increases in heart rate. Most panelists who voted no were not strongly against approval, but they had lingering concerns, especially since the drug if approved would be given to large numbers of essentially healthy people over a long period of time–perhaps a lifetime.

Vivus said that it would work with the FDA to address the panelists concerns. For example, the company expects to have longer-term safety data on the drug in the next several months.

Qnexa is a low-dose, controlled release formulation of two FDA-approved drugs: phentermine and topiramate. Qnexa is designed to both suppress appetite (phentermine) and promote satiety (topiramate). Phentermine, an amphetamine, is prescribed as a weight-loss aid that is used short-term. It was the “phen” half of the notorious “Fen-Phen” combination. The “fen” part, fenfluramine (Pondimin) or dexfenfluramine (Redux), were serotonin modulators that caused cardiovascular side-effects. Topiramate is an anticonvulsant. As separate agents, phentermine and topiramate have minimal effects on weight loss. However, according to Vivus’ studies, the two drugs appear to have a synergistic effect, even at low doses, that results in significant weight loss. Vivus’ studies also indicate that the two drugs mitigate each other’s side effects; the low does and controlled release is also designed to reduce side effects.

Side effects of phentermine may include increase in blood pressure and heart palpitations, as well as gastrointestinal side effects. Side effects of topirmate may include cognitive issues, lack of coordination, aggressiveness, changes in ability to taste food and loss of appetite, cardiovascular side effects, and others. The risk of birth defects with ether of these drugs is unknown. However, there is preliminary evidence that topiramate might cause birth defects.

Lorcaserin is up for FDA Advisory Panel review in September 2010 and Contrave is tentatively scheduled for review in December 2010. Lorcaserin is a selective serotonin receptor agonist, which is specific for the 5-HT2C receptor. This contrasts with the nonselective serotonin reuptake inhibitor and serotonin-releasing agents, fenfluramine and dexfenfluramine. Lorcaserin is thus designed to be a more selective agent that works by a similar mechanism to dexfenfluramine or fenfluramine. Since the anorectic effects of fenfluramine/dexfenfluramine is due to their activity on 5-HT2C, but the adverse effects of these agents appears to be due to their activity on 5-HT2B, lorcaserin may be a safer agent that fenfluramine/dexfenfluramine. But like fenfluramine and dexfenfluramine, the efficacy of lorcaserin appears to be minimal.

Contrave, like Qnexa, is a combination of long-acting formulations of two FDA-approved drugs–bupropion and naltrexone. Orexigen designed Contrave to have a dual effect on pathways within the hypothalamus of the brain that control energy balance–increasing anorexia and inhibiting the reward effects of food. The company also believes that Contrave may block the body’s compensation for weight loss–i.e., decreased energy use and increased feeding. (For additional details, see our 2008 book-length obesity report, published by Cambridge Healthtech Institute.)

The Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee’s recommendation against Qnexa casts a cloud on the upcoming reviews by the same committee of the other two drugs. However, the jury is still out on lorcaserin and Contrave. And approval of Qnexa may (or may not) be reconsidered as Vivus presents additional data.

However, antiobesity drugs that work via the CNS to control appetite by modulating the activity of common neurotransmitter pathways have a generally poor record. First was the fenfluramine/dexfenfluramine/Fen-Phen debacle, in which fenfluramine and dexfenfluramine (Interneuron/Wyeth) were found in the postmarking period to cause heart valve damage, leading to market withdrawal in 1997 and a host of lawsuits. Sanofi Aventis’ rimonabant never reached the U.S. market–in 2007 the FDA rejected the drug due to neurologic and psychological adverse effects. Rimonabant was also suspended from use in Europe in 2008. A related Merck drug, taranabant, was never submitted to the FDA, since it had similar adverse effects to rimonabant. And despite a growing understanding of pathways (involving neurotransmitters and neuropeptides) in the hypothalamus that control appetite, and despite a large number of promising leads that emerged from that research, not one drug derived from this research has yet emerged from early clinical trials.

In many cases, drugs that were designed to address these pathways had unacceptable adverse effects, since the neurotransmitter or neuropeptide receptors that they addressed are also involved in other CNS and/or peripheral tissue pathways that do not control body weight or energy balance. This is also the problem with appetite control drugs that have reached the IND or post-marketing stage. Such drugs as fenfluramine/dexfenfluramine and sibutramine target receptors for such common neurotransmitters as serotonin and noradrenaline, which are involved in many pathways within the CNS and peripheral tissues. Rimonabant is an antagonist of the CB1 cannabinoid receptor, which is widely expressed in the brain and in other tissues and modulates multiple pathways.

Sibutramine (Abbott’s Meridia/ Reductil) is an approved and marketed appetite-control drug that works via the CNS. It is a serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor. Sibutramine causes increases in blood pressure and heart rate. Therefore, the drug is contraindicated in patients with uncontrolled blood pressure and certain other conditions.

There is also concern that sibutramine may cause more serious cardiovascular conditions. Early in 2010, the FDA issued a warning that the drug posed an increased risk of heart attack and stroke in patients with a history of cardiovascular disease. This resulted in an additional contraindication on the drug’s label. And a few patients taking sibutramine may experience psychological adverse effects. Because of concerns about sibutramine’s safety, the drug has recently been suspended from use in the U.K. and the E.U. Sibutramine is also under continued review by the FDA.

Sibutramine and the other approved antiobesity drug, orlistat (Roche’s Xenical–also marketed as a low-dose over the counter formulation, GlaxoSmithKline’s alli) have only marginal efficacy. And orlistat, which works not in the CNS, but in the gut to block fat absorption, has unpleasant gastrointestinal adverse effects. Therefore there is a need for safer, more efficacious antiobesity drugs.

Nevertheless, the history of failure of antiobesity drugs, especially appetite-control drugs that work via the CNS and modulate neurotransmitter receptors that are involved in multiple pathways, continues, with the decision of the FDA Advisory Committee on Qnexa being the latest episode.

Perhaps companies will have more success developing antiobesity drugs that primarily address metabolic pathways involved in both obesity and diabetes, rather than being directed at appetite-control pathways in the CNS that involve common neurotransmitters. We discussed this strategy in two earlier articles on this blog, dated October 25, 2009 and January 28, 2010. These articles focused on the incretin mimetics, especially liraglutide (Novo Nordisk’s Victoza). Incretin mimetics [which also include exenatide (Amylin/Lilly’s Byetta)] trigger an increase in insulin secretion by the pancreas, and also reduces gastric emptying. The latter effect slows nutrient release into the bloodstream and appears to increase satiety and thus reduce food intake.

Part of the mechanisms of action of the natural incretin glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) and of incretin mimetics involves activity in the CNS. However, GLP-1 receptors in the brain appear to be more specific in their activity than receptors for common neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine. The main adverse effect that has been seen with the incretin mimetics exenatide and liraglutide is a transient nausea. Thus incretin mimetics do not appear to cause the psychological and neurological side effects seen with such drugs as sibutramine, rimonabant, and phentermine, and presumably Qnexa.

Nevertheless, acute pancreatitis has been seen in some patients taking exenatide (which resulted in a warning on the label that patients with a history of pancreatitis should not take the drug, and that the drug should be discontinued if symptoms suggesting pancreatitis should develop). Rodents receiving either exenatide or liraglutide have developed thyroid C-cell focal hyperplasia and C-cell tumors. There is no evidence that humans develop thyroid tumors as the result of taking ether drug, however. Nevertheless, the label for liraglutide carries a “back box” warning highlighting the thyroid tumor results in rodents, and including a contraindicating the use of the drug in patents with a history of medullary thyroid carcinoma.

Companies usually develop dual diabetes/obesity drugs first for diabetes, since the regulatory pathway for that disease is easier than for obesity. This has been the case for both exenatide and liraglutide. However, Novo Nordisk announced on June 22, 2010, that following the FDA approval of liraglutide for treatment of type 2 diabetes, it was restarting Phase III clinical trials of the drug in obesity.

As we noted in our October 25, 2009 article, there are at least several companies with early stage dual diabetes/obesity drugs, which they are developing for diabetes. Early-stage obesity drug development has been mainly on hold, awaiting the regulatory approval of Qnexa, Contrave, and/or lorcaserin. Now the results of the regulatory reviews of these three drugs are starting to come in. If none of the three is approved, than early-stage obesity drug development may remain on hold indefinitely.