Biopharmconsortium Blog

Expert commentary from Haberman Associates biotechnology and pharmaceutical consulting.

Posts filed under: Epigenetics

Neuroscience companies sprout up in Boston

Pyramidal neurons. Source: Magnus Manske

Pyramidal neurons. Source: Magnus Manske

In our December 10, 2013 blog article that focused on Novartis’ new neuroscience division, we briefly mentioned two young Cambridge MA neuroscience specialty companies–Rodin Therapeutics and Sage Therapeutics.

Rodin Therapeutics

Rodin was founded by Atlas Venture and the German protein structure-focused biotech Proteros biostructures in June 2013. It is focused on applying epigenetics to discovery and development of novel therapeutics for CNS disorders, especially cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. Rodin secured funding from Atlas and Johnson & Johnson Development Corporation (JJDC). The company plans to collaborate with the Johnson & Johnson Innovation Center in Boston and Janssen Research & Development to advance its R&D programs. In addition to several partners at Atlas (led by acting Rodin Chief Executive Officer Bruce Booth, Ph.D.), Rodin’s team includes as its Chief Scientific Officer Martin Jefson Ph.D., former head of Neuroscience Research at Pfizer.

There is little information available on Rodin, because the company is operating in stealth mode.

Sage Therapeutics

Sage was founded by venture capital firm Third Rock Ventures, and officially launched on October 2011. At the time of its launch, Third Rock provided Sage with a $35 million Series A round of financing. Third Rock founded Sage together with scientific founders Steven Paul, M.D. (formerly the Executive Vice President for science and technology and President of Lilly Research Laboratories, and a former scientific director of the National Institute of Mental Health) and Douglas Covey, Ph.D. (professor of biochemistry at the Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO).

We at Haberman Associates have known Dr. Paul mainly for his work in R&D strategy while at Lilly. We cited Dr. Paul in our 2009 book-length report, Approaches to Reducing Phase II Attrition, published by Cambridge Healthtech Institute.

In October 2013, Sage received $20 million in Series B financing from Third Rock and from ARCH Venture Partners.

Sage’s technology platform is based on targeting certain classes of neurotransmitter receptors. As we discussed in our December 10, 2013 blog article, targeting neurotransmitter receptors was a successful approach to drug discovery and development decades ago, but has proven nearly fruitless ever since.

Nevertheless, Sage is taking a novel and interesting approach to targeting neurotransmitter receptors. The company is focusing on receptors for gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate. GABA and glutamate are, respectively, the primary inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters that mediate fast synaptic transmission in the brain. Specifically, Sage is focusing on GABAreceptors (a major class of GABA receptors) and N-methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA) receptors (a major class of glutamate receptors).

Both GABAA receptors and NMDA receptors are ligand-gated ion channels. These multi-subunit proteins are transmembrane ion channels that open to allow ions such as Na+, K+, Ca2+, or Cl- to pass through the membrane in response to the binding of a ligand, such as a neurotransmitter. [In addition to ligand-gated ion channels, neurotransmitter receptors include members of the G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) family. One example is the GABAB receptor.]

The GABAA receptor is a pentameric (five-subunit) chloride channel whose endogenous ligand is GABA. In addition to its binding site for GABA, this receptor has several allosteric sites that modulate its activity indirectly. Among the drugs that target an allosteric site on GABAA receptors are the benzodiazepines. Examples of benzodiazepines include the tranquilizer (anxiolytic) diazepam (Valium), and the short-term anti-insomnia drug Triazolam (Halcion).

The NMDA receptor is a heterotetrameric cation channel. It is a type of glutamate receptor. NMDA is a selective agonist that binds to NMDA receptors but not to other glutamate receptors. Calcium flux through NMDA receptors is thought to be critical for synaptic plasticity, a cellular mechanism involved in learning and memory. NMDA receptors require co-activation by two ligands: glutamate and either D-serine or glycine. (NMDA itself is a partial agonist that mimics glutamate, but is not normally found in the brain.) Among the drugs that act as NMDA receptor antagonists are the cough suppressant (antitussive) dextromethorphan and the Alzheimer’s drug memantine.

Imbalance in the levels of GABA and glutamate, or alterations in activity of their receptors can result in dysregulation of neural circuits. Such imbalance has been implicated in neuropsychiatric disorders such as epilepsy, autism, schizophrenia and pain. While GABAA receptors and NMDA receptors are considered to be validated drug targets, a major challenge has been to modulate these receptors safely and effectively. Current drugs that act at these receptors have major adverse effects (e.g., sedation, seizures, tolerance, dependence, and excitotoxicity) that strongly impair patient quality of life. For example, long-term treatment with benzodiazepines can cause tolerance and physical dependence, and dextromethorphan can act as a dissociative hallucinogen.

Sage’s proprietary technology platform is based on the identification of members of a family of small-molecule endogenous allosteric modulators, which selectively and potently modulate GABAA or NMDA receptors. Sage is developing proprietary derivatives of these compounds. The goal of Sage’s R&D is to discover and develop  positive and negative allosteric modulators of GABAA and NMDA receptors that can be used to restore the balance between GABA and glutamate receptor activity that is disrupted in several important CNS disorders. These compounds will be designed to “fine tune” GABAA and NMDA receptor activity, resulting in a greater degree of both efficacy and safety than current CNS therapeutics.

For example, in October 2013, Sage announced the publication of a research report in the October 30, 2013 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. The report detailed the results of research at Sage, on the identification of an endogenous brain neurosteroid, the cholesterol metabolite 24(S)-hydroxycholesterol (24(S)-HC).  This compound is a potent (submicromolar), direct, and selective positive allosteric regulator of NMDA receptors. The researchers found that 24(S)-HC binds to a modulatory allosteric site that is unique to oxysterols. Subsequent drug discovery efforts resulted in the identification of several potent synthetic drug-like derivatives of 24(S)-HC that act as the same allosteric site, and serve as positive modulators of NMDA receptors. Treatment with one of these derivatives, Sage’s propriety compound SGE-301, reversed behavioral and cognitive deficits in a variety of preclinical models.

Sage’s pipeline

Sage has four pipeline drug candidates, including two compounds in the clinic. The company says that its initial pipeline focus is on “acute and orphan CNS indications with strong preclinical to clinical translation and accelerated development timelines” that enable the rapid development of important therapeutics to treat these conditions. In addition, Sage is pursuing early-stage programs that utilize the company’s PANAM platform. The goal of the early-stage programs (which target GABAA and NMDA receptors as we discussed earlier in this article) is to address “prevalent, chronic neuropsychiatric indications.”

Sage’s pipeline drug candidates include compounds in Phase 2 trials to treat status epilepticus and traumatic brain injury, and two preclinical-stage compounds–an anesthetic a treatment for patients with fragile X syndrome.

Status epilepticus (SE) is an acute life-threatening form of epilepsy, which is currently defined as a continuous seizure lasting longer than 5 minutes, or recurrent seizures without regaining consciousness between seizures for over 5 minutes. It occurs in approximately 200,000 U.S. patients each year, and has a mortality rate of nearly 20%. Refractory SE occurs in around a third of SE patients for whom first and second line treatment options are ineffective. These patients are moved to the ICU, and have little or no treatment options.

Sage’s SAGE-547, which is a proprietary positive GABAA receptor allosteric modulator, is aimed at treatment of the orphan indication of refractory SE. This compound has been selected by Elsevier Business Intelligence as one of the Top 10 Neuroscience Projects to Watch.

In addition to SAGE-547, Sage is developing next-generation treatments for SE and other forms of seizure and epilepsy. These early-stage compounds are novel positive allosteric modulators of GABAA receptors. Sage presented data on its early-stage therapeutics for SE in a poster session at the American Epilepsy Society (AES) Annual Meeting, Cambridge MA, December 9, 2013.

Sage’s drug candidate for traumatic brain injury is listed on the company’s website as “a proprietary, positive allosteric modulator”.

Sage’s preclinical anesthetic, SGE-202, is moving toward a Phase 1 clinical trial in 2014. It is an intravenous anesthetic for procedural sedation that designed to compete with the standard therapy, propofol. SGE-202 is designed to offer improved efficacy and safety as compared to propofol.

Fragile X syndrome (FSX) is an X chromosome-linked genetic syndrome that is the most widespread monogenic cause of autism and inherited cause of intellectual disability in males. FSX is an orphan condition that affects 60,000 – 80,000 people in the U.S. It causes such impairments as anxiety and social phobia, as well as cognitive deficits. There are no currently approved therapies for FXS, but patients are often prescribed treatments for anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and/or epilepsy.

Sage is developing a proprietary positive GABAA receptor allosteric modulator for treatment of FSX. It is expected to provide symptomatic and potentially disease-modifying therapeutic benefits to patients with FXS, and to ameliorate anxiety and social deficits. The company is moving its FXS program toward a Phase 1 clinical trial in 2014.

EnVivo Pharmaceuticals

Sage is not the only Boston-area biotech that is developing novel classes of compounds to target specific types of neurotransmitter receptors. We discussed EnVivo Pharmaceuticals (Watertown, MA), and its program to develop agents to target subclasses of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs), in a November 2007 report published by Decision Resources.

nAChRs, like GABAA and NMDA receptors, are ligand-gated ion channels. In normal physiology, nAChRs are opened by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh). However, nicotine can also open these receptors. Certain subtypes of nAChRs in the brain are involved in cognitive function, and nicotine, by targeting these receptors, has long been known to improve cognitive function. However, the adverse effects of nicotine (especially its well-known addictive properties) make this drug problematic for use as a cognitive enhancer. Therefore, several companies have been working on discovering and developing subtype-specific nAChR agonists for use in such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, ADHD, and mild cognitive impairment.

EnVivo’s alpha-7 nAChR program, which targets a subtype of nChRs that have been implicated in cognitive function, has made considerable progress since 2007. Their lead compound, EVP-6124, is now in Phase 3 clinical trials for treatment of schizophrenia, and Phase 3 trials in Alzheimer’s disease are planned. This follows positive Phase 2 results in both conditions.


Sage Therapeutics has a sophisticated approach to discovery of compounds that modulate GABAA and NMDA receptors, and has managed to both attract significant venture financing and to move compounds into the clinic rapidly. However, none of Sage’s compounds has yet achieved clinical proof of concept, so it is too early to determine whether Sage’s approach will bear fruit.

EnVivo’s alpha-7 nAChR program is based on a more straightforward technology strategy than Sage’s. It has made considerable progress since we first covered it in 2007. EnVivo’s lead compound, EVP-6124, has had successful Phase 2 clinical trials in both Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. However, both of these diseases have proven very difficult for drug developers to tackle. This is particularly true for Alzheimer’s disease–we have covered several cases in which drugs failed in Phase 3 on this blog. Therefore, it is best to reserve judgment on the outlook for EnVivo’s alpha-7 nAChR program pending the results of the Phase 3 trials.

Moreover, as we discussed on this blog, many Alzheimer’s experts believe that it would be best to target very early-stage or pre-Alzheimer’s disease rather than even “mild-to-moderate” disease as in the EnVivo Phase 2 trials.

Novartis’ new neuroscience program is a foundational, early-stage biology-driven effort, and clinical compounds are not expected for five years or so. Therefore, if Sage’s and especially EnVivo’s programs bear fruit, we should know about it long before any Novartis CNS programs progress very far at all. However, it is because of the abject failure of neurotransmitter-targeting approaches to CNS drug discovery and development over several decades that Novartis is resorting to a long-term foundational CNS R&D strategy.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to  your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

Agios Pharmaceuticals files for an IPO

Agios Nikolaos Orfanos, Thessaloniki, Greece

Agios Nikolaos Orfanos, Thessaloniki, Greece

On June 11, 2013, Agios Pharmaceuticals (Cambridge, MA) filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for an Initial Public Offering (IPO). The company plans to raise up to $86 million through this IPO. This news was reported by Fierce Biotech, the Boston Business Journal, and Xconomy, among others.

The Biopharmconsortium Blog has been following Agios since December 31, 2009, and we have posted three additional articles since. Our newest article, posted on December 28, 2012, announced the publication of an article  in the November 19, 2012 issue of Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) by senior editor Lisa M Jarvis, in which I was quoted. More recently, Agios posted a reprint of that article on its website, which it retitled “Built to Last”. I had used that phrase in my quote in Ms. Jarvis’ article.

Agios specializes in the field of cancer metabolism. The company is working on multiple potential targets, with the goal of dominating that field, using its strong proprietary technology platform. Its financing strategy is aimed at building a company with the potential to endure as an independent firm over a long period of time–hence “built to last”. This contrasts with the recent trend toward “virtual biotech companies”–lean companies with only a very few employees that outsource most of their functions, and that are designed for early acquisition by a Big Pharma or large biotech company. Agios’ ambition to dominate the field of cancer metabolism requires a “built to last” strategy.

As Agios’ CEO David Schenkein said in the C&EN article, “You’re never going to get that with a one-target deal”. In support of that strategy, Agios has raised over a quarter of a billion dollars in funding. This has included two rounds of venture capital funding that raised a total of $111 million, and a partnership with Celgene that brought in a total of $141 million in upfront payments. According to the Fierce Biotech article, Celgene has committed to invest in Agios’ IPO.

As of yet, Agios has no drugs in clinical trials. However, the company has several drug candidates in early development. And according to the Fierce Biotech article, Agios intends to use the proceeds of the IPO to fund its first clinical trials. One of the company’s lead candidates, AG-221, which targets mutant isocitrate dehydrogenase 2 (IDH2), may reach the clinic soon, according to the Fierce Biotech article. Another Agios compound, AG-120, which targets mutant IDH1, is expected to enter the clinic in early 2014.

Recent developments in Agios’ research

The Biopharmconsortium Blog has been reporting on Agios’ research on mutant forms of IDH1 and IDH2, and their roles in human cancer, beginning with our December 31, 2009 article. Briefly, wild-type IDH1 and IDH2 catalyze the NADP+-dependent oxidative decarboxylation of isocitrate to α-ketoglutarate. However, mutant forms of IDH1and IDH2, which are found in certain human cancers, no longer catalyze this reaction, but instead catalyzes the NADPH-dependent reduction of α-ketoglutarate to R(-)-2-hydroxyglutarate (2-HG). The researchers have hypothesized that 2HG is an oncometabolite, and that developing mutant-specific small molecule inhibitors of IDH1 and IDH2 might inhibit the growth or reverse the oncogenic phenotype of cancer cells that carry the mutant enzymes.

As we reported in our December 28, 2012 article, Agios researchers and their collaborators reported a series of compounds that selectively inhibit the mutant form of IDH1. These compounds were found to lower tumor 2-HG in a xenograft model. More recently, on May 3, 2013, Agios researchers and their collaborators published two research reports in the journal Science, and the company also announced the results of these studies in a April 4, 2013 press release. According to that press release, the two reports are the first publications to show the effects of inhibiting mutant IDH1 and IDH2 in patient-derived tumor samples. These results constitute preclinical support for the hypothesis that the two mutant enzymes are driving disease, and that drugs that target the mutant forms of the enzymes can reverse their oncogenic effects.

In the first of these papers (Wang et al.), the researchers reported the development of the small-molecule compound AGI-6780 (a tool compound, not a clinical candidate), which potently and selectively inhibits the tumor-associated mutant IDH2/R140Q. AGI-6780 is an allosteric inhibitor of this mutant enzyme. Treatment with AGI-6780 induced differentiation of two IDH2-bearing tumors in vitro: a TF-1 erythroleukemia genetically engineered to express IDH2, and primary human acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) carrying the IDH2 mutation. These data provide proof-of-principle that inhibitors targeting mutant IDH2/R140Q could have potential applications as a differentiation therapy for AML and other IDH2-driven cancers.

In the second paper (Rohle et al.), Agios researchers and their collaborators focused on a selective mutant IDH1 (R132H-IDH1) inhibitor, AGI-5198 (also a tool compound), which is one of the mutant IDH1 inhibitors that we referred to in our December 28, 2012 article. The researchers studied the effects of AGI-5198 on human glioma cells with endogenous IDH1 mutations. AGI-5198 inhibited, in a dose-dependent manner, the ability of the mutant IDH1 to produce 2-HG. Under conditions of near-complete inhibition of 2-HG production, AGI-5198 induced demethylation of histone H3K9me3 in chromatin, and also induced expression of genes associated with differentiation to glial cells (specifically astrocytes and oligodendrocytes). Blockade with AGI-5198 also impaired the growth of IDH1-mutant—but not IDH1–wild-type—glioma cells. Oral administration of AGI-5198 to mice with established R132H-IDH1 glioma xenografts resulted in impaired growth of the tumors. Treatment of mice with AGI-5198 was well-tolerated, with no signs of toxicity during 3 weeks of daily treatment.

It is possible that Agios’ IDH1/2 inhibitors do not inhibit tumor growth by inducing differentiation, at least in the case of AGI-5198 in glioma. Rohle et al. noted that although high-dose (450 mg/kg) AGI-5198 induced demethylation of histone H3K9me3 and induced gliogenic differentiation markers, a lower dose of AGI-5198 (150 mg/kg) did not. Nevertheless, the lower dose of AGI-5198 resulted in a similar tumor growth inhibition as did the the higher dose. This suggests that in glioma cells, mutant IDH1 regulates cell proliferation and cell differentiation via distinct pathways. These pathways may have different sensitivities to levels of 2-HG, with the differentiation-related pathway requiring increased inhibition of levels of 2-HG than the proliferation-related program.

Is differentiation therapy with IDH1/2 inhibitors sufficient to provide efficacious treatment of AML and/or glioma?

A companion Perspective, authored by Jiyeon Kim and Ralph J. DeBerardinis (Children’s Medical Center Research Institute, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX), was published in the same issue of Science as Wang et al and Rohle et al. Kim and DeBerardinis note that the selective mutant IDH1 and IDH2  inhibitors produced cytostatic rather than cytotoxic effects. Specifically, they induced cancer cell differentiation rather than cell death.

It is possible that inducing a permanent state of differentiation may be sufficient for therapeutic efficacy. However, the survival (in a differentiated, nontumor state) of viable cells still containing potentially oncogenic mutations may eventually give rise to cancer. Therefore, it is important to determine whether the therapeutic effects of these compounds will persist over long periods of time.

In discussing AGI-6780 as a differentiation therapy in hematopoietic malignancies, Wang et al. compared their results to the action of all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) on acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). ATRA has be used to treat APL, and it apparently works via relieving a block in differentiation present in these leukemic cells. The use of ATRA in APL has thus been taken as a paradigm of differentiation therapy, and it is used as such a paradigm by Wang et al.

We discussed the case of ATRA treatment of APL in our April 15, 2010 article on this blog. APL patients whose leukemia is due to a PML-RARα translocation in their promyelocytes (who constitute the vast majority of APL patients) initially respond to differentiation therapy with ATRA, but eventually develop resistance to the drug. Combination therapy of ATRA and arsenic trioxide (As 2O 3) cures the majority of patients, rendering a cancer that was once uniformly fatal 90% curable. As discussed in our 2010 article, this was first modeled in transgenic mice, and then applied to human patients. APL patients whose leukemia is due to a PLZF-RARα translocation in their promyelocytes are unresponsive to both ATRA and As 2O 3. However, as discussed in our 2010 article, the corresponding mouse model does respond to a combination of ATRA and a histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitor such as sodium phenylbutyrate.

When this combination therapy was tested in one patient in 1998 (presumably the first patient in a clinical trial), she achieved a complete remission. Presumably, clinical trials of newer, approved HDAC inhibitors [e.g., suberoylanilide hydroxamic acid (SAHA), Merck’s Vorinostat] in combination with ATRA could be carried out.  (The SAHA/ATRA combination has been tested in a mouse model of PLZF-RARα APL.)

As in the case of Agios’ AGI-5198, ATRA may work in part via a different mechanism than induction of differentiation in APL. This is despite this case being taken as a paradigm of differentiation therapy. We referred to this briefly in our April 19, 2010 blog post. ATRA appears to produce cancer cell growth arrest at least in part via inducing degradation of the PML-RARα fusion protein. Growth arrest and differentiation appear to be uncoupled in the case of the action of ATRA on PLZF-RARα-bearing cells. [The issue of the uncoupling of RARα transcriptional activation (which induces differentiation) and RARα degradation was investigated further in a study published in April 2013.]

Is it possible–as in the case of ATRA in APL–that Agios’ therapies for targeting mutant forms of IDH1/2 will require combination with another agent to achieve long-term therapeutic efficacy? Only clinical trials can answer this question. However, perhaps it might be possible to design animal models to test this issue, and to use these models to identify agents that may be productively used in combination with the IDH1/2 inhibitors.


Agios IPO comes amidst a boom in biotech IPOs–especially Boston biotech IPOs. In addition to Agios, recent Boston-area IPOs include Epizyme (Cambridge, MA), TetraPhase Pharmaceuticals (Watertown, MA) and Enanta Pharmaceuticals (Watertown, MA). According to a June 14 2013 article in the Boston Business Journal, bluebird bio (Cambridge, MA) is also expected to complete its IPO during the week of June 17, 2013. We discussed bluebird bio in our October 11, 2012 Biopharmconsortium Blog article.

As with Agios, neither Epizyme, TetraPhase, Enanta, nor bluebird has any revenues from approved and marketed therapeutics. However, unlike Agios, all of these four companies have drug candidates that have reached the clinic. In addition, TetraPhase and Enanta have compounds that have completed Phase 2 clinical trials, and thus have presumably achieved proof-of-concept in humans. Thus the stock of these two companies appear to be lower risk investments than that of Agios, despite Agios’ very compelling scientific and strategic rationale. At least until its compounds achieve proof-of-concept in human studies, investing in Agios is mainly for sophisticated investors who have a high tolerance for risk. ____________________________________________________

As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to  your company,  please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

New findings on mechanism of activation of sirtuins may vindicate Sirtris founders

Sir2, the yeast homologue of SIRT1

Sir2, the yeast homologue of SIRT1

The Biopharmconsortium Blog has from time to time been following novel developments in anti-aging medicine, including attempts to develop activators of sirtuins. However, we have not had an article on sirtuins since December 1, 2010. At that time, we reported on the discontinuation by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) of its lead sirtuin activator, SRT501, a proprietary formulation of the natural product resveratrol (which is found in red wine).

Sirtuins are nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+)–dependent protein deacetylases, which have been implicated in control of lifespan in yeast, the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, and the fruit fly Drosophila. Mammalian sirtuins have been implicated (via animal model studies) in protection against aging-related diseases such as metabolic and cardiovascular diseases, neurodegeneration, and cancer.

As we discussed in our December 1, 2010 article, GSK acquired the sirtuin-pathway specialty company Sirtris (Cambridge, MA) for $720 million in June 2008. This gave GSK ownership of Sirtris’ sirtuin modulator drugs. As stated in that article, although GSK discontinued development of SRT501, it was continuing  development of Sirtris’ non-resveratrol synthetic selective sirtuin 1 (SIRT1) activators, which in addition to their greater potency, had more favorably drug-like properties.

Recently, resveratrol and synthetic sirtuin activators such as those developed by Sirtris have come to be known as  “sirtuin-activating compounds” (STACs).

Sirtuin-activating compounds (STACs) under a cloud

As we discussed in our February 10, 2010 blog article, researchers at Amgen found evidence that the apparent in vitro activation of SIRT1 by resveratrol depended on the substrate used in the assay. The Amgen group found that the fluorescent SIRT1 peptide substrate used in the Sirtris assay is a substrate for SIRT1, but in the absence of the covalently linked fluorophore, the peptide is not a SIRT1 substrate. Resveratrol did not activate SIRT1 in vitro as determined by assays using two other non-fluorescently-labeled substrates.

Researchers at Pfizer also found that resveratrol and three of Sirtris’ second-generation STACs activated SIRT1 when a fluorophore-bearing peptide substrate was used, but were not SIRT1 activators in in vitro assays using native peptide or protein substrates.The Pfizer researchers also found that the Sirtris compounds interact directly with the fluorophore-conjugated peptide, but not with native peptide substrates.

Moreover, the Pfizer researchers were not able to replicate Sirtris’ in vivo studies of its compounds. Specifically, when the Pfizer researchers tested SRT1720 in a mouse model of obese diabetes, a 30 mg/kg dose of the compound failed to improve blood glucose levels, and the treated mice showed increased food intake and weight gain. A 100 mg/kg dose of SRT1720 was toxic, and resulted in the death of 3 out of 8 mice tested.

The Pfizer researchers also found that the Sirtris compounds interacted with an even greater number of cellular targets (including an assortment of receptors, enzymes, transporters, and ion channels) than resveratrol. For example, SRT1720 showed over 50% inhibition of 38 out of 100 targets tested, while resveratrol only inhibited 7 targets. Only one target, norepinephrine transporter, was inhibited by greater than 50% by all three Sirtris compounds and by resveratrol. Thus the Sirtris compounds have a different target selectivity profile than resveratrol, and all of these compounds exhibit promiscuous targeting.

Finally, as we reported in our December 1, 2010 blog article, NIH researcher Jay H. Chung and his colleagues found evidence that resveratrol works indirectly, via the energy sensor AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), to activate sirtuins. Since activation of AMPK increases fatty acid oxidation and upregulates mitochondrial biogenesis, this study suggested that the effect of resveratrol on AMPK may be more important than its more indirect activation of sirtuins in the regulation of insulin sensitivity.

All of these studies left Sirtris/GSK’s STACs under a cloud.

On March 13, 2013, GSK reported that it was shutting down Sirtris and its Cambridge MA facilities, just five years after its $720 million acquisition. GSK also said that it was offering transfers to the Philadelphia area for some of the 60 remaining Sirtris employees. Although GSK was closing Sirtris, it said that it remained confident in Sirtris’ drug candidates. The pharma company said that following Sirtris’ “highly successful” research on the biology of sirtuins, further development of Sirtris’ drug candidates “requires the resource and expertise available from our broader drug discovery organization.” GSK will be “exami[ing] [its] research against a variety of therapeutic conditions, with the aim of moving potential assets into the clinic within the next three to four years.”

New evidence that STACs activate SIRT1 in vitro under certain conditions

On 8 March 2013, the journal Science published a report by Sirtris founder David A. Sinclair, Ph.D. (Harvard Medical School, Boston MA) and his colleagues [from academia and from Sirtris, GSK, and from Biomol (Plymouth Meeting, PA)] that identified conditions under which STACs activate SIRT1 in vitro. This research report was accompanied by a Perspective in the same issue of Science authored by Hua Yuan, Ph.D. and Ronen Marmorstein, Ph.D. (Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, PA).

Dr. Sinclair and his colleagues hypothesized that the fluorophore tags on peptide substrates that were used in the original, successful SIRT1 activation assays might mimic hydrophobic amino acid residues of natural substrates at the same position as the fluorophore (i.e, +1 relative to the acetylated lysine that is engaged by SIRT1). Consistent with this hypothesis, the researchers found that non-fluorophore-tagged natural SIRT1 substrates with a large hydrophobic amino acid residue [i..e, tryotophan (Trp), tyrosine (Tyr), or phenylalanine (Phe)] at positions +1 and +6 or +1 were selectively activated by STACs. Examples of such substrates are peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor γ coactivator 1α acetylated on lysine at position 778 (PGC-1α–K778), and forkhead box protein O3a acetylated on lysine at position 290 (FOXO3a-K290). The PGC-1α–K778 peptide contains Tyr at the +1 position and Phe at the +6 position, and FOXO3a contains Trp at the +1 position. Substitution of these aromatic amino acids on either acetylated peptide with alanine (Ala) resulted in complete abolition of SIRT1 activity.

The researchers identified over 400 nuclear acetylated proteins that are potential SIRT1 targets that support STAC-mediated activation of SIRT1, on the basis of their structure. They tested five of these native sequences and found that three of them supported SIRT1 activation.

Kinetic analysis of SIRT1 activation by STACs in the presence of the above peptide substrates showed that the enhancement in the rate of SIRT1 deacetylation was mediated primarily through an improvement in peptide binding. This is consistent with an allosteric mechanism of activation. In allosteric regulation, an allosteric activator (in this case, a STAC) binds to a regulatory site (also known as an allosteric site) that is distinct from the catalytic site of an enzyme (in this case, SIRT1). Binding of the activator to the allosteric site results in the enhancement of the activity of the enzyme, for example by causing a conformational change in the protein that results in improved biding of the catalytic site to the substrate.

In order to investigate the nature of the hypothesized SIRT1 allosteric site, the researchers screened  for SIRT1 mutant proteins that could not be activated by STACs in the presence of an appropriate peptide substrate. As a result of these studies, the researchers identified a critical glutamate (Glu) residue at position 230 of SIRT1, which is immediately N-terminal to the catalytic core of SIRT1.  Glu230 of SIRT1 is conserved from flies to humans. Replacement of Glu230 with another amino acid, such as lysine or alanine, resulted in attenuation of SIRT1 activation by STACs, independent of the substrate used.  Structural studies identified a rigid N-terminal domain that contains Glu230, and is critical for activation by STACs.

The researchers then studied the effects of STACs on cultured cells (murine myoblasts), expressing either wild-type SIRT1 or mutant SIRT1 in which Glu230 is replaced with lysine (SIRT1-E222K, which is the murine equivalent of human SIRT1-E230K). Cells expressing the mutant SIRT1 did not respond to STACs, but cells expressing wild-type SIRT1 did. Specifically, cells expressing wild-type SIRT1 exhibited STAC-stimulated increases in ATP levels, mitochondrial mass, and mitochondrial DNA copy number, but cells expressing mutant SIRT1 did not. In STAC-treated cells, the researchers found no evidence of SIRT1-independent AMPK phosphorylation. This goes against studies discussed earlier in this article, that indicate that resveratrol works via activating AMPK. They also found no evidence for inhibition of phosphodiesterase isoforms in the STAC-treated cells. This goes against a study, published in Cell in 2012, that indicates that resveratrol ameliorates aging-related metabolic conditions by inhibiting cAMP phosphodiesterases, thus engaging a pathway that activates AMPK.

The researchers conclude that STACs act via a mechanism of direct “assisted allosteric activation” mediated by the Glu230-containing N-terminal activation domain of SIRT1. They further conclude that their findings support the hypothesis that allosteric activation of SIRT1 by STACs constitutes a viable therapeutic intervention strategy for many aging-related diseases. thus apparently vindicating the Sirtris/GSK development program.

However, the authors of the companion Perspective hypothesize that the reason that existing STACs only work with SIRT1 substrates that contain hydrophobic residues at position +1 to the acetylated lysine is because they were identified via screening with a substrate that contained a hydrophobic residue mimetic–i.e., a fluorophore tag. A new screen that is not biased in this way might possibly identify STACs that exhibit selectivity for SIRT1 substrates that contain other sequence signatures. It is possible that such STACs might be better therapeutics for certain aging-related diseases than the current STACs being investigated by Sirtris/GSK. There also remain many unknowns in the biology of SIRT1, and in the biochemistry of STACs –i.e., mechanisms by with certain STACs modulate the activity of biomolecules other than SIRT1 (e.g,, cAMP phosphodiesterases). Such issues might affect the success or failure of any program to develop STACs as therapeutic compounds.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or an initial one-to-one consultation on an issue that is key to your company’s success, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

HDL drug update




We have published two articles on high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good cholesterol”) raising drugs on this blog:

The more recent of these article has received quite a few hits lately. This is probably because of recent news of a clinical trial failure in the HDL drug field. It therefore seems appropriate to publish an update on HDL-raising drug clinical trials, in order to bring our blog up to date.

Update on the trials and tribulations of niacin-based HDL-raising drugs

As of the time of our June 1, 2011 article, high-dose niacin was the only drug that was approved by the FDA for raising HDL. However, generic high-dose niacin can cause adverse effects such as skin flushing and itching. Therefore, two companies, Abbott and Merck, were developing high-dose niacin-based products designed to reduce these adverse effects.

In May 2011, as discussed in our June 1, 2011 article, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) stopped a large clinical trial (known as AIM-HIGH) of Abbott’s Niaspan, an extended-release formulation of high-dose niacin, because the drug failed to prevent heart attacks and strokes. There was also a small increased rate of strokes in patients taking Niaspan, which researchers cautioned may have been due to chance. Niaspan remains an FDA-approved drug, and it is now owned by Abbot spin-off AbbVie. However, Niaspan is scheduled to go off-patent later in 2013.

Merck’s high-dose non-flushing niacin product is known as Tredaptive or Cordaptive in different markets. It is a combination product consisting of extended-release high dose niacin plus laropiprant. Laropiprant is designed to block the ability of prostaglandin D2 to cause skin flushing; niacin-induced skin flushing works via the action of prostaglandin D2 in the skin.

In 2008, the FDA rejected Merck’s New Drug Application for Tredaptive/Cordaptive, so the drug remained investigational in the US. However, in 2009 Merck launched Tredaptive in international markets including Mexico, the UK and Germany. The drug has been approved in over 45 countries. Merck had also been conducting a 25,000-person trial of Tredaptive for reducing the rate of cardiovascular events in patients who are at risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). Merck intended to file for approval of the drug in the US in 2012, based on the results of this trial if it had been positive.

However, on December 20, 2012, Merck announced that its clinic trial of Tredaptive, known as the HPS2-THRIVE Study (Heart Protection Study 2-Treatment of HDL to Reduce the Incidence of Vascular Events), did not achieve its primary endpoint.

As a result of this finding, Merck does not plan to seek regulatory approval for this medicine in the United States. It also–as of January 11, 2013–began a recall of Tredaptive in the 40 countries in which it had been approved. The  HPS2-THRIVE Study not only showed that Tredaptive was of no benefit in reducing cardiovascular events in high-risk patients on statins, but it also significantly raised the incidence of such adverse effects as blood, lymph and gastrointestinal problems, as well as respiratory and skin issues.

The results of a new study published online on February 26 2013 showed that around a quarter of all patients taking the niacin/laropiprant combination Tredaptive had dropped out of the trial–compared to fewer than 17% in the placebo arm.  This was mostly due to itching, rashes, indigestion and muscle problems. There were also dozens of serious reactions, including 29 cases of myopathy.

Skin-related adverse effects seen in some patients with Tredaptive resemble those seen with high-dose niacin. The addition of laropiprant was supposed to ameliorate these adverse effects, but may not have done so in all patients. As for the serious adverse effects such as myopathy, several medical researchers assert that it is not known whether niacin, laropiprant or drug-drug interactions between these two agents and/or the statin (simvastatin) used in the study was responsible. Simvastatin is known to have adverse interactions with certain other drugs. Moreover, one-third of subjects enrolled in HPS2-THRIVE were Chinese, a patient population that is known to be more sensitive to the effects of statins, especially the 40-milligram dose of simvastatin used in the trial. It was the Chinese patients enrolled in the trial who showed the highest risk of myopathy.

In addition, some of the researchers question whether laropiprant is a “clean drug” that has no effects on atherosclerosis and thrombosis. A recent study has shown aneurysm formation and accelerated atherogenesis in mice with deleted prostaglandin D2 receptors; these receptors are the target of laropiprant. Thus the use of laropiprant may have been a factor in the failure of the trial, as well as in the adverse effects seen in patients treated with the niacin/laropiprant combination.

Full results of the HPS2-THRIVE study will be presented by lead investigator Dr Jane Armitage (Oxford University, UK) on March 9, 2013 at the American College of Cardiology 2013 Scientific Sessions (San Francisco, CA.)

Thus–although generic niacin and Niaspan remain FDA-approved HDL-raising drugs–the results of the AIM-HIGH and the HPS2-THRIVE studies have put niacin-based HDL-raising drugs–and the whole HDL-raising drug field–under a cloud.

Update on development of CETP inhibitors

As discussed in our earlier articles, the development of cholesteryl ester transfer protein (CETP) inhibitors has been a particular focus of several pharmaceutical companies.  CETP catalyzes the transfer of cholesteryl esters and triglycerides between LDL/VLDL and HDL, and vice versa. In vivo (in animals and in humans), CETP inhibitor drugs raise HDL and lower LDL.

The clinical failure of Pfizer’s CETP inhibitor torcetrapib in 2006 put a severe damper on development of drugs in this class. However, the toxicity of torcetrapib was found to be due to an off-target effect, and other CETP inhibitors do not display this toxicity. Thus companies have been developing three CETP inhibitors: Roche’s dalcetrapib, Merck’s anacetrapib, and Lilly’s evacetrapib.

However, on May 7, 2012 Roche announced that it had–following the recommendation of an independent group of experts (the Data and Safety Monitoring Board)–halted its Phase 3 trial of dalcetrapib “due to a lack of clinically meaningful efficacy.”

Dalcetrapib’s lack of efficacy might possibly be due to its relatively low potency in raising HDL. Dalcetrapib boosted HDL by 30%, as compared to 138% for anacetrapib and 130% for evacetrapib, depending on the dose. Moreover, anacetrapib and evacetrapib, unlike dalcetrapib, also lower LDL (“bad cholesterol”).

Currently, anacetrapib and evacetrapib are being evaluated in large Phase 3 clinical trials–REVEAL (Randomized EValuation of the Effects of Anacetrapib Through Lipid-modification) and ACCELERATE (A Study of Evacetrapib in High-Risk Vascular Disease), respectively.

Is HDL-raising drug development high-stakes gambling or rational clinical research?

Given the lack of success–so far–in developing a safe HDL-raising drug that lowers the frequency of cardiovascular events in high-risk patients, some commentators speculate that attempting to develop HDL-raising drugs such as CETP inhibitors might be a form of high-stakes gambling. Chemist and leading pharmaceutical industry blogger Derek Lowe in particular takes this point of view. As we discussed in our June 1, 2011 article, the biology of HDL is complex. For example, HDL particles in blood serum are heterogeneous, with some HDL particles having a greater degree of positive effects on atherosclerotic plaque biology than others. As a result, treatments (e.g., drugs, diet) that raise HDL, as determined by standard clinical assays for serum HDL, may not necessarily result in clinical benefit, because of qualitative changes in populations of HDL particles.

The unknowns of HDL biology, combined with the need to conduct huge expensive clinical trials and the big payoffs for success in the large dyslipidemia market, convinced Derek Lowe that CETP inhibitor development more resembles gambling (in which only Big Pharmas can play) than rational clinical research. The same, according to Lowe, applies to Alzheimer’s disease drug development. According to Lowe, Big Pharmas may be undertaking these “go-for-the-biggest-markets-and-hope-for-the-best” research undertakings because they think that success in large markets are the only things that can rescue them.

Nevertheless, Steven Nissen, M.D. (chief of cardiovascular medicine at Cleveland Clinic), a veteran HDL researcher who has often been critical of the pharmaceutical industry, persists in running clinical studies of novel HDL-raising drugs. Although he considered dalcetrapib a “long-shot”, he continues to believe that anacetrapib and evacetrapib have a reasonable chance of success. And he has expressed particular enthusiasm for anacetrapib.

Dr. Nissen is involved in clinical trials of Resverlogix’s epigenetic agent RVX-208, a first-in-class small-molecule drug related to resveratrol that induces endogenous production of the protein component of HDL, apolipoprotein A1. On August 28, 2012, Resverlogix reported that RXV-208 significantly increased HDL-C, the primary endpoint of a Phase 2b clinical trial known as SUSTAIN. SUSTAIN also successfully met secondary endpoints–showed increases in levels of Apo-AI and large HDL particles. Both of these are believed to be important factors in enhancing reverse cholesterol transport activity. Safety data from SUSTAIN indicate that increases in the liver enzyme alanine aminotransferase (ALT) reported in previous trials were infrequent and transient, with no new increases observed beyond week 12 of the 24-week trial. Thus the drug appears to be suitable for chronic use.

Thus, despite the features of CETP-inhibitor clinical trials that resemble high-stakes gambling, we must wait for the results of the clinical trials to draw any meaningful conclusions about the prospects for development of these agents. Moreover, other approaches to developing HDL-raising drugs, such as Resverlogix’ epigenetic strategy, may turn out to be superior to older approaches. And as with Alzheimer’s disease, continuing studies on the basic biology of HDL may eventually yield breakthrough strategies to discovery and development of novel antiatherosclerotic drugs.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to  your company,  please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

Advances in the Discovery of Protein-Protein Interaction Modulators published by Informa’s Scrip Insights



On April 13, 2012, Informa’s Scrip Insights announced the publication of a new book-length report, Advances in the Discovery of Protein-Protein Interaction Modulators, by Allan B. Haberman, Ph.D.

Protein-protein interactions (PPIs) are of central importance in biochemical pathways, including pathways involved in disease processes. However, PPIs have been considered the prototypical “undruggable” or “challenging” targets. The discovery of small-molecule drugs that can serve as antagonists or agonists of PPIs, and which are capable of being successfully taken into human clinical trials, has been extremely difficult. Among the theoretical reasons for this is that contact surfaces involved in PPIs are usually large and flat, and lack the types of cavities present in the surfaces of proteins that bind to small-molecule ligands.

Nevertheless, over the last twenty years, researchers have developed a set of technologies and strategies that have enabled them, in a several cases, to discover developable small-molecule PPI modulators. One direct PPI agonist, the thrombopoietin mimetic eltrombopag (Ligand/GlaxoSmithKline’s Promacta/Revolade), has reached the market. The chemical structure of this compound is illustrated in the figure above. Several other small-molecule PPI modulators are in clinical trials. Despite this progress, the discovery and development of small-molecule PPI modulators has been one-at-a-time, slow and laborious.

The new strategic importance of protein-protein interactions as drug targets

Meanwhile, PPIs as potential drug targets have acquired a key strategic importance for the success of the pharmaceutical industry. Over at least the last decade, pharmaceutical R&D has failed to develop enough high-valued new drugs to make up for or exceed revenues from blockbusters that are losing patent protection. As we have discussed in previous publications and in articles on this blog, this low productivity is mainly due to pipeline attrition. There are several factors (ranging from target selection through drug design, preclinical studies, identification and use of biomarkers, and design of clinical trials) that can influence pipeline attrition.

However, increasing numbers of industry leaders and analysts identify target selection as the key factor that is limiting the productivity of pharmaceutical R&D. For example, I served as a workshop leader at Hanson Wade’s “World Drug Targets Summit”  last summer, which took that point of view. There are at least several such conferences throughout the year, which are organized at the request of industry leaders.

Industry experts who identify poor target selection as a major cause of pharma R&D’s productivity woes conclude that the main issue is that companies are running out of “druggable” targets that have not already been addressed by marketed drugs. As of 2011, only 2% of human proteins have been targeted with drugs. Most of the remaining disease-relevant proteins, including transcription factors and many other types of signaling proteins, work via interacting with other proteins in PPIs. Therefore, in order to reverse its R&D slump, the pharmaceutical industry needs to develop technologies and strategies to address PPIs and other hitherto “undruggable” targets.

Contents of the report

Our report discusses technologies and strategies that enable the discovery of drugs targeting PPIs, including both small-molecule and synthetic peptidic modulators. It includes case studies on the discovery of compounds that address specific target classes, with emphasis on agents that have reached human clinical studies. This includes addressing the issue of the need to produce PPI modulatory agents that have pharmacological properties that will enable them to be good clinical candidates.

The report also includes discussions of second-generation technologies for the discovery of small-molecule and peptidic PPI modulators, which have been developed by such companies as Forma, Ensemble, and Aileron, and by academic laboratories. The field of PPI modulator discovery has represented a “premature technology”, i.e., a field of biomedical science in which consistent practicable therapeutic applications are in the indefinite future, due to difficult technological hurdles. We have discussed premature technologies on earlier articles on this blog. The second-generation technologies are designed to overcome the hurdles and to thus enable a more accelerated and systematic approach to PPI drug discovery and development.

In part as the result of the development of these technologies, and of the increasing strategic importance of PPI modulator development, companies have been moving into the field. Examples include Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer, Novartis, and Roche. A key issue is to what extent the new technologies for PPI modulator R&D will enable this area to be commercially successful, and to meet the strategic needs of the industry for expanding the universe of targets for which drugs can be developed.

For more information about Advances in the Discovery of Protein-Protein Interaction Modulators, or to order the report, see the Scrip Insights website.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to  your company, please click here. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

“It’s not junk”–RaNA Therapeutics emerges from stealth mode with $20.7 million in venture funding-Part 2



This is Part 2 of the article on RaNA Therapeutics that we began on March 29, 2012.

Jeannie Lee’s research and RaNA’s technology platform

Jeannie Lee’s laboratory focuses on the study of the mechanism of X-chromosome inactivation in mammals. In X-chromosome inactivation, one of the two copies of the X chromosome present in the cells of female mammals is inactivated. The inactive X chromosome is silenced by packaging into transcriptionally inactive heterochromatin.  X-chromosome inactivation results in dosage compensation, the process by which cells of males and females have the same level of expression of X-chromosome genes, even though female cells have two X chromosomes and male cells have only one. In placental mammals such as mice and humans, the choice of which X chromosome will be inactivated is random, but once an X chromosome is inactivated it will remain inactive throughout the lifetime of the cell and its descendants.

The Lee laboratory has focused on genes encoded by the X-chromosome whose actions coordinate X-chromosome inactivation. These genes  are contained in the 100 kilobase long X-inactivation center (Xic). One of these genes, Xist, encodes the lncRNA XIST, which as discussed in Part 1 of this article inactivates an X-chromosome by spreading along the X chromosome and recruiting the silencing factor PRC2. XIST is regulated in cis by TSIX, an antisense version of XIST which works to keep the active X-chromosome active. Tsix is in turn regulated by Xite (X-Inactivation intergenic transcription element), an upstream locus that harbors an enhancer that enables the persistence of TSIX expression on the active X chromosome. The mechanism by which Xite acts (including whether it acts via its RNA transcripts) is not clear. Xite and Tsix appear to regulate pairing between the two X chromosomes in a female cell, and determine which X chromosome will be chosen for inactivation. Several other recently discovered genes in the region of the Xic, which work via lncRNAs, also serve as regulators of XIST function. For example, the Rep A and Jpx genes, work via lncRNA transcripts to induce Xist. Thus Xist is controlled by positive and negative lncRNA-based switches–TSIX for the active X chromosome and JPX and REPA for the inactive X. Of these lncRNAs, REPA, XIST, and TSIX bind to and control PRC2.

In late 2010, the Lee laboratory published an article in Molecular Cell in which the researchers identified a genome-wide pool of over 9000 lncRNA transcripts that interact with PRC2 in mouse ES cells. Many of these transcripts have sequences that correspond to potentially medically-important loci, including dozens of imprinted loci (i.e., loci that are epigenetically modified such that only the paternal or maternal allele is expressed), hundreds of oncogene and tumor suppressor loci, and multiple genes that are important in development and show differential chromatin regulation in stem cells and in differentiated cells. The researchers obtained evidence that at least in one case, an RNAs works to recruit PRC2 to a disease-relevant genes, similar to PRC2 recruitment by XIST and HOTAIR. This case of specific PRC2 recruitment has not been previously known, suggesting that the researchers’ methodology could be used to discover new examples of PRC2 recruitment by lncRNAs.

Some of the PRC2-associated lncRNAs identified in the Molecular Cell report may be potential therapeutic targets and/or biomarkers. Overexpression of PCR2 proteins have been linked to various types of cancer, including metastatic prostate and breast cancer, and cancers  of the colon, breast, and liver. Pharmacological inhibition of PRC2-mediated gene repression was found to induce apoptosis in several cancer cell lines in vitro, but not in various types of normal cells. Induction of apoptosis in this system is dependent on reactivation of genes that had been repressed by PRC2. There is also evidence that PRC2-mediated gene repression may be linked to the maintenance of the stem-cell properties of cancer stem cells. These results suggest that at least in some cases, inhibition of PRC2-mediated gene repression–including via targeting lncRNAs that recruit PRC2 to critical genes–is a potential strategy for treating various types of cancer.

RaNA’s R&D strategy

Not much information is available about RaNA’s strategy.  However, according to the January 2012 Mass High Tech article, RaNA Therapeutics has licensed technology from Mass General Hospital based on Dr. Lee’s research. The company has also filed several patent applications, some of which are described as being very broad. This includes patent applications on the existence and method of use of thousands of lncRNA targets. However, Dr. Lee’s published patent applications currently include only three items involving the X-chromosome inactivation system or TERC. Presumably, the patent applications mentioned in the Mass High Tech article will be published at the end of the 18-month publication period for U.S. patent applications.

According to the Mass High Tech article, RaNA is in the process of narrowing down the diseases it will initially focus on. Likely areas will include genetic diseases, including diseases that result from haploinsufficiency. In haploinsufficiency, one allele of a gene is nonfunctional, so all of the protein coded by the gene is made from the other allele. However, this results in insufficient levels of the protein to produce a normal phenotype. RaNA intends to use its technology to increase expression of the functional gene, resulting in a adequate dosage of the protein for a normal phenotype.

RaNA intends to choose one indication out of a short list of 20 diseases for internal R&D, and to seek collaborations for other indications. Dr. Krieg says that he hopes to have a collaboration by the end of 2012, and also to have Investigational New Drug (IND)-enabling safety studies on its internal drug candidate by the end of the year as well.

As one might expect, RaNA will target the appropriate lncRNAs using oligonucleotides, similar to how RNAi companies target mRNAs. Dr. Krieg, an oligonucleotide therapeutic development veteran, recruited some of his old oligonucleotide team from Pfizer into RaNA, according to a Fierce Biotech article. Thus Dr. Krieg and his team can quickly get up and running in designing and testing oligonucleotide therapeutics, once RaNA selects the targets for its initial focus.

In the Mass High Tech article, Dr. Krieg says that he believes that “oligonucleotides are on the cusp of being recognized as the third leg of drug development,” along with small-molecule and protein therapeutics. However, as we discussed in our August 22, 2011 article on this blog, oligonucleotide drug development, as exemplified by RNAi and microRNA-based therapeutics, has run into several technological hurdles, especially those involving drug delivery. The August 2011 article cites an editorial by Dr. Krieg, in which he voices his optimism despite these hurdles.

Nevertheless, large pharmaceutical companies and investors have been moving away from the oligonucleotide field. This is exemplified by Alnylam’s January 20, 2012 restructuring, which cut one-third of its work force and focused the company on two of its Phase 1 programs. Having exhausted its ability to capture major Big Phama licensing and R&D deals, Alnylam has had to become a normal early-2012 biotech company and focus its strategy. (However, Alnylam did a $86.9 million public offering in February 2012.)

The emergence of RaNA, and its $20.7 million funding, thus swims against the tide of the general pessimism about oligonucleotide therapeutics of Big Pharmas, investors, and stock analysts. However, at least some oligonucleotide therapeutics will eventually emerge onto the market, and lncRNA regulation is likely to be crucial to many disease pathways. RaNA is thus the pioneering company in this field.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to  your company, please click here. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

“It’s not junk”–RaNA Therapeutics emerges from stealth mode with $20.7 million in venture funding-Part 1


XIST Source: Alexbateman


On January 18, 2012, start-up company RaNA Therapeutics (Cambridge, MA) emerged from stealth mode with 20.7 million in cash. The Series A venture funding was co-led by Atlas Venture, SR One, and Monsanto, with participation of Partners Innovation Fund.

RaNA will work on developing a technology platform that involves targeting long noncoding RNA (lncRNA), in order to selectively upregulate gene expression.

Arthur Krieg, M.D. will serve as RaNA’s President and CEO. He is the former Chief Scientific Officer of the now-closed Pfizer Oligonucleotide Therapeutics Unit, who later became an Entrepreneur in Residence at Atlas Venture (Cambridge, MA). Dr. Krieg was mentioned in two of our previous Biopharmconsortium Blog articles, dated February 15, 2011 and August 22, 2011.

Atlas quietly nurtured RaNA while working to complete the Series A venture round. According to a January 18, 2012 article in Mass High Tech, the company plans to move into about 9,000 square feet of space “somewhere in Cambridge” in early 2012.  RaNA has approximately a dozen employees.

According to the Mass High Tech article, RaNA’s platform is based on technology developed by scientific founder Dr. Jeannie Lee (Massachusetts General Hospital/Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Boston MA).  Drs. Lee and Krieg and Atlas Ventures are cofounders of RaNA.

This is Part 1 of our discussion of RaNA Therapeutics.

RaNA and “junk DNA”

RaNA’s focus is related to what has traditionally been called “junk DNA”. As shown by work on the Human Genome Project and other genomics studies, only about 2-3 percent of the human genome consists of protein-encoding genes. Genomics researchers had not been able to identify a function for most of the remaining 97-98% of the human genome. This gave rise to the idea that these sequences consisted of parasitic DNA sequences that had no function whatsoever. Most researchers thus called these sequences “junk DNA”. Some of the leading lights of the genomics field gave presentations in which they dismissed this DNA as “junk”, and they even proposed models for how this “junk DNA” might accumulate during evolution. Then they would go on to discuss the “interesting” 2-3 percent.

However, the “junk DNA” concept was not really established science, but a hypothesis. I–among a few others–would call these sequences “DNA of unknown function”.

In more recent years, many researchers showed that at least the vast majority of DNA of unknown function was transcribed. Then researchers found a function for a relatively small percentage of these sequences–they are precursors of microRNAs and other small regulatory RNAs. These RNAs are related to the phenomenon of RNA interference (RNAi), which has been the subject of much basic research, including the Nobel Prize-winning research of Drs. Andrew Fire and Craig Mello. RNAi is the basis for various therapeutic RNAi drug discovery and development efforts at such companies as Alnylam, Silence Therapeutics, Quark Phamaceuticals, Dicerna, and Santaris, as well as several large pharmaceutical companies.

The majority of DNA sequences of unknown function, however, are transcribed into lncRNA. As exemplified by the first article [“Quantity or quality?”, by Monika S. Kowalczyk and Douglas R. Higgs (University of Oxford)] in a point/counterpoint Forum published in the 16 February 2012 issue of Nature, many researchers postulate that at least most of these transcripts are nonfunctional. Transcription of these sequences might be, for example, at a low level, as the result of experimental artifacts or of exposure of sequences to the transcriptional machinery due to changes in chromatin during such processes as cell division or expression of nearby genes. This point of view moves the “junk DNA” hypothesis to the RNA level–now one might speak of “junk RNA”.

However, in the second article in the Nature Forum [“Patience is a virtue”, by Thomas R. Gingeras (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory)], the author counsels “patience” in carefully unraveling the function, one by one, of each noncoding RNA (ncRNA) transcript. According to Dr. Gingeras’ article, there are currently some 161,000 human transcripts, 53% of which are ncRNAs. About 2% of these ncRNAs are precursors to microRNAs. Approximately 10% of the transcripts are lncRNAs that map to intergenic and intronic regions, and many of these transcripts have been implicated in regulation — both of locally and at a distance— of developmentally important genes. Another 16% of the ncRNAs are transcripts of pseudogenes — genes that appear to have lost their original functions during evolution. Some of the pseudogene transcripts have been shown to regulate gene expression by acting as decoys for microRNAs. Despite this progress in assigning functions to ncRNAs, no function has yet been found for the majority of these transcripts. However, these are early days in the ncRNA field, so patience and openness to new discoveries is advisable.

The same 16 February 2012 issue of Nature contains a “Nature Insight” supplement on “Regulatory RNA”. Of particular interest with respect to the functions of lncRNAs is the review by Mitchell Guttman (Broad Institute and MIT, Cambridge MA) and John Rinn (Broad Institute and Harvard, Cambridge MA), entitled “Modular regulatory principles of large non-coding RNAs”. Among the lncRNAs discussed in that review are the X-inactive specific transcript (XIST) (see the figure above) and the telomerase RNA component (TERC). Both of these lncRNAs were identified and their functions determined in the 1990s–XIST in 1991  and TERC in 1995. XIST is expressed exclusively from inactive X chromosomes and is required for X inactivation in mammals. TERC is an essential RNA component of telomerase, the enzyme that replicates chromosome ends (telomeres). At the same time as the functions of XIST and TERC were beginning to be unraveled, most researchers were continuing to dismiss ncDNA as “junk”. Should they have known better?

The Guttman and Rinn review discusses several other lncRNAs with known, important functions, all of which were discovered since the pioneering work on XIST and TERC. Among the genes that encode these lncRNAs are HOTAIR and HOTTIP, which affect expression of the HOXD and HOXA gene family, respectively. HOX genes are a superfamily of evolutionarily conserved genes that are involved the determination of the basic structure of an organism. They encode transcription factors that regulate target genes by binding to specific DNA sequences in enhancers. The large intergenic non-coding RNA-RoR (lincRNA-RoR) modulates reprogramming of human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells, which were discussed in earlier articles on this blog). The lncRNA NRON regulates transcription factors of the NFAT (nuclear factor of activated T-cells) family, which are involved in regulating the immune response, as well as in the development of cardiac and skeletal muscle, and of the nervous system. These genes have also been implicated in breast cancer, especially in tumor cell invasion and metastasis.

A common theme in the function of several lncRNAs, as highlighted in the Guttman and Rinn review, is association of the lncRNA with a chromatin-regulatory protein complex. The lncRNA serves to guide the regulatory protein complex to specific regions of chromatin. The protein complex then modifies specific histones in the chromatin regions, resulting in silencing of target genes.

In particular, HOTAIR serves as a molecular scaffold that binds to two protein complexes. A 5′ domain of HOTAIR binds polycomb repressive complex 2 (PRC2), and a 3′ domain of HOTAIR binds the CoREST–LSD1 complex. This enables the targeting of PRC2 and LSD1 to chromatin for coupled histone H3 lysine 27 methylation by PRC2 and histone H3 lysine 4 demethylation by LSD1. Both are required for proper repression of HOX genes.

XIST has at least two discrete domains, one involved in silencing (RepA) and the other in localization (RepC) of the XIST molecule on the X chromosome. The silencing domain RepA binds to PRC2, and the localization domain RepC binds to the YY1 protein and heterogeneous nuclear ribonucleoprotein U (hnRNP U).

The cases of HOTAIR and XIST are examples of how lncRNAs may function as molecular scaffolds of regulatory protein complexes. This may be general phenomenon, since a recent study by Drs. Guttman and Rinn and their colleagues indicates that about 30% of lincRNAs in mouse embryonic stem (ES) cells are associated with multiple regulatory complexes. In this study, the researchers found that RNAi knockdown of dozens of lincRNAs causes either exit from the pluripotent state or upregulation of specific differentiation programs. Thus lincRNAs appear to have important roles in the circuitry controlling the pluripotent state of ES cells, and in commitment to differentiation into specific lineages.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to  your company, please click here. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

Development of personalized therapies for deadly women’s cancers


Two recent research reports may point the way to developing more effective, personalized therapies for two deadly women’s cancers for which their are currently few treatment options–triple-negative breast cancer and ovarian cancer. The approach followed in both reports is to use gene expression analysis to stratify each of the two diseases into subtypes. Researchers can then use gene expression and order aspects of the biology of each subtype to design subtype-specific targeted therapies, whether single drugs or drug combinations. If the drugs (whether approved or experimental) already exist, they can be tested in clinical trials, stratified by subtype. If no appropriate drugs exist, researchers can discover the drugs based on subtype-appropriate drug targets.

Triple-negative (TN) breast cancer refers to breast cancers that are negative for expression of estrogen receptor (ER), progesterone receptor (PR), and HER2. [HER2 is the target of trastuzumab (Roche/Genentech’s Herceptin) and lapatinib (GlaxoSmithKline’s Tykerb/Tyverb)]. Lacking all three receptors, it cannot be treated with standard receptor-targeting breast cancer therapeutics (e.g., tamoxifen, aromatase inhibitors, trastuzumab) but must be treated with cytotoxic chemotherapy. TN breast cancer is generally more aggressive than other types of breast cancer, and even treatment with aggressive chemotherapy regimens typically results in early relapse and metastasis.

TN breast cancers constitute approximately 25 percent of breast cancers. They are diagnosed most often in younger women, those who have recently given birth, women with BRCA1 mutations, and African-American and Hispanic women.

There is a Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation, which was founded in 2006 in honor of a mother in her mid-thirties who died of the disease.

Ovarian cancer, the ninth most common cancer in women, caused nearly 14,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2010. In its earliest stages, its symptoms are usually very subtle and mimic other, less serious diseases. As a result, it is usually detected at later stages in which treatment is more difficult and gives poorer outcomes. The 2001 five-year survival rate was 47%, up from 38% in the mid-1970s. This compared to an overall survival rate for cancer of 68% in 2001, up from 50% in the mid-1970s.

Treatment usually involves surgery and chemotherapy, and sometimes radiotherapy. Surgery (preferably by a gynecological oncologist) may be sufficient for earlier-stage tumors that are well-differentiated and confined to the ovary. In this early-stage disease (which represents about 19% of women presenting with ovarian cancer), the five-year survival rate is 92.7%. However, about 75% of women presenting with ovarian cancer already have stage III or stage IV disease, in which the cancer has spread beyond the ovaries. Then the prognosis is much poorer, and the vast majority of patients will have a recurrence.

The triple-negative breast cancer study

The TN breast cancer study was carried out by researchers at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN), and published in the 1 July 2011 issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation. In this study, the researchers analyzed gene expression profiles from 21 publicly available breast cancer data sets, and identified  587 cases of TN breast cancer (by non-expression of mRNAs that encode ER, PR, and HER2). Using cluster analysis, they identified six TN breast cancer subtypes:

  • two basal-like subtypes (BL1 and BL2),
  • an immunomodulatory (IM) subtype (i.e., expressing genes involved in immune cell processes)
  • a mesenchymal (M) subtype
  • a mesenchymal stem–like (MSL) subtype
  • a luminal androgen receptor (LAR) subtype.

Using gene expression analysis, the researchers identified TN breast cancer model cell lines that were representative of each of these subtypes. On the basis of their analysis, the researchers predicted “driver” signaling pathways, and targeted them pharmacologically as a proof-of-principle that analysis of gene expression signatures of cancer subtypes can inform selection of therapies.

BL1 and BL2 subtypes had higher expression of genes involved in the cell cycle and response to DNA damage, and model cell lines preferentially responded to cisplatin. M and MSL subtypes were enriched for expression of genes involved in the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), and growth factor-related pathways in model cell lines responded to the PI3K/mTOR inhibitor BEZ235 (Novartis, now in Phase 1 and 2 for solid tumors) and to the ABL/SRC inhibitor dasatinib [Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Sprycel, currently approved for treatment of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) and Philadelphia chromosome-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), and under investigation for treatment of solid tumors). The LAR subtype was characterized by androgen receptor (AR) signaling, and included patients with decreased progression-free survival. LAR model cell lines were uniquely sensitive to the AR antagonist bicalutamide (AstraZeneca’s Casodex/Cosudex, currently approved for the treatment of prostate cancer and hirsutism, and under investigation for treatment of androgen receptor-positive, ER negative, PR negative breast cancer).

The researchers plan to use the TN breast cancer subtype-specific model cell lines for further molecular characterization, to identify new components of the “driver” signaling pathways for each subtype. These pathways can be targeted in further drug discovery efforts. The subtype-specific cell lines can also be used in preclinical studies with targeted agents, and in identification of subtype-specific biomarkers that can potentially be used in stratifying TN breast cancer patients so that they might be treated with the best agents for their disease.

The ovarian cancer study

The ovarian cancer study was carried out by the Cancer Genome Atlas Research Network [a consortium of academic researchers jointly funded and managed by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI)], and published in the 30 June 2011 issue of Nature. In this study, the researchers analyzed mRNA expression, microRNA expression, promoter methylation and DNA copy number in 489 high-grade serous ovarian adenocarcinomas, as well as the DNA sequences of exons from coding genes in 316 of these tumors. Serous adenocarcinoma is the most prevalent form of ovarian cancer, accounting for about 85 percent of all ovarian cancer deaths.

The researchers found that nearly all of the high-grade serous ovarian cancers (HGS-OvCa) studied had mutations in the TP53 gene, which encodes the p53 tumor suppressor protein. On the basis of their gene expression (mRNA) signatures, the researchers divided the population of HGS-OvCa into four subtypes:

  • an immunoreactive subtype (i.e., expressing genes involved in immune cell processes)
  • a differentiated subtype (high expression of markers of differentiated female reproductive tract epithelia)
  • a proliferative subtype (high expression of markers of cell proliferation)
  • a mesenchymal subtype (high expression of HOX genes and of markers of mesenchymal-derived cells)

The researchers also determined subtypes on the basis of microRNA expression and promoter methylation. microRNA subtype 1 overlapped the mRNA proliferative subtype and miRNA subtype 2 overlapped the mRNA mesenchymal subtype. Patients with miRNA subtype 1 tumors survived significantly longer that those with tumors of other microRNA subtypes.

Although the researchers found no significant difference in survival between the four transcriptional subtypes, they did identify a 193-gene expression signature that was predictive of overall survival. 108 genes were correlated with poor survival and 85 were correlated with good survival.

The researchers identified cancer-associated pathways in the HGS-OvCA population; this is equivalent to the prediction of “driver” signaling pathways in the TN breast cancer study. They found that 20% of the HGS-OvCA samples had germline or somatic mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2, and that 11% lost BRCA1 expression through DNA hypermethylation. As we discussed in an earlier article on this blog, BRCA1- or BRCA2-negative tumor cells cannot repair their DNA via homologous recombination. They are dependent on an alternative pathway of DNA repair, which involves the enzyme poly(ADP) ribose polymerase (PARP). These tumors are thus sensitive to a class of drugs known as PARP inhibitors, such as KuDOS/AstraZenaca’s olaparib. There are now six PARP inhibitors, including olaparib, in clinical development.

The researchers found genetic alterations in several other genes involved in homologous recombination. Altogether, defects in homologous recombination may be present in approximately half of HGS-OvCa cases, and these tumors may be sensitive to PARP inhibitors. This provides a rationale for clinical trials of PARP inhibitors in women with ovarian cancers with defects in homologous recombination-related genes.

Olaparib and other PARP inhibitors are in clinical trials in women with advanced with BRCA-1 or -2 mutations and with other defects in homologous recombination. As discussed in the 2011 ASCO meeting, early Phase 2 results indicate that olaparib gives dramatic improvements in progression-free survival in these women. (See this article.) In these studies, in addition to tumors with genetic defects in homologous recombination, olaparib or another PARP inhibitor, Abbott’s ABT-888, appears to give improved progression-free survival in women who have previously been treated with chemotherapy drugs that result in DNA damage. This suggests that oncologists may be able to use a “one-two punch”, consisting of a DNA-damaging drug [such as the alkylating agent temozolomide [Merck’s Temodar]) followed by a PARP inhibitor, to treat advanced ovarian cancer.

In addition to BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 mutations and other genetic alterations that result in defects in homologous recombination, the HGS-OvCa population exhibited genetic changes that would result in deregulation of several other cancer related pathways. These pathways included the RB1 (67% of cases), RAS/PI3K (45% of cases), and NOTCH (22% of cases) pathways, as well as the FOXM1 transcription factor network (87% of cases). All of these pathways represent opportunities for target identification and drug discovery. FOXM1 (Forkhead box protein M1) was named the Molecule of the Year for 2010 by the International Society for Molecular and Cell Biology and Biotechnology Protocols and Research (ISMCBBPR) because of “its growing potential as a target for cancer therapies.” FOXM1 overexpression results in destabilization of the cell cycle, which can lead to a malignant phenotype.

The researchers also identified 22 genes that were frequently amplified or overexpressed in HGS-OvCA tumors (other than genes that are involved in homologous recombination). Inhibitors (including approved and experimental compounds) already exist for the products of these genes, and researchers might assess these compounds in HGS-OvCa cases in which target genes are amplified.

Can Verastem develop new therapeutics for triple negative breast cancer?

The private biotechnology company Verastem (Cambridge, MA) focuses on discovery and development of drugs to target cancer stem cells. The company was founded in 2010, and is based on a strategy for screening for compounds that specifically target cancer stem cells. This strategy, published in the journal Cell in 2009, was developed by Drs. Robert Weinberg (MIT Whtehead Institute), Eric Lander (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University), and Piyush Gupta (MIT and Broad Institute) and their colleagues. Drs. Weinberg, Lander, and Gupta are on the Scientific Advisory Board of Verastem.

On July 14, 2011, Verstem announced that it had raised $32 million in a Series B financing. Verastem had previously raised $16 million from a group led by former Christoph Westphal’s Longwood Founders Fund. Dr. Westphal (formerly of Sirtris) is now Chairman of Verastem.

Cancer stem cells are best known in acute myeloid leukemia (AML), but their existence in other cancers (especially solid tumors) is controversial. The cancer stem cell hypothesis asserts that a small subpopulations of cells in a leukemia or solid tumor have characteristics that resemble normal adult stem cells, such as self renewal, the ability to give rise to all the cell types found in the leukemia or cancer, and stem cell markers. The hypothesis further asserts that most cancer treatments fail to knock out cancer stem cells, which can repopulate a tumor cell population, resulting in treatment relapses. Cancer stem cell researchers therefore propose developing cancer stem-cell specific therapeutics that can be used to eliminate these cells, which can block these relapses.

Whether cancer stem cells are involved in the pathobiology of solid tumors or not, the biology of the putative cancer stem cell phenotype can be important in certain subtypes of cancer. Cancer stem cells are characterized by the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), and in the Cell paper the researchers screened for compounds that specifically targeted breast cancer cells that had been experimentally induced into an EMT, and which as a result exhibited an increased resistance to standard chemotherapy drugs.   They identified the compound salinomycin as a drug that specifically targeted these cells, as well as putative cancer stem cells from patients.

As discussed earlier in this article, TN breast cancer includes two subtypes that have gene expression signatures related to the EMT: the mesenchymal (M) subtype and the mesenchymal stem–like (MSL) subtype. One or both of these subtypes might be sensitive to compounds that specifically target putative breast cancer stem cells. This may be true whether the cancer stem cell hypothesis applies to TN breast cancer or not. Verastem recognizes this, and is thus focusing on TN breast cancer as its first therapeutic target. The Vanderbilt TN breast cancer study suggests that trials of any “cancer stem cell-specific” therapeutics for TN breast cancer should be guided by subtype-specific biomarkers.

Hope for treatment of TN breast cancer and advanced ovarian cancer

Researchers and oncologists have made great strides in increasing the percentage of breast cancers that are treatable or even curable in recent years. For example, prior to the FDA approval of trastuzumab in 1998, HER2 positive breast cancer carried a grim prognosis. But the advent of trastuzumab (and later, lapatinib) has had a major impact on treatment of this once uniformly deadly type of breast cancer.

We hope that the new, personalized medicine-based approach to TN breast cancer and advanced serous ovarian adenocarcinoma will also result in successful new therapeutic strategies for these deadly women’s cancers.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to  your company, please click here. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

A bioethicist says that the “synthetic cell” does not refute vitalism

In our last two blog posts–dated July 12, 2010 and July 18, 2010, we discussed the “synthetic cell” that was recently constructed by researchers at the J. Craig Venter institute. As we discussed, at least several leading bioethicists and philosophers said that the construction of a “synthetic” microbial cell refuted vitalism–i.e., the contention that there is something special about processes in living organisms that cannot be artificially created from nonliving systems–once and for all. However, leading scientists (including Nobel Prize winners and leading synthetic biologists) disagreed with that assessment. We said that we agreed with the leading scientists, and gave our reasons why.

Meanwhile, a one-page essay by bioethicist Gregory Kaebnick, Ph.D. appeared In the July 2010 issue of The Scientist (registration required).  Dr. Kaebnick is the editor of the bioethics journal The Hastings Center Report, and a co-investigator of a Hastings Center research project on synthetic biology. Dr. Kaebnick agrees with the leading scientists, and with us, even though his friend and colleague Arthur Caplan is one of the bioethicists who says that the “synthetic cell” has refuted vitalism.

According to Dr. Kaebnick, what the Venter group created was not a synthetic cell, but a synthetic genome. (As we stated in our second article, the researchers had help from yeast in creating the “synthetic” genome–perhaps it is really a semi-synthetic genome.) But the Venter group says that since the genome took over the cell it was transferred into, and since the genome is synthetic, therefore the cell is synthetic. But that assumes a top-down control of a cell by its genome (i.e., genetic determinism). Dr. Kaebnick argues that one might instead say that the cell and the genome worked out their differences and collaborated, or that the cell “adopted” the genome. He goes on to assert that we may not know enough to say which of these two metaphors is most adequate.

Then Dr. Kaebnick goes on to ask whether even if the Venter group did create a synthetic cell, whether that really demystified life at all. You will have to read his article to follow that argument.

From our point of view, even if the “top down” control model is the most nearly correct, without a pre-formed cell it would have been impossible to use the synthetic genome to create a living organism. Researchers cannot, at least at present, create a cell, with its membranes, organization of biomolecules, biochemical systems, etc. that is necessary for a genome to work to express itself in a living system.

Moreover, with the discoveries on epigenetics in the last decade or so, researchers know that a “top down” control model–especially in multicellular eukaryotic organisms–does not fully account for how cells and organisms work. The environment can mediate changes in chromatin, such as DNA methylation and histone modification, which can be passed down from cell to cell and in some cases even to the next generation.

Thus the issue of “top down” genetic determinism versus collaboration between a cell and its genome has implications for cutting-edge biological research. Since some drug discovery researchers have been working on discovery and development of epigenetics-based drugs, it is of interest to the biotechnology/pharmaceutical industry as well. Several such drugs, including Celgene’s DNA methyltransferase inhibitors and histone deacetylase inhibitors that we mentioned in an earlier blog post, are already on the market.

Agios Pharmaceuticals partners with Celgene

On December 31, 2009, we posted an article on this blog about Agios Pharmaceuticals (Cambridge, MA). Agios is a private research-stage biotech company that is developing a pipeline of oncology drugs based on targeting metabolic pathways in cancer cells. In our article, we focused on Agios’ research on mutations in the metabolic enzyme cytosolic isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH1) as a causative factor in gliomas and glioblastomas. We also mentioned Agios’ research on pyruvate kinase M2 (PKM2) and aerobic glycolysis in cancer.

On April 15, 2010, it was announced that Agios and Celgene Corporation (Summit, NJ), a public biotechnology company with marketed products, had formed a strategic collaboration in the area of cancer metabolism.

Celgene markets Thalomid (thalidomide), which is approved by the FDA for treatment of multiple myeloma (MM). Thalidomide was notorious for causing birth defects in the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, beginning in the late 1990s, this drug has undergone a rehabilitation, provided that proper precautions are maintained to prevent its use in pregnant women and women who may become pregnant. Celgene has also been developing a class of thalidomide-derivative immunomodulatory drugs (IMiDs), which are designed to have greater efficacy against cancer and lesser toxicity than thalidomide. Of these drugs, Revlimid (lenalidomide) is approved by the FDA for treatment of MM and myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) (life-threatening diseases of the bone marrow in which abnormally functioning immature hematopoietic cells are made; MDS can progress to acute myeloid leukemia in a substantial percentage of patients.) Celgene is researching additional indications for lenalidomide, and is also developing other IMiDs for various indications in cancer and inflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases.

Celgene’s Vidaza (azacitidine), a nucleoside metabolic inhibitor, is also indicated for the treatment of MDS. Celgene acquired Vidaza via its 2007 acquisition of Pharmion (Boulder, CO), which had developed the drug. Vidaza is an inhibitor of DNA methyltransferases (DNMT), which are enzymes that methylate DNA at specific sites and are important in epigenetic regulation. It was the first approved drug that works via an epigenetic mechanism. (Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene function that do not involve changes in the nucleotide sequence of DNA. Major epigenetic processes include DNA methylation, modification of histones in chromatin, and RNA interference.)

Since Vidaza’s approval in 2004, two histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors, which also modulate epigenetic regulation, have been approved. In late 2009, Celgene acquired the HDAC inhibitor romidepsin (Istodax) [approved in 2009 for the treatment of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (CTCL)], via its acquisition of Gloucester Pharmaceuticals (Cambridge MA).

Celgene is also developing several other anti-inflammatory drugs and kinase inhibitors.

The goal of the Agios/Celgene collaboration is to discover, develop, and commercialize novel oncology therapeutics based on Agios’ innovative cancer metabolism platform. Celgene sees the potential for early drug development opportunities in Agios’ IDH1 and PKM2 programs, as well as future opportunities based on new targets expected from Agios research programs. Celgene also sees opportunities to harness Agios’ R&D to expand its own pipeline in cancer and other diseases.

Under the terms of the agreement, Agios will receive a $130 million upfront payment, including equity. In return, Celgene will receives an initial period during which it will have the exclusive option to develop any drugs resulting from the Agios cancer metabolism platform. Celgene may also extend this exclusivity period through additional funding. Agios will lead discovery and early development for all cancer metabolism programs. During the period of exclusivity, Celgene will have an exclusive option to license any clinical candidates at the end of Phase I, and will lead and fund global development and commercialization of licensed programs. On each program, Agios may receive up to $120 million in milestones as well as royalties, and may also participate in the development and commercialization of certain products in the United States.

The Celgene collaboration continues Agios’ record of success in fundraising, and in gaining the recognition of the scientific and corporate communities. Despite the generally unfavorable financial environment for young biotech companies, Agios has raised, through alliances and investments, over $163 million in less than two years. This is despite the fact that the company has not one drug in the clinic. Agios expects to have a lead compound in the clinic some time in 2010, however. As is always the case, the validation of Agios’ innovative biology-driven platform awaits the results of human clinical trials and the attainment of regulatory approval.