Biopharmconsortium Blog

Expert commentary from Haberman Associates biotechnology and pharmaceutical consulting.

Posts filed under: Oligonucleotide therapeutics

RNAi therapeutics stage a comeback

Transthyretin protein structure

Transthyretin protein structure

Not so long ago, the once-promising field of RNA interference (RNAi)-based drugs was on the downswing. This was documented in our August 22, 2011 article on this blog, entitled “The Big Pharma Retreat From RNAi Therapeutics Continues”. That article discussed the retreat from RNAi drugs by such Big Pharma companies as Merck, Roche, and Pfizer. In our March 30, 2012 blog article, we also mentioned leading RNAi company Alnylam’s (Cambridge, MA) January 20, 2012 downsizing. This restructuring was made necessary by Alnylam’s inability to continue capturing major Big Phama licensing and R&D deals, as it had once done.

As we discussed in our August 22, 2011 article, the therapeutic RNAi (and microRNA) field represented an early-stage area of science and technology, which may well be technologically premature. This level of scientific prematurity was comparable to that of the monoclonal antibody (MAb) drug field in the 1980s. Big Pharmas did not have the patience to continue with the RNAi drug programs that they started.

In that article, we cited an editorial by oligonucleotide therapeutics leader Arthur Krieg, M.D. This editorial discussed the issues of therapeutic RNAi’s scientific prematurity, but predicted a rapid upswing of the field once the main bottleneck–oligonucleotide drug delivery–had been validated.

The January 2014 Alnylam-Genzyme/Sanofi deal

Now–as of January 2014–there is much evidence that the therapeutic RNAi field is indeed coming back. This is especially true for Alnylam. On January 13, 2014, it was announced that Genzyme (since 2011 the rare disease unit of Sanofi) invested $700 million in Alnylam’s stock. Alnylam called this deal “transformational” for both Alnylam and the RNAi therapeutics field.

Genzyme had previously been a partner in developing Alnylam’s lead product patisiran (ALN-TTR02) for the treatment of transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis (ATTR). [ATTR is a rare inherited, debilitating, and often fatal disease caused by mutations in the transthyretin (TTR) gene.] Under the new agreement, Genzyme will gain marketing rights to patisiran everywhere except North America and Western Europe upon its successful completion of clinical trials and approval by regulatory agencies. Genzyme will also codevelop ALN-TTRsc, a subcutaneously-delivered formulation of patisiran. Intravenously-delivered patisiran is now in Phase 3 trials for a form of ATTR known as familial amyloidotic polyneuropathy (FAP), and ALN-TTRsc is in Phase 2 trials for a form of ATTR known as familial amyloidotic cardiomyopathy (FAC).

The Alnylam/Genzyme deal will also cover any drugs in Alnylam’s pipeline that achieve proof-of-concept before the end of 2019. Genzyme will have the option to development and commercialize these drugs outside of North America and Western Europe.

On the same day as the announcement of the new Alnylam/Genzyme deal, Alnylam acquired Merck’s RNAi program, which consists of what is left of the former  Sirna Therapeutics, for an upfront payment of $175 million in cash and stock. (This compares to the $1.1 billion that Merck paid for Sirna in 2006.) Alnylam will receive Merck’s RNAi intellectual property, certain preclinical drug candidates, and rights to Sirna/Merck’s RNAi delivery platform. Depending on the progress of any of Sirna/Merck’s products in development, Alnylam may also pay Merck up to $105 million in milestone payments per product.

Alnylam’s Phase 1 clinical studies with its ALN-TTR RNAi drugs

In August 2013, Alnylam and its collaborators published the results of their Phase 1 clinical trials of ALN-TTR01 and ALN-TTR02 (patisiran) in the New England Journal of Medicine. At the same time, Alnylam published a press release on this paper.

ALN-TTR01 and ALN-TTR02 contain exactly the same oligonucleotide molecule, which is designed to inhibit expression of the gene for TTR via RNA interference. They differ in that ALN-TTR01 is encapsulated in the first-generation version of liponanoparticle (LNP) carriers, and ALN-TTR02 is encapsulated in second-generation LNP carriers. Both types of LNP carriers are based on technology that is owned by Tekmira Pharmaceuticals (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) and licensed to Alnylam.

Tekmira’s LNP technology was formerly known as stable nucleic acid-lipid particle (SNALP) technology. Alnylam and Tekmira have had a longstanding history of collaboration involving SNALP/LNP technology, as described in our 2010 book-length report, RNAi Therapeutics: Second-Generation Candidates Build Momentum, published by Cambridge Healthtech Institute. Although the ownership of the intellectual property relating to SNALP/LNP technology had been the subject of litigation between the two companies, these disputes were settled in an agreement dated November 12, 2012. On December 16, 2013, Alnylam made a milestone payment of $5 million to Tekmira upon initiation of Phase 3 clinical trials of patisiran.

LNP-encapsulated oligonucleotides accumulate in the liver, which is the site of expression, synthesis, and secretion of TTR. As we discussed both in our book-length RNAi report, and in an article on this blog, delivery of oligonucleotide drugs (including “naked” oligonucleotides and LNP-encapsulated ones) to the liver is easier than targeting most other internal organs and tissues. The is a major reason for the emphasis on liver-targeting drugs by Alnylam and other therapeutic oligonucleotide companies.

To summarize the published report, each of the two formulations was studied in a single-dose, placebo-controlled Phase 1 trial. Both formulations showed rapid, dose-dependent, and durable RNAi-mediated reduction in blood TTR levels. (Both mutant and wild-type TTR production was suppressed by these drugs.)

ALN-TTR02 was much more potent than ALN-TTR01. Specifically, ALN-TTR01 at a dose of 1.0 milligram per kilogram, gave a mean reduction in TTR at day 7 of 38%, as compared with placebo. ALN-TTR02 gave mean reductions at doses from 0.15 to 0.3 milligrams per kilogram ranging from 82.3% to 86.8% at 7 days, with reductions of 56.6 to 67.1% at 28 days. The main adverse effects seen in the study were mild-to-moderate acute infusion reactions. These were observed in 20.8% of subjects receiving ALN-TTR01 and in 7.7% (one patient) of subjects receiving ALN-TTR02. These adverse effects could be managed by slowing the infusion rate. There were no significant increases in liver function test parameters in these studies.

The results of these studies have established proof-of-concept in humans that Alnylam’s TTR RNAi therapies can successfully target messenger RNA (mRNA) transcribed from the disease-causing gene for TTR. Alnylam also said in its press release that these results constitute “the most robust proof of concept for RNAi therapy in man to date”, and that they demonstrate proof-of-concept not only for RNAi therapeutics that target TTR, but also for therapeutic RNAi targeting of liver-expressed genes in general. They also note that this represents the first time that clinical results with an RNAi therapeutic have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Other recent RNAi therapeutics deals, and the resurgence of the therapeutic RNAi field

The January 2014 Alnylam/Genzyme/Sanofi agreement is not the only therapeutic RNAi deal that has been making the news in 2013 and 2014. On July 31, 2013, Dicerna Pharmaceuticals (Watertown, MA) secured $60 million in an oversubscribed Series C venture financing. These monies will be used to conduct Phase 1 clinical trials of Dicerna’s experimental RNAi therapies for hepatocellular carcinoma and for unspecified genetically-defined targets in the liver. So far, Dicerna has raised a total of $110 million in venture capital.

Dicerna’s RNAi therapeutics are based on its proprietary Dicer substrate siRNA technology, and its EnCore lipid nanoparticle delivery vehicles.

On January 9, 2014, Santaris Pharma A/S (Hørsholm, Denmark) announced that it had signed a worldwide strategic alliance with Roche to discover and develop novel RNA-targeted medicines in several disease areas, using Santaris’ proprietary Locked Nucleic Acid (LNA) technology platform. Santaris will receive an upfront cash payment of $10 million, and a potential $138M in milestone payments. On January 10, 2014, Santaris announced another agreement to develop RNA-targeted medicines, this time with GlaxoSmithKline. Financial details of the agreement were not disclosed.

As in the case of Alnylam, we discussed Dicerna’s and Santaris’ technology platforms in our 2010 book-length report, RNAi Therapeutics: Second-Generation Candidates Build Momentum.

A January 15, 2014 FierceBiotech article reported that RNAi therapeutic deals were a hot topic at the 2014 J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, CA. This is a sign of the comeback of the therapeutic RNAi field, and of the return of interest by Big Pharma and by venture capitalists in RNAi drug development.

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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.

FDA approves mipomersen (Isis/Genzyme’s Kynamro)–the first systemically-delivered oligonucleotide drug to reach the market

 

Atherosclerosis. Source: Nephron http://bit.ly/jL6Zos

Atherosclerosis. Source: Nephron http://bit.ly/jL6Zos

In our November 20, 2012 Biopharmconsortium Blog article, entitled “Novel hypercholesterolemia drugs move toward FDA decisions”, we discussed two drugs–Aegerion Pharmaceuticals’ lomitapide, and Isis/Sanofi/Genzyme’s mipomersen. These drugs were nearing approval decisions by the FDA, following the recommendations of the FDA’s Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee that both drugs be approved for treatment of homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia (HoFH).

In our December 31, 2012 blog article, we reported that the FDA had approved Aegerion’s small-molecule drug lomitapide (Juxtapid). That left us waiting for “the other shoe to drop”–the decision on the approval of mipomersen.

On January 29, 2013, Genzyme (a Sanofi company) and Isis Pharmaceuticals (Carlsbad, CA) reported that the FDA had approved mipomersen (Kynamro) for the treatment of HoFH. Mipomersen, given as a 200 mg weekly subcutaneous injection, has been approved as an adjunct to lipid-lowering medications and diet for the treatment of dyslipidemia in patients with HoFH. In contrast to mipomersen, Aegerion’s lomitapide is an oral drug.

The approval of mipomersen triggered a $25 million milestone payment to Isis from Genzyme.

MIpomersen is an antisense oligonucleotide that targets the messenger RNA for apolipoprotein B. This agent represents the first oligonucleotide drug capable of systemic delivery to be approved in a regulated market. (The two previously marketed oligonucleotide drugs both treat ophthalmologic diseases and are delivered locally.) Mipomersen targets the liver, without the need for a delivery vehicle. Thus mipomersen represents the “great hope” for proof-of-concept for oligonucleotide drugs, including antisense and  RNAi-based drugs.

In the January 29, 2013 press release, Stanley T. Crooke, M.D., Ph.D., Chairman of the Board and CEO of Isis, said:

“Kynamro is the first systemic antisense drug to reach the market and is the culmination of two decades of work to create a new, more efficient drug technology platform. As evidenced by our robust pipeline, our antisense drug discovery technology is applicable to many different diseases.” This indicates that Isis considers the approval of mipomersen as a proof-of-concept for its approach to antisense oligonucleotide drug discovery and development, and in particular for its pipeline.

Clinical trials of mipomersen

The FDA approval of mipomersen is based on the results of a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-center trial that enrolled 51 HoFH patients age 12 to 53 years, including 7 patients age 12 to 16 years, who were on lipid lowering medications. The trial found that mipomersen treatment further reduced LDL-cholesterol levels by an average of 113 mg/dL, or 25%, from a treated baseline of 439 mg/dL, and further reduced all measured endpoints for atherogenic particles. In March 2010, these data were published in The Lancet.

Safely data for mipomersen are based on pooled results from four Phase 3 trials. Eighteen percent of patients on the drug and 2% of patients on placebo discontinued treatment due to adverse effects. The most common adverse effects of mipomersen treatment were injection site reactions, increases in the liver enzymes alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST) , flu-like symptoms, and an abnormal liver function test.

As a result of these safety findings, the label for Kynamro contains a Boxed Warning citing the risk of hepatic toxicity. The label for Aegerion’s Juxtapid (lomitapide) also contains such a Boxed Warning. A Boxed Warning is the strongest warning that the FDA requires.

The FDA is also requiring four postmarketing studies of mipomersen, and wants the developers to carefully track the long-term safety of the drug.

As an antisense drug, mipomersen is metabolized without affecting the CYP450 pathways used in commonly prescribed drugs. It thus is potentially free of drug-drug interactions. No clinically relevant pharmacokinetic interactions were reported between mipomersen and warfarin, or between mipomersen and simvastatin or ezetimibe.

The safety and effectiveness of mipomersen have not been established in patients with hypercholesterolemia who do not have HoFH. Nor has the effect of mipomersen on cardiovascular morbidity and mortality been determined.

Because of the risk of hepatotoxicity, mipomersen is available only through a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) called the Kynamro REMS. The goals of the REMS are:

  • To educate prescribers about the risk of hepatotoxicity associated with the use of mipomersen, and the need to monitor patients during treatment with mipomersen as per product labeling.
  • To restrict access to therapy with mipomersen to patients with a clinical or laboratory diagnosis consistent with homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia (HoFH).

Genzyme has also developed an HoFH and Kynamro support program for healthcare providers, patients, and their families.

Wider implications of the FDA approval of mipomersen

Mipomersen achieved FDA approval despite an unenthusiastic 9-6 recommendation for approval by the FDA’s Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee. This compares to a 13-2 vote to recommend approval of lomitapide. Meanwhile, mipomersen received a negative opinion from a European Medicines Agency panel. And it faces strong competition in the market from lomitapide. Therefore, mipomersen is unlikely to become a large-selling drug.

Nevertheless, Sanofi has been positioning itself around Genzyme (and its rare disease platform) in its drug discovery and development strategy. Therefore, any and all Genzyme/Sanofi drug approvals represent important victories.

Although the FDA Advisory Committee and industry commentators favor lomitapide over mipomersen, they also believe that not all patients with HoFH would be likely to benefit from only one drug. Thus having two alternative drugs may well be better in treating this disease.

Does the approval of mipomersen herald a new age of oligonucleotide drugs? The first antisense agent to reach the market, fomivirsen (Isis/ Novartis Ophthalmics’ Vitravene), which is indicated for treatment of cytomegalovirus retinitis in AIDS patients was approved in 1998. However, it is delivered locally to the eye, and has not been profitable.

Even though mipomersen is unlikely to become a large-selling drug, it could become the first commercially successful antisense agent. As stated by Arthur Krieg, M.D., chief executive of RaNA Therapeutics, “What many people have been waiting for is validation where someone actually makes a profit and where patients actually benefit.”

As we have discussed in earlier blog posts, oligonucleotide drugs (especially antisense and RNAi) represent a premature technology. It is therefore not unusual that it would take over 20 years for the first profitable drug in this class to reach the market. This was also recently stated by Dr. Crooke.

Finally, as we stated in our November 20, 2012 blog article:

For oligonucleotide drug developers and enthusiasts, the case of mipomersen–considered the “great hope” for proof-of-concept for oligonucleotide drugs by many in the field–provides several lessons. 1. At the end of the day, oligonucleotide drugs must meet the same standards of safety and efficacy as other drugs. 2. Oligonucleotide drugs may encounter competition from drugs in other classes, such as small molecules or monoclonal antibodies.

________________________________

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.

Novel hypercholesterolemia drugs move toward FDA decisions

 

Lomitapide

Lomitapide

Mid-October 2012 was a busy time for the FDA’s Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee. On October 17, 2012, the panel voted 13-2 to recommend approval of Aegerion’s lomitapide for treatment of homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia. The next day, October 18, 2012, the same panel voted 9-6 to recommend approval of Isis/Sanofi/Genzyme’s mipomersen for the same condition.

Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is a rare genetic condition characterized by very high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad cholesterol”), in the blood and early cardiovascular disease. Most patients with FH have mutations in either the LDL receptor (which functions to remove LDL from the circulation), or in apolipoprotein B (ApoB) (the protein moiety of LDL, which binds to the LDL receptor).

Patients who are heterozygous for an FH mutation (but have one normal copy of the affected gene) may have premature cardiovascular disease in their thirties. Patients who are homozygous for an FH mutation may have severe cardiovascular disease in childhood. Heterozygous FH is a common genetic disease, which is inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern, and occurs in one out of 500 people. Homozygous FH, however, occurs in about 1 in a million births. Homozygous FH thus qualifies as a “rare disease”.

Physicians generally treat heterozygous FH with statins, bile acid sequestrants or other lipid-lowering agents that lower cholesterol levels. Homozygous FH often does not respond to these drugs. It may require chronic treatment via LDL apheresis (removal of LDL in a method similar to dialysis) and in some cases liver transplantation.

Aegerion (Cambridge, MA), the developer of lomitapide, is a publicly-traded biotech company that seeks to “change the way that rare, genetic lipid disorders are treated”. It is currently focused on the development of lomitapide, a small-molecule compound (pictured above).

Lomitapide inhibits the microsomal triglyceride transfer protein (MTTP) which is necessary for very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) assembly and secretion in the liver. A 2007 article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) concluded that inhibition of MTTP by lomitapide (then known as BMS-201038) resulted in the reduction of LDL cholesterol levels in patients with homozygous FH. BMS-201038/lomitapide was originally developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), donated to the University of Pennsylvania in 2003 and licensed to Aegerion in 2006. BMS had abandoned development of the compound after early Phase 1 and Phase 2 trials had found increases in heptatic fat content and gastrointestinal disturbances. The NEJM study (conducted by Penn researchers in collaboration with other academic researchers and with BMS) also found that therapy with the compound was associated with elevated liver aminotransferase levels and hepatic fat accumulation.

78-week data from Aegerion’s pivotal Phase 3 study of lomitapide in adults patients with homozygous FH were published in the online version of The Lancet on November 2, 2012.

Mipomersen (which will be called Kynamro if and when it is commercialized) is an antisense oligonucleotide that targets the messenger RNA for apolipoprotein B. We discussed mipomersen in our August 21, 2009 blog article on oligonucleotide therapeutics. Mipomersen represents the most advanced oligonucleotide drug in development that is capable of systemic delivery. (The only two marketed oligonucleotide drugs both treat ophthalmologic diseases and are delivered locally.) Mipomersen targets the liver, without the need for a delivery vehicle. Thus mipomersen–potentially the first systemically-delivered oligonucleotide drug to reach the market–represents the “great hope” for proof-of-concept for oligonucleotide drugs, including antisense and  RNAi-based drugs.

Patients treated with mipomersen, as with lomitapide, exhibit liver-related adverse effects, especially hepatic fat accumulation and elevated liver aminotransferase levels. Moreover, unlike lomitapide, which is an orally-delivered compound, mipomersen, which is delivered via subcutaneous injection, can cause injection site reactions and flu-like symptoms. Moreoever, mipomersen has a much longer half-life than lomitapide (30 days versus 20 hours).

Industry commentators, and well as the FDA Advisory Committee, generally favor lomitapide over mipomersen, because lomitapide appears to be the more efficacious drug in lowering LDL-cholesterol, and also because lomitapide is an oral drug. However, most of the FDA panelists, as well as other industry commentators believe that not all patients with homozygous FH would be likely to benefit from only one drug. Thus having two alternative drugs may well be better in treating this disease.

Both lomitapide and mipomersen have potentially serious adverse effects. A finding of elevated liver aminotransferase levels is enough to stop development of most drugs. However, the FDA and its Advisory Panel believe that a risk evaluation and mitigation strategy (REMS) would support appropriate use of these drugs in patients with homozygous FH, because of their life threatening disease, and because they have limited therapeutic options. Both Aegerion and Genzyme are proposing that their compounds be approved with REMS programs, including an education program for physicians and active monitoring of patients. The REMS program would also include monitoring to ensure that only adult homozygous FH patients would be treated with the drugs. However, Aegerion plans to conduct clinical trials of the use of lomitapide in pediatric homozygous FH patients, as well as patients with another rare disease, familial chylomicronemia. Genzyme has already tested mipomersen in a small number of pediatric patients.

Companies developing therapeutics for rare diseases whose mechanisms are related to those of more common diseases often attempt to first get their drugs approved for the rare disease, and then perform additional clinical trials to expand the drug’s indications to larger populations. We discussed this strategy in an earlier article on this blog. Homozygous FH is mechanistically related to not only heterozygous FH, but also to cases of severe hypercholesterolemia that are poorly controlled by statins. Both companies have shown interest in treating patients with homozygous FH and severe hypercholesterolemia, since they have preformed clinical trials that included patients with these conditions. However, the adverse effects of these drugs may limit their use to homozygous FH, at least in the near future.

Aegerion intends to market lomitapide on its own, and is ramping up its marketing and sales organization in anticipation of approval. Mipomersen, if approved, would have the benefit of the Sanofi marketing organization behind it. However, industry commentators expect lomitapide to have a large advantage over mipomersen, if both are approved. That is because of the greater efficacy of lomitapide, its oral dosing, and other factors related to injection site reactions for mipomersen and the half-lives of the compounds.

We await FDA action in the next several weeks on the approval of lomitapide and mipomersen.

Meanwhile, researchers and companies are working on potential drugs for severe hypercholesterolemia that act via an entirely different mechanism–PCSK9 (proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin 9) inhibition. These drugs are in an earlier stage of development than lomitapide and mipomersen. However, they might eventually provide strong competition to these drugs, or replace them altogether.

For oligonucleotide drug developers and enthusiasts, the case of mipomersen–considered the “great hope” for proof-of-concept for oligonucleotide drugs by many in the field–provides several lessons. 1. At the end of the day, oligonucleotide drugs must meet the same standards of safety and efficacy as other drugs. 2. Oligonucleotide drugs may encounter competition from drugs in other classes, such as small molecules or monoclonal antibodies.

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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.

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

 

Atlas!

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 http://bit.ly/GZNTZg

 

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.

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