Update on anti-aging biology, sirtuins, and Sirtris/GlaxoSmithKline

On November 8, 2009, we posted an article entitled “Anti-aging biology: new basic research, drug development, and organizational strategy” on this blog. This article focused on new findings in anti-aging biology, their applications to drug discovery and development, and on how this field has affected the organizational strategy of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

GSK acquired Sirtris for $720 million in 2008. Later that year, GSK appointed Christoph Westphal, the CEO and co-founder of Sirtris, as the Senior Vice President of GSK’s Centre of Excellence in External Drug Discovery (CEEDD). The CEEDD works to develop external alliances with biotech companies, with the goal of acquiring promising new drug candidates for GSK’s pipeline. Michelle Dipp, who was the vice president of business development at Sirtris at the time of GSK’s appointment of Dr. Wesphal, became Vice President and the head of the US CEEDD at GSK. Thus GSK has been using its relationship with Sirtris to restructure its organizational strategy, attempting to become more “biotech-like” in order to improve its R&D performance.

Now we learn that several research groups and companies have been questioning whether resveratrol (a natural product derived from red wine which has been the basis of Sirtris’ sirtuin-activator platform), as well as Sirtris’ second-generation compounds, may not modulate the sirtuin SIRT1 at all. Thanks to Derek Lowe’s “In the Pipeline” blog for the information. This issue was also covered in a second post on the same blog. It was also covered by articles in the 15 January 2010 issue of New Scientist and in the January 26, 2010 issue of Forbes. Nature also covered this story in an online news article.

In a report published in December 2009, researchers at Amgen found evidence that the apparent in vitro activation of SIRT1 was an artifact of the experimental method used by Sirtris researchers. 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. Although resveratrol appears to be an activator of SIRT1 if the artificial fluorophore-conjugted substrate is used, resveratrol does not activate SIRT1 in vitro as determined by assays using two other non-fluorescently-labeled substrates.

More recently, researchers at Pfizer published a study of SIRT1 activation by resveratrol and three of Sirtris’ second-generation sirtuin activators (which the Pfizer researchers synthesized themselves, using published protocols). These researchers also found that although these compounds activated SIRT1 when a fluorophore-bearing peptide substrate was used, they 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.

Sirtris and GSK dispute the findings of the Amgen and Pfizer researchers. One issue raised by Sirtris is that the Sirtris compounds synthesized by Pfizer may have contained impurities, resulting in the toxicity and lack of specificity of the compounds in vivo. Researchers associated with Sirtris and GSK also contend that although the Sirtris compounds only work with fluorophore-conjugated peptides in vitro, they appear to increase the activity of SIRT1 in cells. However, other researchers assert that since resveratrol interacts with many targets in cells, the results of the cellular assays are difficult to interpret. In the Forbes article, GSK’s CEO Andrew Witty is quoted as calling the dispute over the activity of the Sirtris compounds “a bit of a storm in a teacup”. He says that the compounds that Pfizer tested in mice are not the same ones that Sirtris and GSK are currently testing in clinical trials for treatment of diabetes and cancer. (Sirtris’ compounds in clinical trials, discussed in the next paragraph, are in fact different from the ones tested by the Pfizer researchers.)

Currently, Sirtris is testing its proprietary formulation of resveratrol, SRT501, in a Phase IIa clinical trial in cancer. The company reports that SRT501 lowered blood glucose and improved insulin sensitivity in patients with type 2 diabetes in a Phase IIa trial. Sirtris is also testing a second-generation SIRT1 activator, SRT2104, in Phase IIa trials in patients with metabolic, inflammatory and cardiovascular diseases. SRT2104 was found to be safe and well tolerated in Phase I trials in healthy volunteers. Sirtris is also testing another second-generation SIRT1 activator, SRT2379, In Phase I trials. SRT2379 is structurally distinct from resveratrol and from SRT2104.

As we discussed in our original blog post, Elixir Pharmaceuticals is also developing various sirtuin inhibitors and activators for metabolic and neurodegenerative diseases and for cancer. One of Elixir’s products, the SIRT1 inhibitor EX-527, was in-licensed by Siena Biotech (Siena, Italy) in 2009, and was entered into Phase I clinical trials in January 2010. Siena Biotech is developing this compound for treatment of Huntington’s disease.

Despite the dispute over whether Sirtris’ compounds are real SIRT1 activators, the numerous studies on the biology of sirtuins are still valid. Companies with assays that use native peptide substrates and are amenable to high-throughput screening could use these assays to discover novel sirtuin activators. For example, Amgen published a report in 2008 describing such assays. The ability of companies such as Amgen and Pfizer to commercialize such novel sirtuin activators would depend on whether they could overcome the intellectual property position of Sirtris (and Elixir). Since Amgen and Pfizer are working in this area, this indicates that they believe that they can do so.

The efficacy of high doses of resveratrol in improving metabolic parameters of mice fed a high-calorie diet is also not invalidated by the Amgen and Pfizer studies. However these studies cast doubt on the mechanisms by which resveratrol exerts these effects. The apparent efficacy of SRT501 in improving metabolic parameters in patients with type 2 diabetes in a Sirtris Phase IIa trial is consistent with the mouse studies.

Finally, as we discussed in our November 8, 2009 blog post, longevity is controlled by numerous interacting pathways, which may provide at least several targets for drug discovery. Researchers are hard at work to gain additional understanding of these pathways, and some companies are working to discover and develop compounds that modulate these targets. For example, several companies are developing AMPK activators, as discussed in our original blog post. And numerous research groups are reportedly attempting to find drugs that act similarly to rapamycin in increasing lifespan in mice (the main focus of our November blog post), without rapamycin’s immunosuppressive effects.

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