World Drug Targets Summit, Cambridge MA, July 19-21


Hanson Wade’s World Drug Targets Summit took place on July 20-21, 2011, with pre-conference workshops on July 19. The conference was held in the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA.

I led the first workshop on the 19th, on “Developing Improved Animal Models in Oncology and CNS Diseases to Increase Drug Discovery and Development Capabilities”. The workshop was well-attended, with good questions and discussion from those in attendance. For a description of the workshop, see our July 5, 2011 blog post. The second workshop, on “Exploiting Kinase Signaling Pathways: Opportunities for Drug Development”, was led by Kamal D Puri and Heather Webb, both of Gilead Sciences (Foster City, CA).

The main conference included speakers from both Big Pharmas (Novartis, UCB Pharma, Merck, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bayer Schering Pharma) and such biotech companies as Gilead, Infinity Pharmaceuticals, Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, NeurAxon, and FORMA Therapeutics, as well as a couple of researchers from Harvard Medical School and its teaching hospitals. Attendees who were not speakers included people from these same companies and from other Big Pharmas, as well as from such up-and-coming biotechs as Aileron Therapeutics and Proteostasis Therapeutics (both in Cambridge, MA and both mentioned on our blog), and other companies in the U.S. and in Europe.

In addition to case studies and strategies for identifying and validating drug targets that would be likely to yield safe, efficacious, and commercializable drugs, there was a section on strategies for fostering outsourcing and collaboration in target identification and validation. These included Bayer’s Grants 4 Targets program and Tempero Pharmaceuticals’ collaborative programs. (Tempero is a wholly owned subsidiary of GlaxoSmithKline located in Cambridge, MA.)

One highlight of the Summit was a section on “undruggable” targets (and hard targets known as “high-hanging fruit”); this section occurred at the end of the conference. John Andrews of NeurAxon (Mississauga, Ontario Canada) gave an overview of companies working on “undruggables”, which included not only protein-protein interactions (PPIs), but also what we have called areas of “premature technology” such as RNAi therapeutics and, up until the mid-1990s, monoclonal antibody drugs. (See our blog articles located here, here, and here.) He then presented NeurAxon’s own work on developing a first-in-class neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS) inhibitor for treatment of migraine. nNOS inhibitors represent “high-hanging fruit” because of the difficulty of designing drug-like compounds that are selective for nNOS as opposed to endothelial NOS (eNOS).

At the end of Dr. Andrews’ presentation, I briefly outlined the concept of “premature technologies”, and the development of enabling technologies to overcome technological prematurity. MAb drugs constitute a classic case. I then asked if researchers were developing enabling technologies to make possible the efficient discovery of small-molecule drugs to address PPIs, as opposed to the case-by-case development of such drugs as occurs now. (See this article on our blog for an example.)

The chairman for the day, David Winkler of Infinity Pharmaceuticals, instead of having Dr. Andrews answer the question, moved on to the final speaker of the day, Mark Tebbe of FORMA Therapeutics (Cambridge, MA). Dr. Tebbe discussed FORMA’s technology platforms, which are designed to be enabling technologies for discovery of small-molecule drugs to address PPIs, thus answering my question.

In particular, Dr. Tebbe cited FORMA’s CS-Mapping platform, which enables company researchers to interrogate PPIs in intracellular environments, to define hot spots on the protein surfaces that might constitute targets for small-molecule drugs. (For an example of hot spots that are critical for binding in a PPI in the Wnt signaling pathway, see this research report, which we cited in our PPI blog article.) FORMA combines CS-Mapping technology with its chemistry technologies (e.g., structure guided drug discovery, diversity orientated synthesis) to discover drugs.

As an example of hot spot determination, Dr. Tebbe cited the GTP/GDP biding site of the RAS protein. RAS is a notoriously “undruggable” target that is important in a large percentage of human cancers.

FORMA also has a collaboration with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to discover and develop small-molecule compounds that target the interaction between the transcriptional repressor Bcl-6 and the SMRT co-repressor. This interaction is key to signaling pathways that are involved in diffuse large B cell lymphoma, a type of aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

FORMA has several executives and board members with Novartis backgrounds, and Novartis is an investor in FORMA and collaborates with FORMA in the area of small-molecule drugs for PPIs in oncology. As discussed in the blog article mentioned earlier on development of small-molecule drugs to target PPIs, Novartis has also been collaborating with researchers at Harvard teaching hospitals in that area. These collaborations show the interest of Novartis in the PPI area, which many pharmaceutical companies shun because of its difficulty and high risk.

The World Drug Targets Summit was a relatively small conference, but had a high concentration of pharmaceutical and biotechnology company R&D leaders, especially in target identification and validation. This provided excellent opportunities to ask questions of the speakers, and to interact with speakers and other attendees during breaks, and in the “speed networking” session and at the conference’s networking dinner. All and all, it was a good conference.

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