Determining the molecular cause of a disease does not necessarily enable researchers to develop disease-modifying drugs

NBD1 of human CFTR. Source: PDBbot

NBD1 of human CFTR. Source: PDBbot

A major objective of research in genomics is to identify mutations that cause genetic diseases. However, doing so does not necessarily directly enable researchers to discover and develop drugs to treat these diseases.

Two examples of genetic diseases whose causes were identified decades ago, without directly enabling the development of any disease-modifying drug, are sickle cell disease (SCD) (also known as sickle cell anemia) and cystic fibrosis (CF).

Sickle cell disease

The causative mutation of SCD was identified by protein researchers, decades before the era of genomics. Vernon M. Ingram, Ph.D. showed in 1957 that a glutamic acid to valine mutation at position 6 of the β-chain of hemoglobin was the sole abnormality in SCD. For this discovery, Dr. Ingram has been called The Father of Molecular Medicine. Dr. Ingram’s work was made possible by a 1949 study by Linus Pauling and his colleagues, which showed that SCD hemoglobin had a different electrophoretic mobility than normal hemoglobin. Thus the sickle cell trait was likely to be due to a mutation in the β-hemoglobin gene that changed its amino acid composition, as confirmed by Dr. Ingram.

Yet to this day, although SCD (which occurs in individuals who are homozygous for the sickle-cell mutation) can be managed by various treatments (such as hydroxyurea and blood transfusions and bone marrow transplants) that can result in survival into one’s fifties, there is no mechanism-based therapy for this disease. Thus the identification of the causative mutation of SCD has not led to any treatments.

The reason why discovery and development of drugs for SCD has been so very difficult is that the mutation that causes this disease affects an intracellular protein, hemoglobin, which is neither a receptor nor an enzyme. Unlike secreted proteins such as insulin, it is not possible to develop protein drugs to replace missing or defective hemoglobin. It is also not possible to replace the missing function of normal hemoglobin by treatment with a small molecule drug.

Diseases such as SCD–in which the function of an essential intracellular protein is defective or missing–have often been cited as candidates for gene therapy.

However, as we discussed in our October 11, 2012 and our November 8, 2012 Biopharmconsortium Blog articles, it is only this past fall that the first gene therapy was approved for marketing in a regulated market. As we discussed in the first of these articles, gene therapy has a history going back to at least the early 1970s. However, gene therapy has displayed the characteristics of a premature technology. Several notable failures, including some that caused the deaths of patients, put a severe damper on the gene therapy field. Only recently–between around 2003 and 2012–have researchers been developing more advanced gene therapy technologies and conducting clinical studies, with some success. Entrepreneurs have also been building gene therapy specialty companies to commercialize this research.

As also we discussed in our October 11, 2012 article, among the many companies that are developing gene therapies, bluebird bio (Cambridge, MA) has been singled our for special attention lately. Among the diseases being targeted by bluebird bio are SCD, and beta-thalassemias, which are also genetic diseases that affect hemoglobin. bluebird bio is in Phase 1/2 trials for its beta-thalassemia therapy, and in Phase 1 for its SCD program.

Cystic fibrosis

CF causes a number of symptoms, which affect the skin, the lungs and sinuses, and the digestive, endocrine, and reproductive systems. Notably, people with CF accumulate thick, sticky mucus in the lungs, resulting in clogging of the airways due to mucus build-up. This leads to inflammation and bacterial infections. Ultimately, lung transplantation is often necessary as the disease worsens. With proper management, patients can live into their late 30s or 40s.

The affected gene in CF and the most common mutation that causes the disease (called ΔF508 or F508del) were identified by Francis S Collins, M.D., Ph.D. (then at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Departments of Internal Medicine and Human Genetics, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI) and his colleagues in 1989. Dr. Collins was subsequently the leader of the publicly-funded Human Genome Project and is now the Director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD.

The gene that is affected in cystic fibrosis encodes a protein known as the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR).  CFTR regulates the movement of chloride and sodium ions across epithelial membranes, including the epithelia of lung alveoli. CF is an autosomal recessive disease, which is most common in Caucasians; one in 2000–3000 newborns in the European Union is found to be affected by CF. ΔF508 is a deletion of three nucleotides that causes the loss of the amino acid phenylalanine at position 508 of the CFTR protein. The ΔF508 mutation accounts for approximately two-thirds of CF cases worldwide and 90% of cases in the United States. However, there are over 1500 other mutations that can cause CF.

In the case of CF, the affected protein, CFTR, is an ion channel–specifically a chloride channel.

Ion channels constitute an important class of drug targets, which are targeted by numerous currently marketed drugs, e.g., calcium channel blockers such as amlodipine (Pfizer’s Norvasc; generics) and diltiazem (Valeant’s Cardizem; generics). These compounds were mainly developed empirically by traditional pharmacology before knowing anything about the molecular nature of their targets. However, discovery of novel ion channel modulators via modern molecular methods has proven to be challenging, mainly because of the difficulty in developing assays suitable for drug screening. In addition, development of suitable assays for assaying chloride channel function has lagged behind the development of assays for the function of cation channels (e.g., sodium and calcium channels).

Moreover the most common CFTR mutation that causes CF, ΔF508, results in defective cellular processing, and the mutant CTFR protein is retained in the endoplasmic reticulum. In the case of some other mutant forms of CTFR (accounting for perhaps 5% of CF patients), the mutant proteins reach the cell membrane, but are ineffective in chloride-channel function.

Given these difficulties, researchers first attempted to develop gene therapies for CF. Genzyme (a Sanofi company since 2011) has been a leader in developing gene therapy for CF, and has been conducting research in this area since the 1990s. However, as with most gene therapies, development of treatments capable of reaching the market has been elusive.

Genzyme is still researching gene therapies for CF, as are others. An academic group in the U.K., known as the U.K. Cystic Fibrosis Gene Therapy Consortium is working to develop CF gene therapies, using Genzyme’s nonviral cationic lipid vector GL67 (Genzyme lipid 67) as the delivery vehicle. GL67 is the current “gold-standard” for in vivo lung gene transfer. Recently, the Consortium received funding from the U.K. Medical Research Council and National Institute of Health Research to continue its Phase 2B trial of its CF gene therapy product,GL67A/pGM169. This is a combination of GL67 and plasmid DNA expressing CFTR (pGM169).

Very recently, R&D on disease-modifying small-molecule drugs for CF has begun to bear fruit. In January 2012, the FDA approved the first such drug, ivacaftor (Vertex’ Kalydeco.) In July 2012, Vertex received European approval for this drug. Ivacaftor only works in patients with the G551D  (Gly551Asp) mutation in CFTR, which only accounts for around 4% of CF patients. Vertex and other companies–including Genzyme–are working on development of other small-molecule disease-modifying drugs with the potential to treat greater numbers of CF patients.

We shall discuss the new wave of disease-modifying CF drugs, including ivacaftor, in a later post on this blog.


SCD and CF are two examples of cases in which the identification of the genetic or molecular cause of a disease did not directly lead to new treatments. In the case of SCD, even though over 55 years have elapsed since the identification of the genetic cause of the disease, no therapy had yet emerged from this discovery. In the case of CF, it took over two decades from the identification of the molecular cause of the disease to the approval of the first disease-modifying drug.

Many other cases in which molecular targets involved in disease have been identified also lack disease-modifying treatments because the targets are “undruggable”. This especially applies to protein-protein interactions (PPIs). However, PPIs have assumed increasing strategic importance in drug discovery and development in recent years, and researchers and companies have been developing new technologies and strategies to discover  developable drugs that address PPIs.

Back in the early 2000s, researchers and commentators hailed the sequencing of the human genome as heralding a new era in drug discovery and development. However, the “industrialized biology” approach that grew out of the genomics of that era gave very few successes in terms of drug development. Now–a decade later–we have next-generation sequencing and  are approaching the “$1000 genome.” Once again, at least some commentators are expecting immediate breakthroughs in therapeutic development to come out of these breakthroughs in sequencing technology. Others, such as CFTR gene discoverer Francis Collins, believe that we can “speed the development of genetic advances into treatments” by more rapidly weeding out “what turn out to be..nonviable compounds.”

However, in the case of CF there were barriers to drug discovery, such as limited understanding of disease biology and difficulties in assay development, that were the true causes of lack of progress in developing disease-modifying genes. Moreover, once they had good assays, researchers needed to come up with effective strategies to develop small-molecule drugs for CF. In the case of SCD, because of the nature of the target, only gene therapy–with its manifold difficulties–had any hope of addressing the disease. In the case of PPIs, there was the need to discover new breakthrough strategies to address these “undruggable” targets.

Thus, despite breakthroughs in sequencing technologies, determining of disease-related sequences is likely to only be the first step in effective discovery of disease-modifying drugs. And there may continue to be a considerable time lag between sequence determination and drug development.


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