Novartis’ breakthrough therapy for a rare muscle-wasting disease

By |2018-12-03T23:40:26+00:00September 4, 2013|Anti-Aging, Drug Development, Drug Discovery, Monoclonal Antibodies, Rare Diseases|

skeletal muscle

Skeletal muscle.

On August 20, 2013, Novartis announced in a press release that the FDA had granted breakthrough therapy designation to its experimental agent BYM338 (bimagrumab) for treatment of the rare muscle wasting disease sporadic inclusion body myositis (sIBM).

sIBM is a rare–but increasingly prevalent–disease. It is the most common cause of inflammatory myopathy in people over 50. sIBM has a yearly incidence of 2 to 5 per million adults with a peak at ages 50 to 70, with male predominance. Muscle wasting caused by sIBM is superimposed upon the sarcopenia (degenerative loss of muscle mass) that typically occurs with aging.

sIBM is characterized by a slowly progressive asymmetric atrophy and weakness of muscles. Typically, patients become wheelchair bound within 10 to 15 years of onset. Death may occur due to falls, respiratory infection, or malnutrition.

The causes of sIBM are not well-understood. In sIBM, an autoimmune process and a degenerative process appear to occur in muscle cells in parallel. In the autoimmune process, T cells that appear to be driven by specific antigens invade muscle fibers. In the degenerative process, holes appear in muscle cell vacuoles, and inclusion bodies containing abnormal proteins are deposited in muscle cells.

Despite the lack of understanding of the causes of sIBM, in recent years researchers have developed potential therapeutic approaches to this disease. These therapeutic strategies are based on the hypothesis that enhancing muscle regeneration can be beneficial in treating muscle-wasting diseases regardless of their cause. Researchers have thus been working on several approaches, principally 1. developing drugs that stimulate myofiber regeneration, and 2. cell-mediated therapies to replace damaged myofibers (e.g., autologous stem cell therapy). It is the first approach that led to the discovery of Novartis’ bimagrumab.

The myostatin pathway

Myostatin is a regulator of muscle growth in mammals and other vertebrates. It is a secreted protein that is a member of the transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β) family. It is secreted in an inactive form, and must be activated via cleavage by a metalloproteinase. The activated myostatin then binds to its receptor, activin receptor type IIB (ActRIIB). The binding of myostatin to ActRIIB on myoblasts initiates an intracellular signaling cascade, which (as with other members of the TGF-β family), includes activation of transcription factors of the SMAD family. The SMADs (SMAD2 and SMAD3) in the myostatin pathway go on to induce myostatin-specific gene regulation, which inhibits the proliferation of myoblasts and their differentiation into mature muscle fibers.

Bimagrumab, the myostatin pathway, and muscle-wasting diseases

Bimagrumab is a novel, fully human monoclonal antibody (MAb), which was developed by the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR), in collaboration with the human MAb specialist company MorphoSys (Martinsried, Germany). MorphoSys’ HuCAL (Human Combinatorial Antibody Library) technology was used to identify bimagrumab.

Bimagrumab binds with high affinity to the ActRIIB receptor, thus blocking myostatin binding. The researchers working on development of bimagrumab hypothesized that treatment with the drug would have the same physiological result as myostatin deficiency. For example, myostatin knockout mice have a two-fold to three-fold increase in muscle mass, without other abnormalities. Humans with a loss-of-function mutation in myostatin exhibit marked increase in muscle mass, as well as increased strength. These findings suggest that a myostatin receptor antagonist such as bimagrumab would be a potent stimulator of muscle growth.

According to Novartis’ press release, this hypothesis has been borne out in human studies. The FDA granted breakthrough status for bimagrumab based on the results of a Phase 2 proof-of-concept (POC) study that showed that the drug substantially benefited patients with sIBM compared to placebo. The results of this study will be presented at the American Neurological Association meeting on October 14, 2013. Novartis also expects to published the results of the study in a major medical journal later in 2013.

In addition to sIBM, Novartis is developing bimagrumab for the common muscle-wasting disease of aging sarcopenia, as well as for cachexia in cancer and in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients, and for muscle wasting in mechanically ventilated patients. In particular, the company is sponsoring a Phase 2 POC study (Clinical Trial Number NCT01601600) of bimagrumab in older adults with sarcopenia and mobility limitations. The study is designed to determine the effects of the drug on skeletal muscle volume, mass, and strength and patient function (gait speed). It will also generate data on the safety, tolerability, and pharmacokinetics of bimagrumab in older adults, as well as (via an extended study duration) the stability of drug-induced changes in skeletal muscle and patient function.

As we discussed in the Conclusions section of our August 15, 2013 blog article on aging, aging-related sarcopenia is a major causes of disability and death. We also said in that section that sarcopenia is not normally a target for drug development. At that time, we did not know about Novartis’ development of bimagrumab. We are happy to be proven wrong about drug development for sarcopenia.

Another approach to myostatin pathway-based drug development

A fully-human anti-myostatin MAb, Regeneron/Sanofi’s REGN1033 (SAR391786), is in Phase 1 clinical development for treatment of sarcopenia. Unlike bimagrumab, which binds to the myostatin receptor ActRIIB, REGN1033 binds directly to myostatin. REGN1033 thus represents an alternative approach to treatment of sarcopenia and other muscle-wasting conditions via the myostatin pathway.

Attempts to address the causes of muscle degeneration in sIBM directly

Despite the evidence from early clinical trials that therapies that enhance muscle regeneration may be effective in treating sIBM, some researchers believe that it will be necessary to identify the causes of muscle degeneration in sIBM and to address them. For example, there is evidence that in some patients, autoantibodies may recognize antigens that are enriched in regenerating muscle fibers. Some researchers therefore hypothesize that treating such patients with therapies that enhance muscle regeneration without addressing the autoimmune pathology may be counterproductive. Therefore, continuing research on the causes of muscle degeneration in sIBM and on potential therapies to slow this degeneration may still be important, despite the apparent progress of clinical trials of such drugs as bimagrumab.

For example, some researchers hypothesize that sIBM is a primary degenerative disease, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. As with these neurodegenerative diseases, some researchers have found evidence that misfolded proteins may be involved in the pathogenesis of sIBM. This avenue of research has led to the hypothesis that agents that enhance correct protein folding may slow muscle degeneration in sIBM patients. One such agent, CytRx’ arimoclomol has been in clinical trials in sIBM patients. [Arimoclomol is also in clinical trials in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)].  Arimoclomol appears to act as a coinducer of chaperone proteins such as heat shock protein 70 (Hsp70). Chaperone proteins promote the correct folding of intercellular proteins.

In a small POC Phase 2a clinical trial in Europe, arimoclomol showed early signs of efficacy, in addition to being well tolerated. There was a trend toward slower degeneration in physical function, muscle strength, and right-hand grip muscle strength in arimoclomol-treated patients as compared to placebo over an 8-month period.

Other researchers are attempting to address the inflammatory aspects of sIBM. For example, there are early clinical trials in progress of  the-anti-lymphocyte agent alemtuzumab (Genzyme’s Campath/Lemtrada) and the anti-tumor necrosis factor agent etanercept (Amgen/Pfizer’s Enbrel).

Meanwhile, additional basic research on the causation of sIBM continues. Some of these approaches may eventually lead to additional drug discovery strategies for this disease.

However, whether or not muscle-enhancing therapies such as bimagrumab might provide adequate treatment for at least some classes of sIBM patients (without addressing the autoimmune and/or degenerative aspects of the causation of the disease) will depend on the results of late-stage clinical trials now in the planning stage.


The development of bimagrumab represents an example of Novartis’ pathway-based rare disease strategy. We discussed this strategy in our July 20, 2009 Biopharmconsortium Blog article. Novartis researchers note that in many cases rare diseases are caused by disruptions of pathways that are also involved in other rare diseases and/or in more common diseases. The researchers therefore develop drugs that target these pathways, and obtain POC for these drugs by first testing them in small populations of patients with a specific rare disease. Drugs that have achieved POC in this rare disease may later be tested in other indications (especially including more common diseases) that involve the same pathway.

As we discussed in our July 20, 2009 article, the first drug that Novartis developed by using this strategy is the interleukin-1β inhibitory MAb drug Ilaris (canakinumab). The company conducted its first clinical trials in patients with cryopyrin-associated periodic syndromes, (CAPS), a group of rare inherited auto-inflammatory conditions that are characterized by overproduction of IL-1β. In 2009, the FDA and the European Medicines Agency approved Ilaris for treatment of CAPS. Since that time, Novartis has been conducing clinical trials of canakinumab in such conditions as systemic juvenile idiopathic arthritis (SJIA), gout, acute gouty arthritis, type 2 diabetes, and several others. Canakinumab had also been tested in rheumatoid arthritis, but these trials have been discontinued.

In the case of bimagrumab, Novartis researchers are targeting the myostatin pathway. The strategy is to first target the rare disease sIBM, and to obtain POC in human studies in that disease. Novartis claims (and the FDA concurs with them) that they have obtained POC in sIBM, and the company plans to present the results of its POC clinical trial later this year, both in a scientific meeting and in a publication. Novartis then plans to complete development of bimagrumab for sIBM, while also developing the drug for other muscle-wasting conditions, especially the more common aging-related condition sarcopenia, which is becoming a major public health problem.

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