On October 20, 2014, New Link Genetics Corporation (Ames, IA) announced that it had entered into an exclusive worldwide license agreement with Genentech/Roche for the development of NLG919, an IDO (indoleamine-pyrrole 2,3-dioxygenase) inhibitor under development by NewLink. The two companies also initiated a research collaboration for the discovery of next generation IDO/TDO (tryptophan-2,3-dioxygenase) inhibitors.
Under the terms of the agreement, NewLink will receive an upfront payment of $150 million, and may receive up to over $1 billion in milestone payments, as well as royalties on any sales of drugs developed under the agreement. Genentech will also provide research funding to NewLink in support of the collaboration. Other details of the agreement are outlined in NewLink’s October 20, 2014 press release.
The target of NewLink’s iDO/TDO program, and of its collaboration with Genentech, is cancer immunotherapy. As we discussed in our September 2014 report, Cancer Immunotherapy: Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors, Cancer Vaccines, and Adoptive T-cell Therapies (published by Cambridge Healthtech Institute), Genentech is developing the PD-L1 inhibitor MPDL3280A, which is in Phase 2 trials in renal cell carcinoma and urothelial bladder cancer, and in Phase 1 trials in several other types of cancer. PD-L1 inhibitors such as MPDL3280A constitute an alternative means to PD-1 inhibitors of blocking The PD-1/PD-L1 immune checkpoint pathway.
Two PD-1 inhibitors, pembrolizumab (Merck’s Keytruda) and nivolumab (Medarex/Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo) are in a more advanced stage of development than MPDL3280A and other PD-L1 inhibitors. The FDA approved pembrolizumab for treatment of advanced melanoma in September 2014, and nivolumab was approved in Japan in July 2014, also for treatment of advanced melanoma.
MPDL3280A, pembrolizumab, and nivolumab are monoclonal antibody (MAb) drugs. Another MAb immune checkpoint inhibitor, ipilimumab (Medarex/BMS’s Yervoy) was approved for treatment of advanced melanoma in 2011. Ipilimumab, which was the first checkpoint inhibitor to gain regulatory approval, targets CTLA-4.
As summarized in the October 20, 2014 New Link press release, IDO pathway inhibitors constitute another class of immune checkpoint inhibitors. However, they are small-molecule drugs. The IDO pathway is active in many types of cancer both within tumor cells and within antigen presenting cells (APCs) in tumor draining lymph nodes. This pathway can suppress T-cell activation within tumors, and also promote peripheral tolerance to tumor associated antigens. Via both of these mechanisms, the IDO pathway may enable the survival, growth, invasion and metastasis of malignant cells by preventing their recognition and destruction by the immune system.
As also summarized in this press release, NewLink has several active IDO inhibitor discovery and development programs, and has also discovered novel tryptophan-2,3-dioxygenase (TDO) inhibitors. As with IDO, TDO is expressed in a significant proportion of human tumors, and also functions in immunosuppression. TDO inhibitors are thus potential anti-cancer compounds that might be used alone or in combination with IDO inhibitors.
The kynurenine pathway and its role in tumor immunity and in neurodegenerative diseases
IDO and TDO are enzymes that catalyze the first and rate-limiting step of tryptophan catabolism through the kynurenine pathway (KP). The resulting depletion of tryptophan, an essential amino acid, inhibits T-cell proliferation. Moreover, the tryptophan metabolite kynurenine can induce development of immunosuppressive regulatory T cells (Tregs), as well as causing apoptosis of effector T cells, especially Th1 cells.
A 2014 review by Joanne Lysaght Ph.D. and her colleagues on the role of metabolic pathways in tumor immunity, and the potential to target these pathways in cancer immunotherapy also highlights the role of IDO and kynurenine in upregulation of Tregs and in the phenomenon of T-cell exhaustion, in which T cells chronically exposed to antigen become inactivated or anergic.
In our cancer immunotherapy report, we discuss the role of Tregs and T-cell exhaustion in immune suppression in tumors, and the role of anti-PD-1 agents in overcoming these immune blockades. Targeting the IDO and TDO-mediated tryptophan degradation pathway may thus complement the use of anti-PD-1 (and/or anti-PD-L1) MAb drugs, and potentially lead to the development of combination therapies.
We have discussed the kynurenine pathway of tryptophan catabolism in another context in our July 11, 2011 article on this blog. This article discusses the potential role of kynurenine pathway metabolites in such neurodegenerative diseases as Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and Huntington’s disease (HD).
As discussed in that article, HD and AD patients have elevated levels of two metabolites in the KP–quinolinic acid (QUIN) and 3-hydroxykynurenine (3-HK)–in their blood and brains. Both of these metabolites have been implicated in pathophysiological processes in the brain. In contrast, kynurenic acid (KYNA), which is formed in a side arm of the KP by conversion of kynurenine by the enzyme kynurenine aminotransferase, appears to be neuroprotective.
Researchers have been targeting kynurenine 3-monooxygenase (KMO) in order to induce a more favorable ratio of KYNA to QUIN. As a result, they have discovered a drug candidate, JM6. They proposed to first conduct clinical trials in HD, since the cause of HD is much better understood than for AD, and disease progression in placebo controls is better characterized than for AD. Moreover, clinical trials in AD are notoriously long and expensive.
A 2014 review of targets for future clinical trials in HD lists JM6 as a “current priority preclinical therapeutic targets in Huntington’s disease”. It also contains an updated discussion of the mechanism of action of JM6.
NewLink’s IDO inhibitor development program
NewLink presented progress posters on its IDO inhibitor development program at the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) 2014 annual meeting. These described trials in progress, which did not yet have any results. As described in these presentations, NewLink’s most advanced IDO inhibitor, indoximod is in:
- a Phase 1/2 clinical trial in combination with ipilimumab in advanced melanoma
- a Phase 1/2 study in combination with the alkylating agent temozolomide (Merck’s Temodar) in primary malignant brain tumors
- a Phase 2 study in combination with the antimitotic agent docetaxel (Sanofi’s Taxotere) in metastatic breast cancer
- a Phase 2 study in which indoximod is given subsequent to the anticancer vaccine sipuleucel-T (Dendreon’s Provenge) in metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer.
The company also presented a progress poster on a first-in-humans Phase 1 study of NLG919, in solid tumors. NLG919, the focus of NewLink’s alliance with Genentech, is the second product candidate from NewLink’s IDO pathway inhibitor technology platform.
The major theme of NewLink’s ASCO meeting presentations is thus the development of the company’s IDO inhibitors as elements of combination immuno-oncology therapies with MAb immune checkpoint inhibitors, cancer vaccines, and cytotoxic chemotherapies.
In this connection, NewLink also hosted a panel discussion on combination therapies entitled “Points to Consider in Future Cancer Treatment: Chemotherapy, Checkpoint Inhibitors and Novel Synergistic Combinations” at the ASCO meeting. The collaboration of NewLink with Genentech will provide the opportunity for the two companies to test combinations of IDO inhibitors with Genentech’s PD-L1 inhibitor MPDL3280A.
Might targeting T-cell metabolism be used to enhance cancer immunotherapy?
In their 2014 review, Dr. Lysaght and her colleagues outline changes in metabolism as T-cells become activated, and differences in metabolism between various T-cell subsets (e.g., effector T cells, Tregs, exhausted or anergic T cells, and memory T cells). These researchers propose devising means to modulate T-cell metabolism in order to enhance anti-tumor immunity. However more research needs to be done in order to make such approaches a reality. In the meantime, development of IDO and TDO inhibitors is already in the clinic, providing the possibility of a metabolic approach to cancer immunotherapy.
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