This is Part 2 of the article on RaNA Therapeutics that we began on March 29, 2012.

Jeannie Lee’s research and RaNA’s technology platform

Jeannie Lee’s laboratory focuses on the study of the mechanism of X-chromosome inactivation in mammals. In X-chromosome inactivation, one of the two copies of the X chromosome present in the cells of female mammals is inactivated. The inactive X chromosome is silenced by packaging into transcriptionally inactive heterochromatin.  X-chromosome inactivation results in dosage compensation, the process by which cells of males and females have the same level of expression of X-chromosome genes, even though female cells have two X chromosomes and male cells have only one. In placental mammals such as mice and humans, the choice of which X chromosome will be inactivated is random, but once an X chromosome is inactivated it will remain inactive throughout the lifetime of the cell and its descendants.

The Lee laboratory has focused on genes encoded by the X-chromosome whose actions coordinate X-chromosome inactivation. These genes  are contained in the 100 kilobase long X-inactivation center (Xic). One of these genes, Xist, encodes the lncRNA XIST, which as discussed in Part 1 of this article inactivates an X-chromosome by spreading along the X chromosome and recruiting the silencing factor PRC2. XIST is regulated in cis by TSIX, an antisense version of XIST which works to keep the active X-chromosome active. Tsix is in turn regulated by Xite (X-Inactivation intergenic transcription element), an upstream locus that harbors an enhancer that enables the persistence of TSIX expression on the active X chromosome. The mechanism by which Xite acts (including whether it acts via its RNA transcripts) is not clear. Xite and Tsix appear to regulate pairing between the two X chromosomes in a female cell, and determine which X chromosome will be chosen for inactivation. Several other recently discovered genes in the region of the Xic, which work via lncRNAs, also serve as regulators of XIST function. For example, the Rep A and Jpx genes, work via lncRNA transcripts to induce Xist. Thus Xist is controlled by positive and negative lncRNA-based switches–TSIX for the active X chromosome and JPX and REPA for the inactive X. Of these lncRNAs, REPA, XIST, and TSIX bind to and control PRC2.

In late 2010, the Lee laboratory published an article in Molecular Cell in which the researchers identified a genome-wide pool of over 9000 lncRNA transcripts that interact with PRC2 in mouse ES cells. Many of these transcripts have sequences that correspond to potentially medically-important loci, including dozens of imprinted loci (i.e., loci that are epigenetically modified such that only the paternal or maternal allele is expressed), hundreds of oncogene and tumor suppressor loci, and multiple genes that are important in development and show differential chromatin regulation in stem cells and in differentiated cells. The researchers obtained evidence that at least in one case, an RNAs works to recruit PRC2 to a disease-relevant genes, similar to PRC2 recruitment by XIST and HOTAIR. This case of specific PRC2 recruitment has not been previously known, suggesting that the researchers’ methodology could be used to discover new examples of PRC2 recruitment by lncRNAs.

Some of the PRC2-associated lncRNAs identified in the Molecular Cell report may be potential therapeutic targets and/or biomarkers. Overexpression of PCR2 proteins have been linked to various types of cancer, including metastatic prostate and breast cancer, and cancers  of the colon, breast, and liver. Pharmacological inhibition of PRC2-mediated gene repression was found to induce apoptosis in several cancer cell lines in vitro, but not in various types of normal cells. Induction of apoptosis in this system is dependent on reactivation of genes that had been repressed by PRC2. There is also evidence that PRC2-mediated gene repression may be linked to the maintenance of the stem-cell properties of cancer stem cells. These results suggest that at least in some cases, inhibition of PRC2-mediated gene repression–including via targeting lncRNAs that recruit PRC2 to critical genes–is a potential strategy for treating various types of cancer.

RaNA’s R&D strategy

Not much information is available about RaNA’s strategy.  However, according to the January 2012 Mass High Tech article, RaNA Therapeutics has licensed technology from Mass General Hospital based on Dr. Lee’s research. The company has also filed several patent applications, some of which are described as being very broad. This includes patent applications on the existence and method of use of thousands of lncRNA targets. However, Dr. Lee’s published patent applications currently include only three items involving the X-chromosome inactivation system or TERC. Presumably, the patent applications mentioned in the Mass High Tech article will be published at the end of the 18-month publication period for U.S. patent applications.

According to the Mass High Tech article, RaNA is in the process of narrowing down the diseases it will initially focus on. Likely areas will include genetic diseases, including diseases that result from haploinsufficiency. In haploinsufficiency, one allele of a gene is nonfunctional, so all of the protein coded by the gene is made from the other allele. However, this results in insufficient levels of the protein to produce a normal phenotype. RaNA intends to use its technology to increase expression of the functional gene, resulting in a adequate dosage of the protein for a normal phenotype.

RaNA intends to choose one indication out of a short list of 20 diseases for internal R&D, and to seek collaborations for other indications. Dr. Krieg says that he hopes to have a collaboration by the end of 2012, and also to have Investigational New Drug (IND)-enabling safety studies on its internal drug candidate by the end of the year as well.

As one might expect, RaNA will target the appropriate lncRNAs using oligonucleotides, similar to how RNAi companies target mRNAs. Dr. Krieg, an oligonucleotide therapeutic development veteran, recruited some of his old oligonucleotide team from Pfizer into RaNA, according to a Fierce Biotech article. Thus Dr. Krieg and his team can quickly get up and running in designing and testing oligonucleotide therapeutics, once RaNA selects the targets for its initial focus.

In the Mass High Tech article, Dr. Krieg says that he believes that “oligonucleotides are on the cusp of being recognized as the third leg of drug development,” along with small-molecule and protein therapeutics. However, as we discussed in our August 22, 2011 article on this blog, oligonucleotide drug development, as exemplified by RNAi and microRNA-based therapeutics, has run into several technological hurdles, especially those involving drug delivery. The August 2011 article cites an editorial by Dr. Krieg, in which he voices his optimism despite these hurdles.

Nevertheless, large pharmaceutical companies and investors have been moving away from the oligonucleotide field. This is exemplified by Alnylam’s January 20, 2012 restructuring, which cut one-third of its work force and focused the company on two of its Phase 1 programs. Having exhausted its ability to capture major Big Phama licensing and R&D deals, Alnylam has had to become a normal early-2012 biotech company and focus its strategy. (However, Alnylam did a $86.9 million public offering in February 2012.)

The emergence of RaNA, and its $20.7 million funding, thus swims against the tide of the general pessimism about oligonucleotide therapeutics of Big Pharmas, investors, and stock analysts. However, at least some oligonucleotide therapeutics will eventually emerge onto the market, and lncRNA regulation is likely to be crucial to many disease pathways. RaNA is thus the pioneering company in this field.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to  your company, please click here. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.


XIST Source: Alexbateman


On January 18, 2012, start-up company RaNA Therapeutics (Cambridge, MA) emerged from stealth mode with 20.7 million in cash. The Series A venture funding was co-led by Atlas Venture, SR One, and Monsanto, with participation of Partners Innovation Fund.

RaNA will work on developing a technology platform that involves targeting long noncoding RNA (lncRNA), in order to selectively upregulate gene expression.

Arthur Krieg, M.D. will serve as RaNA’s President and CEO. He is the former Chief Scientific Officer of the now-closed Pfizer Oligonucleotide Therapeutics Unit, who later became an Entrepreneur in Residence at Atlas Venture (Cambridge, MA). Dr. Krieg was mentioned in two of our previous Biopharmconsortium Blog articles, dated February 15, 2011 and August 22, 2011.

Atlas quietly nurtured RaNA while working to complete the Series A venture round. According to a January 18, 2012 article in Mass High Tech, the company plans to move into about 9,000 square feet of space “somewhere in Cambridge” in early 2012.  RaNA has approximately a dozen employees.

According to the Mass High Tech article, RaNA’s platform is based on technology developed by scientific founder Dr. Jeannie Lee (Massachusetts General Hospital/Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Boston MA).  Drs. Lee and Krieg and Atlas Ventures are cofounders of RaNA.

This is Part 1 of our discussion of RaNA Therapeutics.

RaNA and “junk DNA”

RaNA’s focus is related to what has traditionally been called “junk DNA”. As shown by work on the Human Genome Project and other genomics studies, only about 2-3 percent of the human genome consists of protein-encoding genes. Genomics researchers had not been able to identify a function for most of the remaining 97-98% of the human genome. This gave rise to the idea that these sequences consisted of parasitic DNA sequences that had no function whatsoever. Most researchers thus called these sequences “junk DNA”. Some of the leading lights of the genomics field gave presentations in which they dismissed this DNA as “junk”, and they even proposed models for how this “junk DNA” might accumulate during evolution. Then they would go on to discuss the “interesting” 2-3 percent.

However, the “junk DNA” concept was not really established science, but a hypothesis. I–among a few others–would call these sequences “DNA of unknown function”.

In more recent years, many researchers showed that at least the vast majority of DNA of unknown function was transcribed. Then researchers found a function for a relatively small percentage of these sequences–they are precursors of microRNAs and other small regulatory RNAs. These RNAs are related to the phenomenon of RNA interference (RNAi), which has been the subject of much basic research, including the Nobel Prize-winning research of Drs. Andrew Fire and Craig Mello. RNAi is the basis for various therapeutic RNAi drug discovery and development efforts at such companies as Alnylam, Silence Therapeutics, Quark Phamaceuticals, Dicerna, and Santaris, as well as several large pharmaceutical companies.

The majority of DNA sequences of unknown function, however, are transcribed into lncRNA. As exemplified by the first article [“Quantity or quality?”, by Monika S. Kowalczyk and Douglas R. Higgs (University of Oxford)] in a point/counterpoint Forum published in the 16 February 2012 issue of Nature, many researchers postulate that at least most of these transcripts are nonfunctional. Transcription of these sequences might be, for example, at a low level, as the result of experimental artifacts or of exposure of sequences to the transcriptional machinery due to changes in chromatin during such processes as cell division or expression of nearby genes. This point of view moves the “junk DNA” hypothesis to the RNA level–now one might speak of “junk RNA”.

However, in the second article in the Nature Forum [“Patience is a virtue”, by Thomas R. Gingeras (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory)], the author counsels “patience” in carefully unraveling the function, one by one, of each noncoding RNA (ncRNA) transcript. According to Dr. Gingeras’ article, there are currently some 161,000 human transcripts, 53% of which are ncRNAs. About 2% of these ncRNAs are precursors to microRNAs. Approximately 10% of the transcripts are lncRNAs that map to intergenic and intronic regions, and many of these transcripts have been implicated in regulation — both of locally and at a distance— of developmentally important genes. Another 16% of the ncRNAs are transcripts of pseudogenes — genes that appear to have lost their original functions during evolution. Some of the pseudogene transcripts have been shown to regulate gene expression by acting as decoys for microRNAs. Despite this progress in assigning functions to ncRNAs, no function has yet been found for the majority of these transcripts. However, these are early days in the ncRNA field, so patience and openness to new discoveries is advisable.

The same 16 February 2012 issue of Nature contains a “Nature Insight” supplement on “Regulatory RNA”. Of particular interest with respect to the functions of lncRNAs is the review by Mitchell Guttman (Broad Institute and MIT, Cambridge MA) and John Rinn (Broad Institute and Harvard, Cambridge MA), entitled “Modular regulatory principles of large non-coding RNAs”. Among the lncRNAs discussed in that review are the X-inactive specific transcript (XIST) (see the figure above) and the telomerase RNA component (TERC). Both of these lncRNAs were identified and their functions determined in the 1990s–XIST in 1991  and TERC in 1995. XIST is expressed exclusively from inactive X chromosomes and is required for X inactivation in mammals. TERC is an essential RNA component of telomerase, the enzyme that replicates chromosome ends (telomeres). At the same time as the functions of XIST and TERC were beginning to be unraveled, most researchers were continuing to dismiss ncDNA as “junk”. Should they have known better?

The Guttman and Rinn review discusses several other lncRNAs with known, important functions, all of which were discovered since the pioneering work on XIST and TERC. Among the genes that encode these lncRNAs are HOTAIR and HOTTIP, which affect expression of the HOXD and HOXA gene family, respectively. HOX genes are a superfamily of evolutionarily conserved genes that are involved the determination of the basic structure of an organism. They encode transcription factors that regulate target genes by binding to specific DNA sequences in enhancers. The large intergenic non-coding RNA-RoR (lincRNA-RoR) modulates reprogramming of human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells, which were discussed in earlier articles on this blog). The lncRNA NRON regulates transcription factors of the NFAT (nuclear factor of activated T-cells) family, which are involved in regulating the immune response, as well as in the development of cardiac and skeletal muscle, and of the nervous system. These genes have also been implicated in breast cancer, especially in tumor cell invasion and metastasis.

A common theme in the function of several lncRNAs, as highlighted in the Guttman and Rinn review, is association of the lncRNA with a chromatin-regulatory protein complex. The lncRNA serves to guide the regulatory protein complex to specific regions of chromatin. The protein complex then modifies specific histones in the chromatin regions, resulting in silencing of target genes.

In particular, HOTAIR serves as a molecular scaffold that binds to two protein complexes. A 5′ domain of HOTAIR binds polycomb repressive complex 2 (PRC2), and a 3′ domain of HOTAIR binds the CoREST–LSD1 complex. This enables the targeting of PRC2 and LSD1 to chromatin for coupled histone H3 lysine 27 methylation by PRC2 and histone H3 lysine 4 demethylation by LSD1. Both are required for proper repression of HOX genes.

XIST has at least two discrete domains, one involved in silencing (RepA) and the other in localization (RepC) of the XIST molecule on the X chromosome. The silencing domain RepA binds to PRC2, and the localization domain RepC binds to the YY1 protein and heterogeneous nuclear ribonucleoprotein U (hnRNP U).

The cases of HOTAIR and XIST are examples of how lncRNAs may function as molecular scaffolds of regulatory protein complexes. This may be general phenomenon, since a recent study by Drs. Guttman and Rinn and their colleagues indicates that about 30% of lincRNAs in mouse embryonic stem (ES) cells are associated with multiple regulatory complexes. In this study, the researchers found that RNAi knockdown of dozens of lincRNAs causes either exit from the pluripotent state or upregulation of specific differentiation programs. Thus lincRNAs appear to have important roles in the circuitry controlling the pluripotent state of ES cells, and in commitment to differentiation into specific lineages.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to  your company, please click here. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.


Two recent research reports may point the way to developing more effective, personalized therapies for two deadly women’s cancers for which their are currently few treatment options–triple-negative breast cancer and ovarian cancer. The approach followed in both reports is to use gene expression analysis to stratify each of the two diseases into subtypes. Researchers can then use gene expression and order aspects of the biology of each subtype to design subtype-specific targeted therapies, whether single drugs or drug combinations. If the drugs (whether approved or experimental) already exist, they can be tested in clinical trials, stratified by subtype. If no appropriate drugs exist, researchers can discover the drugs based on subtype-appropriate drug targets.

Triple-negative (TN) breast cancer refers to breast cancers that are negative for expression of estrogen receptor (ER), progesterone receptor (PR), and HER2. [HER2 is the target of trastuzumab (Roche/Genentech’s Herceptin) and lapatinib (GlaxoSmithKline’s Tykerb/Tyverb)]. Lacking all three receptors, it cannot be treated with standard receptor-targeting breast cancer therapeutics (e.g., tamoxifen, aromatase inhibitors, trastuzumab) but must be treated with cytotoxic chemotherapy. TN breast cancer is generally more aggressive than other types of breast cancer, and even treatment with aggressive chemotherapy regimens typically results in early relapse and metastasis.

TN breast cancers constitute approximately 25 percent of breast cancers. They are diagnosed most often in younger women, those who have recently given birth, women with BRCA1 mutations, and African-American and Hispanic women.

There is a Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation, which was founded in 2006 in honor of a mother in her mid-thirties who died of the disease.

Ovarian cancer, the ninth most common cancer in women, caused nearly 14,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2010. In its earliest stages, its symptoms are usually very subtle and mimic other, less serious diseases. As a result, it is usually detected at later stages in which treatment is more difficult and gives poorer outcomes. The 2001 five-year survival rate was 47%, up from 38% in the mid-1970s. This compared to an overall survival rate for cancer of 68% in 2001, up from 50% in the mid-1970s.

Treatment usually involves surgery and chemotherapy, and sometimes radiotherapy. Surgery (preferably by a gynecological oncologist) may be sufficient for earlier-stage tumors that are well-differentiated and confined to the ovary. In this early-stage disease (which represents about 19% of women presenting with ovarian cancer), the five-year survival rate is 92.7%. However, about 75% of women presenting with ovarian cancer already have stage III or stage IV disease, in which the cancer has spread beyond the ovaries. Then the prognosis is much poorer, and the vast majority of patients will have a recurrence.

The triple-negative breast cancer study

The TN breast cancer study was carried out by researchers at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN), and published in the 1 July 2011 issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation. In this study, the researchers analyzed gene expression profiles from 21 publicly available breast cancer data sets, and identified  587 cases of TN breast cancer (by non-expression of mRNAs that encode ER, PR, and HER2). Using cluster analysis, they identified six TN breast cancer subtypes:

  • two basal-like subtypes (BL1 and BL2),
  • an immunomodulatory (IM) subtype (i.e., expressing genes involved in immune cell processes)
  • a mesenchymal (M) subtype
  • a mesenchymal stem–like (MSL) subtype
  • a luminal androgen receptor (LAR) subtype.

Using gene expression analysis, the researchers identified TN breast cancer model cell lines that were representative of each of these subtypes. On the basis of their analysis, the researchers predicted “driver” signaling pathways, and targeted them pharmacologically as a proof-of-principle that analysis of gene expression signatures of cancer subtypes can inform selection of therapies.

BL1 and BL2 subtypes had higher expression of genes involved in the cell cycle and response to DNA damage, and model cell lines preferentially responded to cisplatin. M and MSL subtypes were enriched for expression of genes involved in the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), and growth factor-related pathways in model cell lines responded to the PI3K/mTOR inhibitor BEZ235 (Novartis, now in Phase 1 and 2 for solid tumors) and to the ABL/SRC inhibitor dasatinib [Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Sprycel, currently approved for treatment of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) and Philadelphia chromosome-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), and under investigation for treatment of solid tumors). The LAR subtype was characterized by androgen receptor (AR) signaling, and included patients with decreased progression-free survival. LAR model cell lines were uniquely sensitive to the AR antagonist bicalutamide (AstraZeneca’s Casodex/Cosudex, currently approved for the treatment of prostate cancer and hirsutism, and under investigation for treatment of androgen receptor-positive, ER negative, PR negative breast cancer).

The researchers plan to use the TN breast cancer subtype-specific model cell lines for further molecular characterization, to identify new components of the “driver” signaling pathways for each subtype. These pathways can be targeted in further drug discovery efforts. The subtype-specific cell lines can also be used in preclinical studies with targeted agents, and in identification of subtype-specific biomarkers that can potentially be used in stratifying TN breast cancer patients so that they might be treated with the best agents for their disease.

The ovarian cancer study

The ovarian cancer study was carried out by the Cancer Genome Atlas Research Network [a consortium of academic researchers jointly funded and managed by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI)], and published in the 30 June 2011 issue of Nature. In this study, the researchers analyzed mRNA expression, microRNA expression, promoter methylation and DNA copy number in 489 high-grade serous ovarian adenocarcinomas, as well as the DNA sequences of exons from coding genes in 316 of these tumors. Serous adenocarcinoma is the most prevalent form of ovarian cancer, accounting for about 85 percent of all ovarian cancer deaths.

The researchers found that nearly all of the high-grade serous ovarian cancers (HGS-OvCa) studied had mutations in the TP53 gene, which encodes the p53 tumor suppressor protein. On the basis of their gene expression (mRNA) signatures, the researchers divided the population of HGS-OvCa into four subtypes:

  • an immunoreactive subtype (i.e., expressing genes involved in immune cell processes)
  • a differentiated subtype (high expression of markers of differentiated female reproductive tract epithelia)
  • a proliferative subtype (high expression of markers of cell proliferation)
  • a mesenchymal subtype (high expression of HOX genes and of markers of mesenchymal-derived cells)

The researchers also determined subtypes on the basis of microRNA expression and promoter methylation. microRNA subtype 1 overlapped the mRNA proliferative subtype and miRNA subtype 2 overlapped the mRNA mesenchymal subtype. Patients with miRNA subtype 1 tumors survived significantly longer that those with tumors of other microRNA subtypes.

Although the researchers found no significant difference in survival between the four transcriptional subtypes, they did identify a 193-gene expression signature that was predictive of overall survival. 108 genes were correlated with poor survival and 85 were correlated with good survival.

The researchers identified cancer-associated pathways in the HGS-OvCA population; this is equivalent to the prediction of “driver” signaling pathways in the TN breast cancer study. They found that 20% of the HGS-OvCA samples had germline or somatic mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2, and that 11% lost BRCA1 expression through DNA hypermethylation. As we discussed in an earlier article on this blog, BRCA1- or BRCA2-negative tumor cells cannot repair their DNA via homologous recombination. They are dependent on an alternative pathway of DNA repair, which involves the enzyme poly(ADP) ribose polymerase (PARP). These tumors are thus sensitive to a class of drugs known as PARP inhibitors, such as KuDOS/AstraZenaca’s olaparib. There are now six PARP inhibitors, including olaparib, in clinical development.

The researchers found genetic alterations in several other genes involved in homologous recombination. Altogether, defects in homologous recombination may be present in approximately half of HGS-OvCa cases, and these tumors may be sensitive to PARP inhibitors. This provides a rationale for clinical trials of PARP inhibitors in women with ovarian cancers with defects in homologous recombination-related genes.

Olaparib and other PARP inhibitors are in clinical trials in women with advanced with BRCA-1 or -2 mutations and with other defects in homologous recombination. As discussed in the 2011 ASCO meeting, early Phase 2 results indicate that olaparib gives dramatic improvements in progression-free survival in these women. (See this article.) In these studies, in addition to tumors with genetic defects in homologous recombination, olaparib or another PARP inhibitor, Abbott’s ABT-888, appears to give improved progression-free survival in women who have previously been treated with chemotherapy drugs that result in DNA damage. This suggests that oncologists may be able to use a “one-two punch”, consisting of a DNA-damaging drug [such as the alkylating agent temozolomide [Merck’s Temodar]) followed by a PARP inhibitor, to treat advanced ovarian cancer.

In addition to BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 mutations and other genetic alterations that result in defects in homologous recombination, the HGS-OvCa population exhibited genetic changes that would result in deregulation of several other cancer related pathways. These pathways included the RB1 (67% of cases), RAS/PI3K (45% of cases), and NOTCH (22% of cases) pathways, as well as the FOXM1 transcription factor network (87% of cases). All of these pathways represent opportunities for target identification and drug discovery. FOXM1 (Forkhead box protein M1) was named the Molecule of the Year for 2010 by the International Society for Molecular and Cell Biology and Biotechnology Protocols and Research (ISMCBBPR) because of “its growing potential as a target for cancer therapies.” FOXM1 overexpression results in destabilization of the cell cycle, which can lead to a malignant phenotype.

The researchers also identified 22 genes that were frequently amplified or overexpressed in HGS-OvCA tumors (other than genes that are involved in homologous recombination). Inhibitors (including approved and experimental compounds) already exist for the products of these genes, and researchers might assess these compounds in HGS-OvCa cases in which target genes are amplified.

Can Verastem develop new therapeutics for triple negative breast cancer?

The private biotechnology company Verastem (Cambridge, MA) focuses on discovery and development of drugs to target cancer stem cells. The company was founded in 2010, and is based on a strategy for screening for compounds that specifically target cancer stem cells. This strategy, published in the journal Cell in 2009, was developed by Drs. Robert Weinberg (MIT Whtehead Institute), Eric Lander (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University), and Piyush Gupta (MIT and Broad Institute) and their colleagues. Drs. Weinberg, Lander, and Gupta are on the Scientific Advisory Board of Verastem.

On July 14, 2011, Verstem announced that it had raised $32 million in a Series B financing. Verastem had previously raised $16 million from a group led by former Christoph Westphal’s Longwood Founders Fund. Dr. Westphal (formerly of Sirtris) is now Chairman of Verastem.

Cancer stem cells are best known in acute myeloid leukemia (AML), but their existence in other cancers (especially solid tumors) is controversial. The cancer stem cell hypothesis asserts that a small subpopulations of cells in a leukemia or solid tumor have characteristics that resemble normal adult stem cells, such as self renewal, the ability to give rise to all the cell types found in the leukemia or cancer, and stem cell markers. The hypothesis further asserts that most cancer treatments fail to knock out cancer stem cells, which can repopulate a tumor cell population, resulting in treatment relapses. Cancer stem cell researchers therefore propose developing cancer stem-cell specific therapeutics that can be used to eliminate these cells, which can block these relapses.

Whether cancer stem cells are involved in the pathobiology of solid tumors or not, the biology of the putative cancer stem cell phenotype can be important in certain subtypes of cancer. Cancer stem cells are characterized by the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), and in the Cell paper the researchers screened for compounds that specifically targeted breast cancer cells that had been experimentally induced into an EMT, and which as a result exhibited an increased resistance to standard chemotherapy drugs.   They identified the compound salinomycin as a drug that specifically targeted these cells, as well as putative cancer stem cells from patients.

As discussed earlier in this article, TN breast cancer includes two subtypes that have gene expression signatures related to the EMT: the mesenchymal (M) subtype and the mesenchymal stem–like (MSL) subtype. One or both of these subtypes might be sensitive to compounds that specifically target putative breast cancer stem cells. This may be true whether the cancer stem cell hypothesis applies to TN breast cancer or not. Verastem recognizes this, and is thus focusing on TN breast cancer as its first therapeutic target. The Vanderbilt TN breast cancer study suggests that trials of any “cancer stem cell-specific” therapeutics for TN breast cancer should be guided by subtype-specific biomarkers.

Hope for treatment of TN breast cancer and advanced ovarian cancer

Researchers and oncologists have made great strides in increasing the percentage of breast cancers that are treatable or even curable in recent years. For example, prior to the FDA approval of trastuzumab in 1998, HER2 positive breast cancer carried a grim prognosis. But the advent of trastuzumab (and later, lapatinib) has had a major impact on treatment of this once uniformly deadly type of breast cancer.

We hope that the new, personalized medicine-based approach to TN breast cancer and advanced serous ovarian adenocarcinoma will also result in successful new therapeutic strategies for these deadly women’s cancers.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to  your company, please click here. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

In our last two blog posts–dated July 12, 2010 and July 18, 2010, we discussed the “synthetic cell” that was recently constructed by researchers at the J. Craig Venter institute. As we discussed, at least several leading bioethicists and philosophers said that the construction of a “synthetic” microbial cell refuted vitalism–i.e., the contention that there is something special about processes in living organisms that cannot be artificially created from nonliving systems–once and for all. However, leading scientists (including Nobel Prize winners and leading synthetic biologists) disagreed with that assessment. We said that we agreed with the leading scientists, and gave our reasons why.

Meanwhile, a one-page essay by bioethicist Gregory Kaebnick, Ph.D. appeared In the July 2010 issue of The Scientist (registration required).  Dr. Kaebnick is the editor of the bioethics journal The Hastings Center Report, and a co-investigator of a Hastings Center research project on synthetic biology. Dr. Kaebnick agrees with the leading scientists, and with us, even though his friend and colleague Arthur Caplan is one of the bioethicists who says that the “synthetic cell” has refuted vitalism.

According to Dr. Kaebnick, what the Venter group created was not a synthetic cell, but a synthetic genome. (As we stated in our second article, the researchers had help from yeast in creating the “synthetic” genome–perhaps it is really a semi-synthetic genome.) But the Venter group says that since the genome took over the cell it was transferred into, and since the genome is synthetic, therefore the cell is synthetic. But that assumes a top-down control of a cell by its genome (i.e., genetic determinism). Dr. Kaebnick argues that one might instead say that the cell and the genome worked out their differences and collaborated, or that the cell “adopted” the genome. He goes on to assert that we may not know enough to say which of these two metaphors is most adequate.

Then Dr. Kaebnick goes on to ask whether even if the Venter group did create a synthetic cell, whether that really demystified life at all. You will have to read his article to follow that argument.

From our point of view, even if the “top down” control model is the most nearly correct, without a pre-formed cell it would have been impossible to use the synthetic genome to create a living organism. Researchers cannot, at least at present, create a cell, with its membranes, organization of biomolecules, biochemical systems, etc. that is necessary for a genome to work to express itself in a living system.

Moreover, with the discoveries on epigenetics in the last decade or so, researchers know that a “top down” control model–especially in multicellular eukaryotic organisms–does not fully account for how cells and organisms work. The environment can mediate changes in chromatin, such as DNA methylation and histone modification, which can be passed down from cell to cell and in some cases even to the next generation.

Thus the issue of “top down” genetic determinism versus collaboration between a cell and its genome has implications for cutting-edge biological research. Since some drug discovery researchers have been working on discovery and development of epigenetics-based drugs, it is of interest to the biotechnology/pharmaceutical industry as well. Several such drugs, including Celgene’s DNA methyltransferase inhibitors and histone deacetylase inhibitors that we mentioned in an earlier blog post, are already on the market.

On December 31, 2009, we posted an article on this blog about Agios Pharmaceuticals (Cambridge, MA). Agios is a private research-stage biotech company that is developing a pipeline of oncology drugs based on targeting metabolic pathways in cancer cells. In our article, we focused on Agios’ research on mutations in the metabolic enzyme cytosolic isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH1) as a causative factor in gliomas and glioblastomas. We also mentioned Agios’ research on pyruvate kinase M2 (PKM2) and aerobic glycolysis in cancer.

On April 15, 2010, it was announced that Agios and Celgene Corporation (Summit, NJ), a public biotechnology company with marketed products, had formed a strategic collaboration in the area of cancer metabolism.

Celgene markets Thalomid (thalidomide), which is approved by the FDA for treatment of multiple myeloma (MM). Thalidomide was notorious for causing birth defects in the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, beginning in the late 1990s, this drug has undergone a rehabilitation, provided that proper precautions are maintained to prevent its use in pregnant women and women who may become pregnant. Celgene has also been developing a class of thalidomide-derivative immunomodulatory drugs (IMiDs), which are designed to have greater efficacy against cancer and lesser toxicity than thalidomide. Of these drugs, Revlimid (lenalidomide) is approved by the FDA for treatment of MM and myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) (life-threatening diseases of the bone marrow in which abnormally functioning immature hematopoietic cells are made; MDS can progress to acute myeloid leukemia in a substantial percentage of patients.) Celgene is researching additional indications for lenalidomide, and is also developing other IMiDs for various indications in cancer and inflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases.

Celgene’s Vidaza (azacitidine), a nucleoside metabolic inhibitor, is also indicated for the treatment of MDS. Celgene acquired Vidaza via its 2007 acquisition of Pharmion (Boulder, CO), which had developed the drug. Vidaza is an inhibitor of DNA methyltransferases (DNMT), which are enzymes that methylate DNA at specific sites and are important in epigenetic regulation. It was the first approved drug that works via an epigenetic mechanism. (Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene function that do not involve changes in the nucleotide sequence of DNA. Major epigenetic processes include DNA methylation, modification of histones in chromatin, and RNA interference.)

Since Vidaza’s approval in 2004, two histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors, which also modulate epigenetic regulation, have been approved. In late 2009, Celgene acquired the HDAC inhibitor romidepsin (Istodax) [approved in 2009 for the treatment of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (CTCL)], via its acquisition of Gloucester Pharmaceuticals (Cambridge MA).

Celgene is also developing several other anti-inflammatory drugs and kinase inhibitors.

The goal of the Agios/Celgene collaboration is to discover, develop, and commercialize novel oncology therapeutics based on Agios’ innovative cancer metabolism platform. Celgene sees the potential for early drug development opportunities in Agios’ IDH1 and PKM2 programs, as well as future opportunities based on new targets expected from Agios research programs. Celgene also sees opportunities to harness Agios’ R&D to expand its own pipeline in cancer and other diseases.

Under the terms of the agreement, Agios will receive a $130 million upfront payment, including equity. In return, Celgene will receives an initial period during which it will have the exclusive option to develop any drugs resulting from the Agios cancer metabolism platform. Celgene may also extend this exclusivity period through additional funding. Agios will lead discovery and early development for all cancer metabolism programs. During the period of exclusivity, Celgene will have an exclusive option to license any clinical candidates at the end of Phase I, and will lead and fund global development and commercialization of licensed programs. On each program, Agios may receive up to $120 million in milestones as well as royalties, and may also participate in the development and commercialization of certain products in the United States.

The Celgene collaboration continues Agios’ record of success in fundraising, and in gaining the recognition of the scientific and corporate communities. Despite the generally unfavorable financial environment for young biotech companies, Agios has raised, through alliances and investments, over $163 million in less than two years. This is despite the fact that the company has not one drug in the clinic. Agios expects to have a lead compound in the clinic some time in 2010, however. As is always the case, the validation of Agios’ innovative biology-driven platform awaits the results of human clinical trials and the attainment of regulatory approval.