Brown fat in humans

The CNS-targeting “Class of 2010” drugs

We have not had an article on obesity therapeutics on this blog since February 1, 2011. At that time, we had an article entitled “That’s all, folks!”, complete with the old Warner Brothers Porky Pig graphic. As of that date, all three of the obesity drug candidates that came up for FDA review in 2010-–Vivus’ Qnexa, Arena’s lorcaserin, and Orexigen’s Contrave–were rejected for approval by the FDA, and sent back for further studies. Also in 2010, the then-marketed antiobesity drug sibutramine (Abbott’s Meridia) was withdrawn from the market at the FDA’s request. All of these agents targeted the central nervous system (CNS).

Concern about long-term safety was the major consideration in the rejection of the NDAs for Qnexa, lorcaserin, and Contrave, and safety issues were also the reason for the withdrawal of sibutramine. That left only one anti-obesity drug approved by the FDA for long term use– orlistat (Roche’s Xenical), with no new drugs In sight. The outlook for obesity drugs was gloomy indeed.

However, as of May 2012, after the further studies prescribed by the FDA in 2010, two of the obesity drug Class of 2010–Qnexa and lorcaserin have received positive votes by the FDA’s Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee, and are awaiting final FDA action later this year. Contrave, after a February 6, 2012 agreement with the FDA, appears to be on track for possible NDA resubmission in 2014.

We shall continue to follow progress with the consideration of the resubmitted NDAs for Qnexa and lorcaserin in 2012.

Novel approaches based on the physiology of brown fat

Meanwhile, there is renewed interest in earlier-stage, alternative obesity therapies based on the physiology of brown fat, also known as brown adipose tissue (BAT). The May 1, 2012 issue of The Scientist has an article by the publication’s associate editor Edyta Zielinska entitled “Treating Fat with Fat: Is brown fat ready for therapeutic prime time?”  This article focuses on new discoveries in brown fat physiology, and on entrepreneurial companies that are attempting to develop these discoveries into therapeutics.

On the Biopharmconsortium Blog, we also have an article on brown fat physiology and companies attempting to develop therapeutics based on these findings. The article is dated November 17, 2010. As we state in that article, brown fat researchers and companies are seeking to develop therapeutics that work by increasing energy expenditure, rather than the usual approaches of decreasing appetite (as with the Class of 2010 CNS-targeting antiobesity drugs) or blocking absorption of fat in the gut (as with orlistat).

More specifically, these researchers and companies intend to discover and develop drugs that increase the amount and/or activity of BAT, which is a type of mitochondria-rich adipose tissue that oxidizes fat and dissipates the resulting energy as heat rather than storing it. The mitochondrial protein UCP1 (uncoupling protein 1) is the key biomolecule that makes this process possible. BAT has long been known to be central to non-shivering thermogenesis in rodents, for example to maintain body temperature when they are exposed to cold.

Until recently, researchers believed that in humans, significant populations of BAT cells were found only in infants. However, in recent years researchers found that adult humans possess reservoirs of brown fat in the neck region and other areas of the upper body as well as in skeletal muscle. Adult human BAT can be stimulated by acute exposure to cold and via the sympathetic nervous system, and by various pharmacological agents.

Energesis’ autologous brown adipose tissue transplantation program

Our November 17, 2010 article in particular focused on the Boston-based early-stage company Energesis Pharmaceuticals. Energesis was confounded by Olivier Boss, PhD (formerly of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals), Brian Freeman, MD (former Venture Partner at GreatPoint Ventures), and Jean-Paul Giacobino, MD (Professor Emeritus, University of Geneva Medical School, Switzerland). Dr. Boss serves as Energesis’ Chief Scientific Officer, and Dr. Freeman as its Chief Operating Officer.

Energesis is also mentioned in the new article in The Scientist. According to that article, Energesis is using brown fat “stem cells” (which are precursor cells found in skeletal muscle that can differentiate into either muscle or brown fat) to identify novel targets that activate brown fat. Energesis researchers then work to discover new drugs that address these targets. They are also investigating transplantation of brown fat “stem cells” as an obesity therapy.  According to the article, Energesis is planning to initiate clinical trials of their therapies within 2 to 3 years.

In October 2011, Energesis was awarded a U.S. Department of Defense Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant to develop therapeutics based on autologous BAT transplantation. The project is a feasibility study to define a source and culture system for the generation of human BAT for autologous transplantation therapy. It will involve isolating and characterizing the best brown adipocyte progenitor sub-population from human muscle biopsies, expanding these cells, and establishing the optimal culture conditions for in vitro differentiation to generate approximately 50 grams of BAT cells for transplantation. This project is being conducted in collaboration with Dr. Stephen R. Farmer of the Boston University School of Medicine; Boston University is Energesis’ academic partner on the STTR grant.

According to a January 31, 2012 article in Wired magazine, the U.S. Army’s interest in Energesis’ technology is the result of the growing incidence of overweight and obesity in the Army’s recruit pool, as in young Americans in general. The Army is funding the Energesis/Boston University researchers in the hopes of using autologous BAT transplantation to boost weight loss in military personnel.

According to Brian Freeman, an autologous cell transplantation therapy might also be commercialized for treatment of severely obese individuals in lieu of bariatric surgery. Such an autologous cellular therapy would be analogous to the FDA-approved Genzyme cell transplantation therapy products Carticel and Epicel. It may be easier and faster for Energesis to gain FDA approval for an autologous BAT transplantation product than to develop and gain approval for a drug based on the company’s BAT research. Energesis will therefore pursue both drug discovery and autologous cell transplantation programs, with the strategy to gain early approval and revenues for a transplantation product while it continues to pursue drug discovery and development. Success in development of an autologous transplantation product should also boost the company’s prospects for funding, which would enable its wider R&D programs.

Other approaches to brown adipose tissue-based therapies

The May 1 2012 Edyta Zielinska article begins with a discussion of metabolic diseases start-up Ember Therapeutics. As stated in the article, Ember was founded by Third Rock Ventures partner Lou Tartaglia, a scientist by background who was formerly the Vice President of Metabolic Diseases at Millennium Pharmaceuticals. Ember was launched with $34 million in financing from Third Rock. The company plans to work both on therapeutics based on BAT biology, and on developing a new generation of safer insulin sensitizers for treatment of type 2 diabetes. The latter area of focus is based on studies by Ember scientific founders Dr. Bruce Spiegelman (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, Boston MA) and Patrick R. Griffin (Scripps Research Institute, Scripps FL) We discussed that work on our blog in an August 29, 2010 article, which was followed by two additional articles on September 16, 2010 and September 21, 2011.

In the January 11 2012 issue of Nature, Dr. Spiegelman’s group reported the discovery of a myokine hormone (i.e., a cytokine produced by muscle cells), which the researchers named irisin. Irisin is named after the Greek goddess Iris, the messenger of the gods. It acts on white adipose cells in culture and in vivo to stimulate what appears to be development into brown fat-like cells. Specifically, irisin stimulates expression of UCP1 and an array of other brown fat genes. Mildly increased blood levels of irisin results in an increase in energy expenditure in mice with no changes in movement or food intake, as would be expected with an increase in brown fat levels. This results in improvements in obesity and glucose homeostasis. Exercise increases levels of blood irisin in mice and humans, leading to the hypothesis that irisin is an “exercise hormone” that mediates at least some of the beneficial metabolic effects of exercise. Irisin is therefore a potential therapeutic for metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and obesity. Ember entered into an exclusive license agreement with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for the irisin technology, and is optimizing and developing a proprietary molecule based on this technology. This molecule is designed to augment and activate the body’s brown fat. This research constitutes the company’s lead BAT biology program.

On March 28, 2012, Ember also exclusively licensed technology from the Joslin Diabetes Center (Boston, MA) covering bone morphogenetic protein 7 (BMP7), and its role in BAT development. The role of BMP7 in BAT biology was discovered by Ember scientific co-founder C Ronald Kahn, M.D. and his colleagues, who published their findings in Nature in 2008.

In addition to its lead irisin program, Ember is developing a pipeline of biologics (including those based on BMP7) and small molecules designed to increase BAT levels and to activate BAT-specific pathways. According to the article in The Scientist, among the pathways being investigated by Ember are those involving the PRDM-16 transcription factor and FoxC2.

Zafgen’s beloranib (ZGN-433)

Meanwhile, the other obesity start-up founded by Brian Freeman, Zafgen (Cambridge, MA) has been making progress in developing its lead drug candidate, beloranib (ZGN-433). Beloranib, a methionine aminopeptidase 2 (MetAP2) inhibitor, was originally discovered by the Korean company CKD Pharmaceuticals, and was being developed as an angiogenesis inhibitor for treatment of solid tumors. However, the drug was poorly efficacious for this indication in animal models. At much lower concentrations, however, beloranib exerts an antlobesity effect. Zafgen therefore licensed the compound from CKD, and has been developing it as an agent to induce weight loss in severely obese patients.

Beloranib targeting of MetAP2 in vivo results in downregulation of signal transduction pathways within the liver that are involved in the biosynthesis of fat. Animals or humans treated with the drug oxidize fat to form ketone bodies, which can be used as energy or are excreted from the body. The result is breakdown of fat cells and weight loss. Obese individuals do not usually have the ability to form ketone bodies.

In January 2011, Zafgen reported top-line data from a Phase Ib multiple-ascending dose study in which 24 obese women were given 0.9 milligrams/meter(2) of beloranib twice-weekly intravenous. The subjects had a median reduction in body weight of 1 kg/week or 3.1% over 26 days. Treatment with beloranib also reduced triglycerides by 38% and LDL cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”) by 23% from baseline. These results were statistically significant  (p<0.05).

Patients (who were given no instructions regarding diet or exercise) also showed a decline in hunger, and showed no treatment-related serious adverse effects. If sustained (e.g., over a 6-9 month course of treatment in individuals requiring a 20-40 percent reduction in weight) the degree of weight loss seen in this study would be comparable to bariatric surgery.

On July 7, 2011, Zafgen secured a $33 million Series C financing, which was led by the company’s original investor syndicate, including Atlas Venture and Third Rock Ventures. Proceeds from the financing were to be used to support development of Zafgen’s pipeline and especially to advance its lead compound beloranib for the treatment of severe obesity into Phase 2 clinical studies. Zafgen, like Energesis, is operated as a lean virtual company, with only 5 employees. Thus Zafgen should have sufficient cash to advance its beloranib program to the next stage.

Inducing brown fat via modulation of TGFβ signaling

In our November 17, 2010 article, we also mentioned Acceleron Pharma (Cambridge, MA), and its R&D program aimed at brown fat induction via inhibition of signaling by members of the TGFβ (transforming growth factor beta) superfamily. Acceleron is continuing to investigate this approach, and has published a report on this research in the online version of the journal Endocrinology in May 2012. Novartis researchers also published a report on their studies in this area in the online version of the journal Molecular and Cellular Biology.


Despite the doom-and-gloom atmosphere of the obesity drug field in late 2010 and early 2011, with investment bank and business press analysts declaring the field to be “dead”, obesity drug R&D has shown definite signs of life in recent months. NDAs for two of the “Class of 2010” CNS-targeting antiobesity drugs, Qnexa and lorcaserin, have been resubmitted and are up for reconsideration by the FDA later this year. Meanwhile, R&D efforts aimed at producing therapeutics to increase energy expenditure via brown fat induction are progressing, mainly in small entrepreneurial biotech companies. The latter approach, if confirmed by future clinical trials, appears to have a greater likelihood of inducing the degree of weight loss needed to reverse even severe obesity.

Regulatory hurdles–especially safety concerns–were the most significant factor in the failure of the initial NDA submissions of the “Class of 2010” CNS-targeting drugs. The developers of these drugs are working to overcome these hurdles via performing the additional studies mandated by the FDA followed by NDA resubmission. We shall see how well this approach is working when the FDA rules on marketing approval of Qnexa and lorcaserin later this year. Meanwhile, developers of brown-fat targeting therapies are attempting to target severe obesity rather than the general obese population. They are positioning their therapeutics as alternatives to bariatric surgery. They expect that the regulatory hurdles to treating this population will be lower than for the general obese population.

As discussed in several articles on the Biopharmconsortium Blog, the need for antiobesity agents is great, and with the fast accelerating incidence of obesity and its complications, the need is also accelerating. Moreover, our understanding of the pathogenesis of obesity is limited. Thus both continuing basic research and development of agents with novel mechanisms are sorely needed.


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.



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.



On November 3, 2011, Cambridge MA biotech firm Verastem announced that it was filing a prospectus for an initial public offering (IPO). At that time, the company was 15 months old.

Verastem is led by Christoph Westphal, MD, PhD, a founder and the former CEO of Sirtris and a veteran entrepreneur and venture capitalist. The IPO has been underwritten by UBS, Leerink Swann, Lazard Capital Markets, Oppenheimer & Co., and Rodman & Renshaw.

On January 27, 2012, Fierce Biotech reported that Verastem had announced the previous night that its IPO raised $55 million from the sale of 5.5 million shares at $10 apiece. This price fell exactly in the middle of its expected $9 to $11 price range, and the company had even increased the offering by a million shares over what had originally been planned.

On the same day, Verastem’s stock opened at $11 a share on the NASDAQ, up from its initial public offering price of $10.

Verastem not only has Christoph Westphal as its Chairman and CEO, but is also based on science from eminent MIT researchers Robert Weinberg, Ph.D. and Eric Lander, Ph.D., and has several other well-respected academic researchers (including Nobelist Phillip Sharp, Ph.D.) plus biotech industry drug discoverers Julian Adams, Ph.D. (MIllennium’s Velcade) and Roger Tung, Ph.D. (Vertex’ Lexiva and Agenerase) on its Scientific Advisory Board. The company has had considerable fundraising success prior to its IPO, including raising $32 million in venture capital  in July 2011.

However, Verastem has not one lone drug in human clinical trials, its most advanced compounds are in the preclinical stage, and the company does not plan to file an IND until 2013! Thus Verastem has successfully gone public, in an era in which even most private biotech companies with drugs in late-stage clinical trials are finding it very difficult to do so, despite its lack of any clinical-stage drugs.

As noted in the Fierce Biotech article, Dr. Westphal as well as other venture capital funders of Verastem agreed to buy up to $16.3 million of the IPO. This in part explains the success of the IPO. As also noted by Fierce Biotech, with over 19 million common shares outstanding, the offering valued Verastem at $192 million.

We discussed Verastem in our August 2, 2011 Biopharmonsortium Blog article entitled “Development of personalized therapies for deadly women’s cancers”. Verastem focuses on discovery and development of drugs to target cancer stem cells. Its technology is based on a strategy for screening for compounds that specifically target cancer stem cells, developed by Drs. Weinberg, Lander, Piyush Gupta (MIT and Broad Institute) and their colleagues.

Cancer stem cells are best known in acute myeloid leukemia (AML), but their existence in other cancers (especially solid tumors) is controversial, as discussed in our article. Whether cancer stem cells are involved in the pathobiology of solid tumors (or a particular type of solid tumor) 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). 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 (now being marketed as a generic veterinary antibiotic) as a drug that specifically targeted these cells, as well as putative cancer stem cells from patients.

As we discussed in our article, triple-negative (TN) breast cancer cannot be treated with standard receptor-targeting breast cancer therapeutics (e.g., tamoxifen, aromatase inhibitors, trastuzumab) but must be treated with cytotoxic chemotherapy. It is generally more aggressive than other types of breast cancer, and even treatment with aggressive chemotherapy typically results in early relapse and metastasis. However, TN breast cancer includes two experimentally defined subtypes that have gene expression signatures related to the EMT. One or both of these subtypes might therefore be expected to 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 is focusing on TN breast cancer as its first therapeutic target.

Verastem’s VS-507, a proprietary formulation of salinomycin, is being developed to treat TN breast cancer. The company is also screening for additional compounds, including New Chemical Entities (NCE) that can achieve stronger intellectual property protection than a salinomycin formulation. Verastem had not chosen a lead compound as of the middle of 2011. The company is now reported to be doing preclinical studies on three of its compounds, and also plans to create diagnostic tests to identify patients that could benefit from its treatments. (As we discussed in our article, biomarker-based tests will be critical in making such therapies work.)

As one can discern from our blog article, we are intrigued by Verastem’s approach to cancer treatment, and especially its approach to TN breast cancer. The science behind Verastem’s drug discovery strategy, developed by 2011 ASCO award-winning oncogene and cancer stem-cell pioneer Bob Weinberg, is very compelling. We would love to see Verastem’s therapeutic strategy succeed.

However, as virtually all pharmaceutical and biotechnology R&D researchers well know, it is difficult to translate even the most compelling science developed by the most brilliant researchers into the clinic. Even therapeutic strategies with an excellent scientific rationale that have achieved proof of principle in the best animal models can result in clinical failure, especially with the first compound tested in proof-of-concept studies in human patients. The cancer stem cell hypothesis remains controversial. Moreover, diseases such as TN breast cancer are complicated, they may have mechanisms of resistance to a new experiential therapy that no one knows about, and our understanding of disease biology is limited.

Thus at least until Verastem’s therapies achieve proof of concept in human studies, purchase of Verastem stock is risky indeed. Moreover, there are other risks involved other than technical and clinical risk–especially competition for developing cancer stem cell-based therapies by other biotech/pharma companies. Venture capitalists (and certain knowledgeable individual investors and funds) are in the business of taking on high-risk investments for the sake of potential large rewards, but ordinary retail investors in the public markets are not. Therefore, it seems too early for Verastem to go public, even if it has founders and investors with enough clout to make an IPO successful.

Expert analysts in the IPO field, as stated in the Fierce Biotech article, are puzzled by the rationale for Verastem going public at this time. The financial news and services website “” agrees. Our own sense of puzzlement is symbolized by the interobang (‽) in the title of this article.


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Source: Narayanese.

On July 29, 2011, Merck announced that It was shutting down the San Francisco research laboratory that it had acquired as part of its $1.1 billion acquisition of therapeutic RNAi specialist company Sirna Therapeutics. This announcement was covered in a July 29, 2011 article in Xconomy, and in a news brief in the 4 August issue of Nature and a linked Nature news blog article.

According to the Xconomy article, the shutdown will include the loss of around 50 jobs. Around ten people are being offered transfers to other Merck facilities in nearby Palo Alto CA and on the East Coast.

The Merck facility shutdown continues the exit or retrenchment from therapeutic RNAi research at other Big Pharma companies. The Biopharmconsortium Blog has covered these moves at Roche and Pfizer.

As we discussed in the Roche article, Novartis had also decided to end its 5-year partnership with therapeutic RNAi specialty company Alnylam In September 2010. However, Novartis acquired technology and exclusive development rights for RNAi therapeutics against 31 targets for in-house use as the result of its partnership with Alnylam.  Alnylam is entitled to receive milestone payments for any RNAi therapeutic products that Novartis develops based on these targets. Thus Novartis is still involved in RNAi therapeutics, despite the termination of the Alnylam partnership.

Moreover, according to the Nature news blog, Ian McConnell of Merck’s Scientific Affairs, R&D and Licensing and Partnerships said that Merck will continue to have over 100 scientists working on RNA-based therapeutics, and that it continues to invest significantly in the field. Closing the San Francisco lab represents an effort to trim the budget by eliminating the cost of maintaining a separate RNAi facility.

In our previous blog articles on Big Pharma RNAi therapeutics retrenchment, and in our October 2010 book -length report, RNAi Therapeutics: Second-Generation Candidates Build Momentum, we discussed the strategic issues that are involved in undertaking (or in retrenching from) R&D programs in RNAi therapeutics, and in investing in that area. The therapeutic RNAi (and microRNA) field represents an early-stage area of science and technology. The field may be technologically premature, as was the monoclonal antibody (MAb) drug field in the 1980s.

Big Pharma originally got into RNAi therapeutics in order to help fill weak pipelines, and with the hope of staking out a commanding position in the RNAi field once it became successful. However, with the short-term pressure at Big Pharma companies to cut expenses and programs, Big Pharmas have been losing the needed patience to continue with a technologically premature field like RNAi therapeutics.

In the June 2011 issue of Molecular Therapy, there is an editorial by Arthur Krieg, M.D. (former Chief Scientific Officer of the now-closed Pfizer Oligonucleotide Therapeutics Unit, and now Entrepreneur in Residence at Atlas Venture, Cambridge, MA), entitled “Is RNAi dead?” As discussed in the editorial, the move of Big Pharma away from RNAi, according to some observers, signals the death of the therapeutic RNAi platform. Dr. Krieg outlines an alternative view.

According to Dr. Krieg, Big Pharmas got into RNAi therapeutics with the hope of enabling the rapid development of targeted drugs without the long time lags and uncertainties of small molecule drugs and biologics. In theory, if a research team has a good target, it could rationally design a lead RNAi drug specific for the target and ready for human clinical trials within 15 months. And researchers would not have to worry about “undruggability” of targets. However, there have been several unforeseen hurdles to the development of RNAi drugs, the most formidable of which is the issue of drug delivery. Although certain high-profile publications suggested that the challenge of RNAi drug delivery could be easily overcome, this proved not to be the case in practice.

However, Dr. Krieg believes that the progress in RNAi delivery in recent years has been “nothing short of spectacular”. In 2008, the best RNAi delivery systems for a liver target might have an IC50 (i.e., the RNAi dose required for 50% inhibition of target expression) of 1–3 mg/kg, but in 2010/2011, the IC50 has been reduced to about 1% of this value, which is an improvement of two logs. Dr. Krieg also says that there have also been significant advances in reducing off-target and other undesired systemic effects of RNAi therapeutics in animal models in recent years.

Nevertheless, the advances in RNAi delivery and safety are moving too slowly for Big Pharma’s current short-term mindset. According to Dr. Krieg, if companies are not able to take an RNAi drug into clinical development this year, then the next time there is an R&D portfolio review, investments in “high-risk” technology platforms such as RNAi are likely to be cut. As we have discussed in this blog, and as is well-known to most of you, every Big Pharma company has been cutting R&D and shedding poorly productive and high-risk programs. The focus at many Big Pharmas is on fast, sure returns. High-risk or premature technologies that have not yet yielded any marketed drugs, such as RNAi (and for example, stem cells/regenerative medicine) is not likely to offer such returns.

Dr. Krieg also notes that in the case of another once-premature technology, monoclonal antibody (MAb) drugs, it took several waves of technology development to advance from repeated clinical failure to one of the most successful classes of drugs today. In our view, MAb technology is the classic case (in the life sciences, anyway) of how researchers and companies can take such a premature technology up the technology curve by developing enabling technologies. We discussed this case in our September 28, 2009 blog article, and its applicability to RNAi and stem cells in our July 13, 2009 blog article. As discussed in these articles, and as noted by Dr. Krieg, it was not Big Pharmas, but biotech companies “on the cutting edge” (together with academic labs) that advanced the therapeutic MAb field. Big Pharmas later bought into the MAb field, typically by large acquisitions. This is especially exemplified by the acquisition of MAb drug leader Genentech by Roche.

With respect to RNAi, as mentioned above, at least Merck and Novartis among the Big Pharmas are continuing with in-house RNAi therapeutics programs. And such biotechs as Alnylam, Silence Therapeutics, Quark Phamaceuticals, Dicerna, and Santaris have RNAi and/or microRNA-based drug candidates in clinical trials, often partnered with Big Pharma companies (such as Pfizer) that have cut or reduced their own RNAi drug programs. Therefore, there are companies that are working on advancing RNAi therapeutics up the technology curve. As Dr. Krieg says in his editorial, success in such programs will be expected to lead to Big Pharma reinvestment in RNAi/microRNA therapeutics, just as in the case of MAb drugs.