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GSK’s R&D Review: Successes & Lessons Learned

Three years after reorganizing its discovery research activities into small, multi-disciplinary units, GlaxoSmithKline is providing a first peek at how its new approach to R&D is faring. A healthy chunk of its year-end earnings presentation yesterday was devoted to discussing the productivity of its research engine, and what can be expected out of its labs in the next three years.

As we described, the goal of its 2008 revamp was to create a biotech-like, entrepreneurial feel within the walls of a big pharma firm:

After being one of the first drug companies to create research hubs, or what it calls “centers of excellence in drug discovery,” GSK last year created “discovery performance units” (DPUs) within each hub. Each of the 38 DPUs operating now has a multidisciplinary team of up to 60 scientists focusing on a therapeutic area, a disease pathway, or some aspect of basic biology.

GSK also formed a “discovery investment board” that makes funding decisions for the research projects in each DPU. The idea is to bring diverse perspectives on the merits of each project: In addition to [GSK R&D head] Slaoui, the board includes a biotech company CEO, a senior public health official, and GSK’s heads of drug discovery, late-stage development, and business development.

DPUs are intended to operate like a biotech company housed in a big pharma firm. Much as a biotech gets funded by venture capitalists, a DPU receives an initial bolus of money and then extra cash when certain project goals are met. Each DPU had an initial review after a year of operation and will undergo another review this month, the 18-month check point. The board meets a last time at the three-year mark.

GSK says there are clear signs that the DPU approach is working. Although the company is spending less on R&D and has raised the bar for moving a drug candidate into late-stage development, it has increased the number of molecules in its late-stage pipeline, Patrick Vallance, GSK’s president of R&D told the Haystack. Under the new R&D regime, 22 molecules have moved into late-stage development, and Vallance wants to see 30 molecules pushed forward in the next three years.

And in what Vallance believes is a sign that scientists are becoming more ambitious and attempting to do genuinely novel early research, roughly 17 publications in came out of GSK’s labs last year. Prior to the DPU approach, basically no papers were being submitted to prestigious journals, he says.

The board, which had its final review in November, decided to shut down three DPUs, and create four new DPUs. Funding for six existing DPUs was upped by more than 20%, while five units saw funding decrease by more than 20%. Overall, 40 DPUs were funded for the next three-year cycle, with a budget that has remained unchanged.

So what has GSK learned at the end of three years? On a practical level, reviewing all projects on the same schedule “is just too complicated,” Vallance says.

And the largest DPUs, which had 60 to 70 scientists, need scaling back in order to maintain their focus, he says. “What some of those units did was filled the activity to meet the number of people rather than the size of the opportunity,” he says. And the number of scientists needed for a DPU is entirely project dependent, “I do think there is an upper limit, beyond which the returns become diminishing,” he adds. “When you get above 60, I don’t think you see more, I think you see less.”

The review process also brought some surprises. Some DPU heads told the board “we don’t think you should reinvest,” either because the project didn’t get as far as originally planned or the scientific problem turned out to be different than they expected, Vallance says. “The confidence of people to say, ‘This isn’t right, cut it and move on to something else,’ was a positive surprise.”

Leaders also came from unexpected places. Vallance points to the case of a bench chemist who came before the board with a proposal for a DPU that was so strong that not only did the project get funded, but the chemist is now heading it up.

Other big phama firms surely keeping a close watch on how GSK fares—and how investors respond to their pipeline progress. Since GSK unveiled the model in 2008, several others have adopted similar strategies.

*story amended on 2/9/12: Patrick Vallance is currently president of R&D for GSK.

Pharma & Biotech Job Cuts Mount in 2012

For those keeping track, yesterday’s layoffs at AstraZeneca add to an already substantial list of cuts in the pharma and biotech industries since the beginning of the year. By our tally, nearly 13,000 job cuts, many in R&D, have been announced so far–and we’re barely into February. Here’s where we’re at (and do let us know if we’ve missed any):

–AstraZeneca is chopping 7,300 jobs, including 2,200 R&D positions, by 2014. Neuroscience research is being revamped and focused on external partnerships; the company’s Montreal R&D site will be shuttered, and research activities ended at its Södertälje site in Sweden.

–Genzyme gave the pink slip to an unspecified number of R&D scientists this week. The layoffs come as Sanofi integrates its big biotech acquisition.

–Alnylam is trimming 61 jobs, or 33% of its workforce, in order to save roughly $20 million this year.

–BioSante Pharmaceuticals is shedding 25% of its staff, or 21 employees and contractors, after disappointing Phase III results for its female sexual dysfunction treatment LibiGel.

–Takeda is axing 2,800 jobs, or 9% of its workforce, following its acquisition of Swiss drugmaker Nycomed. The bulk of the layoffs, which cut across R&D, commercial, operations, and administrative positions, will occur in Europe.

–Novartis unveiled plans to shed some 1,960 positions in the U.S. as it braces for generic competition for Diovan, a blood pressure medicine that brought in more than $6 billion in 2010, and an expected drop in demand for its renin inhibitor Rasilez following questions about the drug’s safety.

–Human Genome Sciences said it would cut 150 jobs, or about 14% of its workforce, in a move that affects manufacturing, R&D, and administrative activities.

–Xoma is shedding 84 workers, or 34% of its staff, as it shifts to outsourcing late-stage and commercial manufacturing, as well as some research.

–SkyePharma is cutting 20% of the 101 employees at its site in Muttenz, Switzerland.

–Sanofi plans to layoff 100 workers at its Monteal site as part of an overhaul of its Canadian operations.

–J&J will trim 126 workers as it closes its Monreal R&D center.


Celgene & Avila Forge Permanent Ties

Today brought a spate of M&A activity in the biotech space, with Amgen unveiling a $1.2 billion bid for Micromet, and Celgene agreeing to pay up to $925 million for Avila Therapeutics. Both deals brought the acquirer a drug in development to treat blood cancers, while also adding a platform technology to their research engines.

Being all about the chemistry, The Haystack is particularly interested in the Celgene/Avila deal, which involves covalent drug development technology. Celgene is paying $350 million upfront, with the promise of up to $195 million more if Avila’s lead covalent drug candidate, AVL-292, reaches the market. Pushing other covalent drugs through the pipeline could garner Avila shareholders another $380 million.

So what is a covalent drug, anyway? As C&EN’s Lila Guterman described last fall, covalent drugs form a permanent link with their target. By comparison, most conventional drugs are designed to reversibly bind to their targets—in other words, they can stick and “un-stick” to a protein.

The beauty of a covalent drug is that its specificity and potency means it can be given in low doses. As Guterman explains, patients only be given enough of the drug for molecule to reach each target protein molecule, and then another dose only when the body has generated more of that target protein. The low dose means less potential for drug-drug interactions and off-target effects.

Indeed, for years, scientists avoided developing covalent drugs out of fear that serious toxicity will arise if a covalent drug happens to permanently stick itself to the wrong protein. Check out Guterman’s piece for a cautionary toxicity tale from none other than “Rule-of-Five” inventor (and former Pfizer researcher) Christopher Lipinski.

The current generation of covalent drugs, however, is designed to assuage those fears through their highly selective and weakly reactive nature. Avila isn’t the only one banking on better molecular design leading to successful drugs: Zafgen’s obesity drug candidate ZGN433 also covalently binds to its target, an approach that—if it works—could enable it to sidestep the side effect issues that have plagued the obesity drug space.

So are these covalent drugs worth the price tag? Avila’s pipeline is relatively young, meaning there isn’t a lot of data to go on: AVL-292 is in Phase I studies in lymphomas; a compound targeting mutant EGFR is also in Phase I trials; meanwhile, two Hepatitis C drug candidates in preclinical studies. The company has also made public preclinical date on its PI3Kα-selective inhibitor (the same target as Intellikine’s INK1117, one of the drivers behind Takeda’s $190 million acquisition of Intellikine.).

The HCV Combo Race Just Got Hotter

BMS is shelling out $2.5 billion dollars for Inhibitex, a small pharma company with a Phase II molecule for treatment of Hepatitis C (HCV). The deal adds to the scramble for HCV assets in recent months, with Gilead agreeing to pay almost $11 billion for Pharmasset in November, and Roche’s recent purchase of Anadys. While much has been written about the merits (and price tags) of each deal, the Haystack thought it was worth taking a closer look at the chemical composition of the multi-million dollar molecules.

So what did BMS get for their money?

INX-089, Inhibitex’s lead molecule, has a common antiviral motif: a nucleoside core (the 5-membered ring sugar attached to a nitrogen heterocycle) with an amino acid based prodrug hanging off the left-hand side. Clinically-tested antivirals sharing this basic setup include IDX-184 and NM-283, both from Idenix, and PSI-352938, from Pharmasset  (For an overview of the varied structures currently in development for HCV, see Lisa’s 2010 C&EN story).

INX-089 bears a close resemblance to Pharmasset’s lead nucleotide inhibitor PSI-7977. That’s not a mistake, believes ‘089 discoverer Chris McGuigan, of the Welsh School of Pharmacy. In a recent article (J. Med. Chem. 2010, 53, 4949), McGuigan himself comments “The Pharmasset nucleoside [is] rather parallel to our early work on anti-HIV ProTides.”

Wait, what are ProTides?

Both INX-089 and PSI-7977 aren’t themselves the active viral inhibitor, but phosphoramidate “ProTide” prodrugs: compounds broken down by the body into the active drug (Chem Note: PSI-7977 has single-enantiomer Sp chirality at phosphorus, while INX-189 is a mixture of diastereomers).

Once in the body, enzymes cleave the phosphoramidate group to a phosphate (PO42-). Kinases attach two more phosphate groups, and viruses let this dressed-up molecule inside, where the nucleotide warhead inhibits HCV by interfering with RNA replication (Antimicrob. Agents Chemother. 2011, 55, 1843).

A few comments on the drug itself: The similarity of the ProTide portion (left-hand side) of the molecule to PSI-7977 really is striking: swap in an isobutyl ester and a phenyl, and it’s the same beast! The more interesting switch comes on the upper-right (“eastern”) part of the structure: a protected guanosine ring. This ring harks back to guanine, one of the four common nucleic acids found in DNA.

Source: J. Med. Chem., Pharmasset

PSI-7977, meanwhile, shows off a uracil, a nucleic acid found in RNA, not DNA.

Although it’s tempting to think such similar compounds all dock into the NS5B polymerase at the active site (in the yellow “palm” of the hand-shaped enzyme), don’t be too sure – a recent paper by Pharmasset scientists (J. Med. Chem. 2012, Just Accepted) shows quite a few “Finger,” “Palm,” and “Thumb” sites.  It’s not yet clear whether all nucleoside drugs bind to the active site in the same way. The authors also remark that, due to fast replication and mutation, potentially resistant strains of HCV pop up daily.

Haystack 2011 Year-in-Review

Well, 2011 is in the books, and we here at The Haystack felt nostalgic for all the great chemistry coverage over this past year, both here and farther afield. Let’s hit the high points:

1. HCV Takes Off – New treatments for Hepatitis C have really gained momentum. An amazing race has broken out to bring orally available, non-interferon therapies to market. In October, we saw Roche acquire Anadys for setrobuvir, and then watched Pharmasset’s success with PSI-7977 prompt Gilead’s $11 billion November buyout.  And both these deals came hot on the heels of Merck and Vertex each garnering FDA approval for Victrelis and Incivek, respectively, late last spring.

2. Employment Outlook: Mixed – The Haystack brought bad employment tidings a few times in 2011, as Lisa reported. The “patent cliff” faced by blockbuster drugs, combined with relatively sparse pharma pipelines, had companies tightening their belts more than normal. Traffic also increased for Chemjobber Daily Pump Trap updates, which cover current job openings for chemists of all stripes. The highlight, though, might be his Layoff Project.  He collects oral histories from those who’ve lost their jobs over the past few years due to the pervasive recession and (slowly) recovering US economy.. The result is a touching, direct, and sometimes painful collection of stories from scientists trying to reconstruct their careers, enduring salary cuts, moves, and emotional battles just to get back to work.

3. For Cancer, Targeted Therapies – It’s also been quite a year for targeted cancer drugs. A small subset of myeloma patients (those with a rare mutation) gained hope from vemurafenib approval. This molecule, developed initially by Plexxikon and later by Roche / Daiichi Sankyo, represents the first success of fragment-based lead discovery, where a chunk of the core structure is built up into a drug with help from computer screening.From Ariad’s promising  ponatinib P2 data for chronic myeloid leukemia, to Novartis’s Afinitor working in combination with aromasin to combat resistant breast cancer. Lisa became ‘xcited for Xalkori, a protein-driven lung cancer therapeutic from Pfizer. Researchers at Stanford Medical School used GLUT1 inhibitors to starve renal carcinomas of precious glucose, Genentech pushed ahead MEK-P31K inhibitor combinations for resistant tumors, and Incyte’s new drug Jakifi (ruxolitinib), a Janus kinase inhibitor, gave hope to those suffering from the rare blood cancer myelofibrosis.

4. Sirtuins, and “Stuff I Won’t Work With  – Over at In the Pipeline, Derek continued to chase high-profile pharma stories. We wanted to especially mention his Sirtris / GSK coverage (we had touched on this issue in Dec 2010). He kept up with the “sirtuin saga” throughout 2011, from trouble with duplicating life extension in model organisms to the Science wrap-up at years’ end. Derek also left us with a tantalizing tidbit for 2012 – the long-awaited “Things I Won’t Work With” book may finally be coming out!

5. Active Antibacterial Development – In the middle of 2011, several high-profile and deadly bacterial infections (Germany, Colorado, among others) shined a spotlight on those companies developing novel antibacterials. We explored front -line antibiotics for nasty Gram-negative E.coli, saw FDA approval for Optimer’s new drug Fidiclir (fidaxomicin) show promise against C. difficile  and watched Anacor’s boron-based therapeutics advance into clinical testing for acne, and a multi-year BARDA grant awarded to GSK and Anacor to develop antibacterials against bioterrorism microorganisms like Y. pestis.

6. Obesity, Diabetes, and IBS – Drugs for metabolic disorders have been well-represented in Haystack coverage since 2010. Both Carmen and See Arr Oh explored the vagaries of Zafgen’s ZGN-433 structure, as the Contrave failure threatened to sink obesity drug development around the industry. Diabetes drugs tackled some novel mechanisms and moved a lot of therapies forward, such as Pfizer’s SGLT2 inhibitors, and Takeda’s pancreatic GPCR agonist. Ironwood and Forest, meanwhile, scored an NDA for their macrocyclic peptide drug, linaclotide.

7. The Medicine Show: Pharma’s Creativity Conundrum – In this piece from October, after Steve Jobs’ passing, Forbes columnist Matt Herper both eulogizes Jobs and confronts a real ideological break between computer designers and drug developers. His emphasis? In biology and medical fields, “magical thinking” does not always fix situations as it might in computer development.

We hope you’ve enjoyed wading through the dense forest of drug development with Carmen, Aaron, Lisa, and See Arr Oh this past year. We here at The Haystack wish you a prosperous and healthy 2012, and we invite you to come back for more posts in the New Year!

ARIAD Presents PACE Data; Provides Potential Gleevec Backup

Sufferers of chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), a rare and tough-to-treat blood cancer, received some good news at the 2011 Americanponatinib Society of Hematology meeting in San Diego this week. On Monday, ARIAD Pharmaceuticals disclosed new results from the Phase 2 PACE trial of its lead drug ponatinib (AP24534). The data (covered by FierceBiotech, Xconomy, and TheStreet), indicate major responses to the drug in ~40% of recipients, even in advanced or refractory (resistant to treatment) CML .

With these numbers in hand, ARIAD enters a tight race, already populated by headliners like Gleevec (imatinib), which in 2001 made a splash as a first-line CML therapy. Drugs such as Gleevec and ponatinib belong to the family of tyrosine kinase (TK) inhibitors, which dock with a mutated protein called Bcr-Abl. This protein (actually a fusion of two distinct proteins via a chromosomal mishap) triggers disease by accelerating blood cell creation, leading to uncontrolled growth and eventually CML.

imatinibSince cancers constantly evolve, new mutations in the TK active site had rendered Gleevec ineffective for certain variations of CML. Many of the PACE trial patients had previously tried newer TK inhibitors, such as Sprycel (dasatinib, BMS) and Tasigna (nilotinib, Novartis), and found that their CML had become resistant due to a single amino acid mutation in the kinase active site, which swapped a polar residue (threonine) for a carbon chain (isoleucine). So, ARIAD chemists decided to develop a drug that borrowed the best points from the earlier therapies, but capitalized on this mutation (A pertinent review in Nature Chemical Biology covers early examples of “personalized” cancer drugs developed for disease variants).

So, how did they accomplish this particular act of molecular kung-fu?  For that, we hit up the literature and go all the way back to . . . 2010. As explained in a development round-up (J. Med. Chem., 2010, 53, 4701), most approved Bcr-Abl inhibitors share several traits: densely-packed nitrogen heterocycles linked to a toluyl (methyl-phenyl) amide, then a highly polar end group, such as piperazine or imidazole. Since the mutation axed a threonine residue, the hydrogen-bond donor adjacent to the ring in earlier drugs was no longer necessary. So, chemists replaced it with a vinyl group.

A computer analysis designed to achieve better binding and drug-like properties suggested an alkyne linker might fit into the mutated active site even better than a vinyl group, so that’s ultimately what ARIAD installed. The program also suggested moving an exocyclic amino group into the aromatic (forming an uncommon imiadzo-[1,2-b]-pyridazine, green in picture). Borrowing the best stuff from other therapies, ARIAD’s chemists also wove in the “flipped” amide and -CF3 motifs (both blue) from nilotinib, as well as the methylpiperazine (red) from imatinib.Binding overlay

With computational rendering (Cancer Cell, 2009, 16, 401) ARIAD scientists could overlay both imatinib and ponatinib in the mutated enzyme’s active site (see picture, right). Notice that unlike imatinib, ponatinib avoids bumping into isoleucine 315. Ponatinib also gets a little extra binding oomph by poking its CF3 group into a hydrophobic pocket near the bottom of the active site.

Using Gene Expression Patterns to Repurpose Drugs

Late last month, researchers from many different fields gathered at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, to discuss the benefits of open science and data sharing. One of the best talks from that event, the Open Science Summit, was delivered by Joel Dudley, the co-founder of NuMedii, a firm that aims to find new indications for medications.

Dudley has repeatedly found new uses for old drugs by picking through public data sets about the gene expression profiles of different diseases. He then looks for medications that are known to reverse those profiles.

Much of the data that Dudley uses comes from the Gene Expression Omnibus, which he regards as a gold mine.

Life Sciences in the Era of Big Data from Open Science Summit on FORA.tv

A full list of videos from the Open Science Summit is also available.

Biogen Idec Reveals Clinical Data for (Really) Small Oral MS Drug BG-12

Biogen Idec made a splash last week when its oral medication for multiple sclerosis (MS), BG-12, was found to reduce relapses in 44-53% of nearly 3,800 patients in two separate Phase 3 clinical trials (CONFIRM and DEFINE, respectively). Continued hopes for an orally available, non-injectable MS treatment have created a race between Biogen Idec and several other firms, as C&EN’s Lisa Jarvis examines in a 2009 MS cover story. In fact, so much has changed in 2 years that two of the six Phase 3 drugs mentioned in that article – Teva’s laquinimod and Merck’s cladribine – have already been withdrawn from competition.

So what’s the secret sauce behind BG-12? Many pharmaceuticals are small molecules with multiple heteroatoms and aromatic rings, but not BG-12: it’s just dimethyl fumarate! A search for ‘fumarate’ on pubs.acs.org returned >4800 hits, which gives you an idea of its common use in several organic reactions: [3+2] cycloadditions, Diels-Alder reactions, and Michael additions. Interestingly, dimethyl fumarate is the all-E stereoisomer; the Z-configuration, where the two esters are on the same side of the central double bond, goes by the tagline ‘dimethyl maleate’ and does not seem to possess anti-MS effects.

Very small molecules such as BG-12 (molecular weight = 144) are notoriously tough to use as drugs: they hit lots of enzymatic targets, not just the intended ones, and tend to have unpredictable side effects (see Derek Lowe’s 2005 article regarding the FDA “approvability” of several common drugs today). Toss in BG-12’s alkylating behavior to boot (fumarates can interact with nucleophilic amines or sulfides at multiple sites, including enzyme active sites), and you have to wonder how it functions in the body. Well, so do scientists. A 2011 review implicates up to 3 potential biochemical mechanisms – the Nrf2 pathway Lisa mentioned in the 2009 piece, T-helper phenotype 2 interleukin upregulation (IL-4, IL-10, IL-5, which “change gears” for immune system functioning), and CD62E inhibition, which controls adhesion of blood cells to inflammation sites.

Side notes: Flavoring chemists have added fumaric acid, the parent diacid of BG-12, to industrially-prepared foodstuffs such as baking powder and fruit juices since the 1930s. A darker side of dimethyl fumarate emerges when you consider its non-medicinal use: certain furniture companies applied it to new upholstered chairs and sofas to stop mold growth. This unfortunately caused several cases of severe skin irritation, which a 2008 exposé in London’s Daily Mail likened to actual burns.