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Merck Jumps into Antibody-Drug Conjugates With Ambrx Deal

Merck today has jumped into what has become one of the hottest areas in oncology, antibody-drug conjugates, through a deal with San Diego-based Ambrx. Merck will pay $15 million upfront and up to $288 million in milestones for access to Ambrx’s site-specific protein conjugation technology.

Coincidentally, on the cover of today’s magazine, we take a look at the future of antibody-drug conjugate technology. Although people have been working on ADCs for three decades, interest in the approach has reached fever pitch after last year’s approval Seattle Genetics’ lymphoma drug Adcetris and the recent hubbub at ASCO over positive interim Phase III data for Genentech’s T-DM1.

The idea behind ADCs is simple: use a targeted antibody to deliver a highly potent chemotherapeutic to a cancer cell, sparing healthy cells. But current ADC technology has limitations. This week’s cover story looks at efforts to improve upon each component—the antibody, the small molecule, and the “linker” that connects the two.

Ambrx is focused on the antibody, using site specific protein conjugation technology to better control how many and where small molecules are placed on an antibody. Currently, companies manufacturing ADCs (most using technology from Seattle Genetics or ImmunoGen) wind up with a heterogenous product—each ADC has anywhere from zero to eight small molecules attached to the protein, but on average, 3.5 to four small molecule “payloads” linked. The placement of the payloads on the antibody also varies, leading to families of conjugates. As I explain in today’s story, even among the ADCs with four small molecules attached, some have all the cytotoxins clustered in one region, but they might be spread out on others.

Ambrx incorporates a nonnatural amino acid into the antibody to allow precise placement of the drug payload. As I explain:

Ambrx can insert p-acetyl-phenylalanine onto two sites of the antibody. The phenyl- alanine derivative has been modified to include a ketone that acts as a functional group for conjugation to the linker and small molecule.

Although Ambrx can attach more than two chemistry “handles” to the antibody, its studies have shown that two small molecules make the most sense. “You really want to be mindful about preserving the native structures and function of the antibody, while trying to optimize therapeutic activity,” says Chief Technology Officer Ho Cho. “The more you stray away from that, the more risks there are in drug development.”

The beauty of site-specific conjugation, researchers say, is that it allows them to me- thodically determine which ADC variety is the most active. “We can specifically attach whatever payload-linker combo we wish and do quantitative experiments to find out how it works,” Cho says. His team tests biophysical stability, pharmacokinetics, and efficacy to understand how much of the drug can be given before toxicity kicks in.

The ADCs in the current clinical pipeline are all to combat cancer, but Ambrx believes its site-specific conjugation technology will open the door to using ADCs in other therapeutic areas. As Cho told me, the heterogeneous nature of current ADCs has limited their use. “What we’re excited about is taking this into non-oncology indications,” Cho says. “We’ve started to generate some interesting pre-clinical data sets…This is where Ambrx really thinks the field is moving.”

It’s worth noting is that Ambrx was founded by Scripps Research Institute’s Peter Schultz, who Merck recently appointed head of Calibr, a San Diego-based non-profit funded by the big pharma firm that will act as a vehicle for academic scientists to turn their ideas into drug candidates. For more on Calibr, click here.

 

 

 

Epizyme & Celgene to Develop Epigenetics-Based Cancer Drugs

Cambridge, Mass.-based Epizyme has scored $90 million upfront as part of a broad cancer drug development pact with Celgene. The deal adds to a spate of lucrative pacts to find compounds to modulate epigenetic targets, or enzymes that control gene expression without altering the underlying DNA.

As we wrote in last week’s cover story, DNA carries the instructions for assembling all of life’s essential building blocks, but epigenetics dictates how and when that DNA is put to work. Recently, companies have made significant process in understanding the complex biology behind epigenetic processes, while also figuring out how to design compounds that can potently block epigenetic enzymes. With the science and business rationale for pursuing epigenetic targets dovetailing, big pharma and big biotech alike are forging deep ties with the handful of companies with expertise in the field.

Under the three-year deal announced today, Celgene has the right to opt-in to the ex-U.S. rights for any unencumbered histone methyl transferase program at Epizyme. Eisai currently has the rights to Epizyme’s EZH2 inhibitor, while GlaxoSmithKline has a deep collaboration with Epizyme against undisclosed targets that would be excluded from today’s pact with Celgene.

Epizyme says the partnership makes sense because Celgene shares “our vision in oncology and epigenetics,” says Epizyme’s president and CEO Robert J. Gould. “That’s been a fundamental bedrock of our partnering strategy–to partner with people who share our enthusiasm for this space.”

Indeed, Celgene has long played in the epigenetics space, boasting two of the four currently marketed drugs that act on epigenetic targets. However, Celgene’s drugs, Istadax and Vidaza, hit first-generation epigenetic targets. Epizyme’s activities, meanwhile, center on one of the next waves of epigenetic targets: a family of enzymes called histone methyltransferases (HMTs). Of the 96 members of that family, Epizyme has identified roughly 20 HMTs for which there is a clear link to a specific form of cancer, Gould says.  To date, the company has two compounds—the EZH2 inhibitor partnered with Eisai, and a DOT1L inhibitor—in preclinical studies. (Check out last week’s cover story on epigenetics for more on how Epizyme went about discovering those two compounds.)

Celgene is kicking off the pact by opting into the inhibitor of DOT1L, an HMT that is implicated in mixed lineage leukemia, a rare subtype of the blood cancer that the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society says affects about 1,500 new patients in the U.S. each year.

With each program thereafter that Celgene buys into, Epizyme could score up to $160 million in milestone payments.

The cash influx, coupled with the U.S. rights to the programs, “positions us nicely to maintain our independence, but also control our own future as a company,” Gould says. “We now have the runway to go pretty far with these programs.”

That independence is important aspect of Epizyme’s strategy of commercializing its cancer therapies in the U.S., a goal Gould says is attainable because HMT inhibitors will be used in highly specific, genetically-defined patient populations.

The Celgene deal also broadens Epizyme’s scientific horizons, Gould says. “This expands the depth of research we can do around histone methyl transferases specifically…but also gives us the opportunity to imagine what other approaches we might take that might be synergistic or additive to the HMT family.”

Gould is quick to note that in the near term, the company is focused on HMTs “until we prove these compounds are effective in these patients with genetically-defined cancer.”

Between its deals with GSK, Eisai, and Celgene, and its burgeoning pipeline, Epizyme will need to expand its operations. The current headcount stands at about 48, but Gould notes that going forward the small biotech will need to grow out its clinical development organization and, more modestly, its basic research activities.

 

 

 

Francis Collins At TEDMED – Repurposing Drugs, Replacing Animal Models, Rocking Out


You know you’re at an interesting conference when the director of the NIH starts off his presentation with a guitar duet, and shares a session with Cookie Monster.

But the organizers of TEDMED made a very deliberate decision in opening this year’s conference with Francis Collins. This is the first year that the gathering of medical luminaries, artists, and design gurus (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is taking place in Washington, DC, after moving from San Diego. It marks a philosophical shift for the organization, from TEDMED as idea incubator to TEDMED as inserting itself into the national conversation on health and medicine. What better way to do that then bringing in the head of the biggest biomedical funding agency?

Collins wants to compress the time it takes to get a drug development pipeline, and make the pipeline less leaky. This isn’t news to folks around the pharma blogosphere, including here at the Haystack, Ash at Curious Wavefunction and Derek Lowe, who’ve followed last year’s announcement of NIH’s venture for drug discovery, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

Folks have expressed some concerns about the concept, and its emphasis on the promise of gene-based drug discovery. But, as Derek noted, the fact of the matter is that everyone in drug discovery wants the things Collins wants, so there’s a measure of goodwill for the venture too.

Collins spent his time on the TEDMED stage emphasizing two things: drug repurposing and developing high-tech cellular solutions to supplement and replace often-imperfect animal models.

On the tech side, Collins showcased the Harvard-based Wyss Institute’s lung-on-a-chip, which combines tissue engineering and electronics to mimic the interface between the lung’s air sacs and capillaries (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1188302). He said that technologies like this suggest viable alternatives to animal testing are possible.

When New Scientist reported on the lung-on-a-chip in 2010, researchers praised it as a step in the right direction, but cautioned that immortalized cell lines, such as those on the chip, don’t neccesarily behave like primary cells from patients. Collins also noted that it might be possible to use such devices with patients’ own cells someday.

On the repurposing side, Collins cited an article on the topic in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery (DOI: 10.1038/nrd3473), and alluded to lonafarnib (SCH 66336), a farnesyltransferase inhibitor that was originally designed to be part of cancer-treatment cocktails. It didn’t pan out as a cancer drug, Collins said, but now clinical trials are underway to test whether the drug is effective at countering a rare mutation that causes Hutchinson-Guilford progeria, an ailment that leads to rapid aging in children. Collins shared the stage with 15-year-old Sam, a progeria patient.

Francis Collins (right) and Sam. (TEDMED)

To bridge the massive gap between ideas and applications in medicine “we need resources, we need new kinds of partnerships, and we need talent,” he told the audience.

In a conversation with reporters after his talk, Collins provided another repurposing story published last month– bexarotene, a retinoid X receptor agonist intended for lymphoma that was just shown to clear amyloid-beta and reverse cognitive deficits in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1217697)

At that chat, I asked Collins how the repurposing effort and his call for talent squares with massive layoffs in industry and flat or declining funding.
“It would help if we had a strong foundation of support,” Collins said. He said his agency’s purchasing power has decreased 20% over the last 8 years.

Another reporter asked what was the main obstacle to getting repurposing become habit. “IP,” Collins said. He told reporters that a model intellectual property sharing agreement with pharmaceutical companies has been drafted. Asked if companies had signed on to it, Collins said “we’re working on it.”

UPDATED 3:30PM 4/12: Here’s the scoop on Cookie Monster, for Muppet devotee Robin:
he spoke later in the session with ultramarathoner Scott Jurek about nutrition.

Scripps’ Schultz & Merck’s Kim Talk Calibr

Yesterday brought word of a new partnership between Merck & Co. and Scripps Research Institute chemist and biotech entrepreneur Peter Schultz. The two have launched the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr), a San Diego-based not-for-profit that will collaborate with academic investigators to bring drug discovery ideas to the point of proof-of-concept in animals. Merck has kicked in $90 million over seven years to help fund the venture, and will have an option to license any molecule that comes out of it.

C&EN’s news story with all the nitty-gritty details can be found here, but we wanted to follow up with some more insights into the formation of the institute gleaned from talks yesterday with Schultz and Merck’s R&D head Peter Kim.

A burning question I had was how the individual collaborations with academic researchers would be structured. Throughout my coverage of pharma-academia collaborations over the years (see here and here), I’ve repeatedly heard from big pharma that a major hang-up in doing more and better deals is the difference of opinion between the company and the university tech transfer office in the value of an early stage project. Drug companies will say a discovery needs a lot of work, done on their dime, and a university wants to ensure it gets its fair share of the potential sales of a drug.

One benefit of the not-for-profit as intermediary model is that the set up sidesteps what can quickly become contentious negotiations between universities and potential industry partners, Schultz says. “When it gets to a discussion between a university tech transfer office and big pharma, all of a sudden it’s ‘who’s taking advantage of whom’,” Schultz says. Conversely, “it’s really easy for people at, say, UCSF and Berkeley to collaborate.”

At Calibr, the collaboration begins at such an early stage in the discovery process that it offers a straightforward 50/50 split in any gains made down the road. “The whole idea of two not-for-profits with complementary skill sets in a collaboration is to make it simple and move things forward,” Schultz says.

Based on early conversations Schultz and others involved with Calibr have had with potential collaborators, that model seems satisfactory. “People get it,” he adds.

Another question was how quickly Calibr will move forward. Despite a lot of talk of eliminating red tape in some of the more ambitious pharma-academia collaborations, getting things up and running when two different flavors of bureaucracy are involved is no small task.

Schultz says that the first projects to come through Calibr will likely be a result of networking by the institute, its scientific advisory board, and Merck. He expects they will have the capacity to take on 15-20 projects within the first two years. Down the road, Schultz anticipates a more formal proposal process will be put in place.

Merck, meanwhile, believes this model will provide access to the best scientific discoveries out there. Many companies have formed broad collaborations with academic institutions: for example, Pfizer has a network of deep partnerships through its Centers for Therapeutic Innovation; J&J has an oncology pact with MIT’s David H. Koch Institute of Integrative Cancer Research; and AstraZeneca has a close relationship with several departments at Columbia University Medical Center.

That approach is not for Merck, Kim says. “We’re not interested in doing collaborations with entire institutions or departments, but rather we ask ‘Who is the best person in the world who we should be working with?’” he notes. “Calibr enhances that strategy and moves it to the next level. Essentially, any scientist anywhere in the world can tap into Calibr.”

As a side note, Merck’s participation in Calibr was made possible in no small part to the two scientists long-standing mutual admiration. They have known each other since the early 1980s, when Kim was a graduate student at Stanford and Schultz was an assistant professor at UC Berkeley. “There’s a very deep respect here and deep trust,” Kim says. “We’ve been friends–and competitors-for many years.”

 

 

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!

BARDA Bets on Boron to Bust Bacteria

GlaxoSmithKline recently announced a contract with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a US government preparedness organization (Note: it’s not often pharma-relevant press releases come from the Public Health Emergency website!). The award guarantees GSK $38.5 million over 2 years towards development of GSK2251052, a molecule co-developed with Anacor Pharma a few years back, as a counter-bioterrorism agent. The full funding amount may later increase to $94 million, pending BARDA’s future option.

The goal here is to develop “GSK ‘052”, as it’s nicknamed among med-chemists, into a new antibiotic against especially vicious and virulent Gram negative bacteria, such as the classic foes plague (Yersinia pestis) or anthrax (Bacillus anthracis).

So what’s so special about this molecule? Usually, med-chemists “color” with the same atomic “crayons”: some carbon, sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen, with a few halogens or transition metals every now and then (luckily, the golden age of mercury and arsenic therapies has largely passed on!). But seeing boron ensconced in a lead molecule rings alarm bells . . . you don’t usually see boron in pharmaceutical scaffolds!

Look closely at GSK’052 (shown above): that’s a boron heterocycle there! Anacor, a company specializing in boron based lead compounds, first partnered with GSK in 2007 to develop novel benzoxaborole scaffolds. This isn’t the first company to try the boron approach to target proteins; Myogenics (which, after several acquisitions, became Millennium Pharma) first synthesized bortezomib, a boronic acid peptide, in 1995.

Stephen Benkovic (a former Anacor scientific board member) and coworkers at Penn State first discovered Anacor’s early boron lead molecules in 2001, with a screening assay. The molecules bust bacteria by inhibiting  leucyl-tRNA synthetase, an enzyme that helps bacterial cells to correctly tag tRNA with the amino acid leucine. Compounds with cyclic boronic acids “stick” to one end of the tRNA, rendering the tRNA unable to cycle through the enzyme’s editing domain. As a result, mislabeled tRNAs pile up, eventually killing the bacterial cell.

Inhibition of synthetase function turns out to be a useful mechanism to conquer all sorts of diseases.  Similar benzoxaborozoles to GSK ‘052 show activity against sleeping sickness (see Trypanosoma post by fellow Haystack contributor Aaron Rowe), malaria, and various fungi.

Acne-Fighting Boron Compounds, Anacor, and Medicis

Two Anacor compounds in clinical development (Source: RSC)

Today biopharmaceutical company Anacor announced a partnership with Medicis to discover and develop small molecules to fight acne. Medicis brings its expertise in dermatology and aesthetics treatments to the table (it’s the company behind Juvederm, an injectable wrinkle filler). Meanwhile, Anacor’s mission is developing boron-containing drugs.

Now, you don’t see boron in drugs very often. The first boron-containing drug- Millenium’s Velcade, for multiple myeloma- was approved less than ten years ago. Derek Lowe has mused about why medicinal chemists may have been reticent to check out boron compounds.

But Anacor has built its company on boron chemistry. From its website:

Boron based compounds have a unique geometry that allows them to have two distinct shapes, giving boron based drugs the ability to interact with biological targets in novel ways and can address targets not amenable to intervention by traditional carbon based compounds.

So what’s this mean, exactly? It goes back to general chemistry. Boron has unusual bonding properties. Its outer electron shell, the most important one for chemical bonding, has only three electrons. If it makes three bonds to other atoms, it then has three pairs of electrons in its outer shell. That’s one pair short of what chemists typically consider stable. Still, these electron-deficient boron compounds tend to be pretty stable anyway. They have a flat shape to them chemists call trigonal planar.

But these flat boron compounds have the potential to take in two more electrons. When they come into contact with, say, an oxygen or nitrogen-containing compound rich in electrons, the boron compound forms a new bond, called a dative or coordinate covalent bond. And the molecule changes its shape from flat (trigonal planar) to tetrahedral. Those are the two distinct shapes Anacor is talking about. And the company has made a few chemical tweaks to control this type of boron reactivity.

Boron compounds can have two distinct shapes. (Source: RSC)

What’s this have to do with acne? Well, the entire story’s not exactly clear. But we do know that enzymes often use electron rich oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur motifs to do their business. And we know that Anacor’s antifungal in clinical trials, AN2690, gums up protein production with its distinctive bonding properties.

We also know acne isn’t a completely new area for Anacor. At a 2006 American Academy of Dermatology Conference Anacor presented a compound designed to kill Propionibacterium acnes, a rod-shaped bacterium linked to zits. These bacteria normally dwell on human skin but clogged pores swell their ranks, and the chemicals they secrete (like propionic acid, hence their name) lead to the inflammation and irritation typical of acne.

Antibacterials are already a common acne treatment. But the press release announcing the partnership doesn’t say whether the Anacor/Medicis acne target has to do with bacteria. We’ll surely hear more as the partnership progresses.

More reading: WebMD acne center
Boron-containing inhibitors of synthetases. Chem. Soc. Rev. DOI: 10.1039/c0cs00131g

Takeda Keeps On Truckin’ With Obesity Drug Research

This year’s additions to the pile of setbacks in the obesity drug arena are enough to make anybody wonder whether big pharma companies will continue to invest in the field (was it already two years ago that Pfizer exited obesity research entirely?!). But news today of a pact between Takeda and Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute suggests the Japanese drug maker is in it for the long haul.

Takeda’s agreement with Florida Hospital and Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute creates a partnership to evaluate potential new obesity drug targets.

Today’s deal is the latest in a string of obesity-related investments for Takeda. Haystack readers may recall that Takeda is Orexigen’s partner for the development of Contrave, the weight-loss drug that is awaiting a decision from FDA in the wake of a thumbs-up from the agency’s advisory panel. The company also has a stake in peptides from Amylin Pharmaceuticals as potential obesity treatments, and it is conducting clinical development in Japan for Alizyme’s lipase blocker cetilistat, a next-generation pill to Xenical (orlistat), the drug sold over-the-counter as alli.

Takeda’s interest in obesity makes sense given its strong history with type 2 diabetes drugs, a class with close ties to the obesity area. A quick look at Takeda’s pipeline is a whirlwind tour of diabetes drug targets, like glucokinase activators and dipeptidyl peptidase-4 inhibitors. The company has also discovered a protein, TGR5, that could be a target for drugs that mimic gastric bypass surgery‘s ability to control diabetes. And they are behind Actos, the well-known diabetes medication which shares its mechanism of action with Avandia. Unlike Avandia, Actos remains on the market, although FDA is currently investigating its safety.

Will Takeda’s strategy pay off? Time will tell- beginning with FDA’s official decision on Contrave by the end of January.

Haystack 2010 Year-In-Review

This Friday, we’re looking back at 2010′s big news in pharma and biotech, both the good and the bad. Check out our picks and be sure to weigh in on what you think we missed.

1. Provenge Approved

In April, Dendreon’s Provenge became the first approved cancer immunotherapy. Dendreon CEO Mitch Gold called it “the dawn of an entirely new era in medicine.” And while prostate cancer patients are excited for a new treatment option, the approval is perhaps most exciting for its potential to reignite interest in cancer immunotherapy research. There’s a lot of room for improving the approach—Provenge is, after all, expensive and highly individualized. Now that immunotherapy have been proven to work, there’s hope that the lessons learned in both its discovery and clinical development will aid scientists in inventing even better cancer vaccines.

2. Obesity Field Slims

The obesity drug race played out in dramatic fashion in 2010, with three biotech companies-Vivus, Arena, and Orexigen, each making their case for its weight-loss medication before FDA. As of this writing, Orexigen’s drug Contrave seems to be on the surest footing to approval, but longtime obesity-drug watchers know that caution seems to rule the day at FDA, so nothing is a sure bet.

Orexigen’s Contrave and Vivus’s Qnexa are both combinations of already-approved drugs, whereas Arena’s Lorqess is a completely new molecule. When C&EN covered the obesity race in 2009, it seemed that Lorqess (then going by the non-brand-name lorcaserin) had the cleanest safety profile, but Qnexa was best at helping patients lose weight.

But FDA’s panels didn’t always play out the way folks expected. There were safety surprises- notably the worries about tumors that cropped up in rats on high doses of Lorqess, and the extensive questioning about birth defect risks from one of the ingredients in Vivus’ Qnexa. The fact that FDA’s panel voted favorably for Orexigen’s Contrave, a drug that’s thought to have some cardiovascular risks, generated discussion because FDA pulled Abbott’s Meridia, a diet drug with cardiovascular risks, from the market in October.

The dust still hasn’t fully settled. Arena and Vivus received Complete Response Letters from FDA for Lorqess and Qnexa. Vivus has submitted additional documentation and a followup FDA meeting on Qnexa is happening in January. Also to come in January is the agency’s formal decision on Contrave. And if you’re interested in learning about the next wave of obesity drugs coming up in clinical trials, read this story in Nature News.

3. Sanofi & Genzyme: The Neverending Story

Speaking of drama, Sanofi’s pursuit of Genzyme has been in the headlines for months now, and promises to stretch well into 2011. The story goes something like this: Genzyme had a tumultuous year, as it struggled to correct the manufacturing issues that created product shortages and eventually led to a consent decree with FDA. In walked Sanofi, who offered—in a friendly way—to buy the company for $18.5 billion. Genzyme refused to consider what it viewed as a lowball offer. Weeks passed, they remained far apart on price with no signs of anyone budging, until Sanofi finally went hostile. Genzyme suggested it would be open to an option-based deal, which would provide more money later on if its multiple sclerosis drug candidate alemtuzumab reached certain milestones. Sanofi stuck to its $18.5 billion guns and is now trying to extend the time period to convince shareholders to consider its offer.

4. Final Stretch in HCV Race

This year, the industry finally got a peek at late-stage data for what are likely be the first drugs approved for Hepatitis C in more than two decades. Based on Phase III data, analysts think Vertex’s telaprevir will have an edge over Merck’s boceprevir once the drugs hit the market. Meanwhile, the next generation of HCV drugs had a bumpier year, with several setbacks in the clinic. Still, the flood of development in HCV has everyone hoping that eventually people with HCV can take a cocktail of pills, rather than the current harsh combination of interferon and ribavirin.

5. Pharma Covets Rare Diseases

Historically, research in rare diseases has been relegated to the labs of small biotechs and universities. But in 2010, big pharma firms suddenly noticed that if taken in aggregate, a pretty sizable chunk of the public—on the order of 6%–suffer from rare diseases. They also noticed that when there’s a clear genetic culprit, drug discovery is a bit more straightforward. Further, rare disease can sometimes be a gateway to approval in larger indications, making them all the more appealing. With that, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline both launched rare diseases units and made a series of acquisitions and licensing deals (Pfizer/FoldRxGSK/AmicusGSK/Isis, etc) to accelerate their move into the space. Meanwhile, Sanofi is trying to jump in with both feet through its proposed acquisition of Genzyme.

6. MS Pill Approved

Novartis gained approval in September for Gilenya, the first treatment for multiple sclerosis that is a pill rather than an injection. In even better news for people with MS, there more pills are rounding the corner towards FDA approval: Sanofi’s teriflunomide, Teva’s laquinimod, and Biogen’s BG-12. All of these drugs come with safety caveats, but the idea of new treatment options after years depending on interferons has gotten everyone in the MS field pretty excited.

7. Antibody-Drug Conjugates Prove Their Mettle

The concept of linking a powerful chemo drug to a targeted antibody, thereby creating something of a heat-seeking missile to blast tumor cells, isn’t new. But antibody-drug conjugate technology has finally matured to a point where it seems to be, well, working. Seattle Genetics presented very positive results from mid-stage studies of SGN-35 in two kinds of lymphoma. And ImmunoGen provided clear data showing its drug T-DM1 could significantly minimize side effects while taking down breast cancer.

8. Pharma Forges Further into Academia

With nearly every pharma firm paring back internal research, the focus on external partnerships has never been greater. Broad deals with universities are becoming more common, and Pfizer has arguably gone the furthest to evolve the model for working with academic partners. In May, Pfizer announced a pact with Washington University under which the academic scientists will look for new uses for Pfizer drug candidates. As part of the deal, they gain unprecedented access to detailed information on Pfizer’s compound library. And last month, Pfizer unveiled the Center of Therapeutic Innovation, a network of academic partnerships intended to bridge the “valley of death,” between early discovery work and clinical trials. The first partner is University of California, San Francisco, which scores $85 million in funding over five years, and the network will eventually be comprised of seven or eight partners, worldwide. Most notable is that Pfizer is planting a lab with a few dozen researchers adjacent to the UCSF campus to facilitate the scientific exchange.

9. Finally, New Blood Thinners

This year saw the FDA approval of a viable alternative to coumadin (aka warfarin), a 50-plus-year-old workhorse blood thinner that interacts with many foods and herbal supplements.

Boehringer’s Pradaxa (dabigatran) got a unanimous thumbs-up from an FDA panel for preventing stroke in patients with a common abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation. FDA approved the drug in October. The next new warfarin alternative to be approved could be Xarelto (rivaroxaban), which has had favorable results in recent Phase III clinical trials, as David Kroll over at Terra Sig explained. Both Xarelto and Pradaxa had already been approved for short term use outside the US.

Rivaroxaban and dabigatran work at different stages of the biochemical cascade that leads to clotting, as we illustrated here. Another drug candidate in the warfarin-alternative pipeline is BMS’s and Pfizer’s apixaban. Check out coverage of apixaban trials here and at Terra Sig. And in a separate blood-thinner class, FDA today rejected Brilinta, a possible competitor to mega-blockbuster Plavix.

10. Alzheimer’s Progress & Setbacks

Alzheimer’s disease has been a tough nut to crack, and news in 2010 has done little to dispel this reputation. This year Medivation’s Dimebon, which started life as a Russian antihistamine and showed some promise against Alzheimer’s, tanked in its first late-stage clinical trial. Later in the year, Eli Lilly halted development of semagacestat after the compound actually worsened cognition in Alzheimer’s patients. Semagacestat targeted the enzyme gamma-secretase, and the New York Times and other outlets reported the news as shaking confidence into a major hypothesis about what causes Alzheimer’s and how to treat it– the amyloid hypothesis.

But not everyone agreed with that assertion. Take Nobel Laureate Paul Greengard, who told C&EN this year (subscription link) that semagacestat’s troubles may have been due to the drug’s incomplete selectivity for gamma-secretase.

This year Greengard’s team discovered a potential way to sidestep the selectivity issue, by targeting a protein that switches on gamma-secretase and steers it away from activities that can lead to side effects. Greengard thinks the amyloid hypothesis is very much alive. But the final word on the amyloid hypothesis will come from trial results in next year and beyond, for drugs such as BMS-708163, Bristol Myers Squibb’s gamma-secretase inhibitor.

11. Avandia (Barely) Hangs On

Avandia was once the top selling diabetes medication in the world, but in 2010 long-running rumblings about the drug’s cardiovascular risks reached fever pitch. By the fall, Avandia was withdrawn from the European Union market and heavily restricted in the US.

Avandia (rosiglitazone) helps diabetics control their blood sugar levels by making cells more responsive to insulin. Widespread scrutiny of Avandia dates back to 2007, when a study led by Vioxx-whistleblower and Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Steve Nissen suggested Avandia increased the risk of heart attacks. In February 2010, a leaked government report that recommended Avandia be pulled from the market made headlines. In July, an FDA advisory panel voted on what to do about Avandia, and the results were a mixed bag, with most panel members voting either to pull the drug entirely or add severe restrictions. In the end, FDA sided with the “restrict” panelists- Avandia is still on the market, but it can only be prescribed to patients who can’t control their blood sugar with a first-line medication.

Clearly, researchers still have a lot to learn about how the drugs in Avandia’s class work. But we enjoyed reading Derek Lowe’s self-characterized rant about just how much effort has been put in so far. Among several other drugs in Avandia’s class, Rezulin (troglitazone) was pulled from the market many years ago because of adverse effects on the liver, but Actos (pioglitazone) remains on the market and appears to be safe.

12. Executive Musical Chairs

The year after a trio of mega-mergers and at a time when patent losses are piling up, drug companies shook up their management. The most notable changes came at Pfizer: First, the company abandoned its two-headed approach to R&D leadership and picked Michael Dolsten, former head of R&D at Wyeth, to lead research. Martin Mackay, Pfizer’s head of R&D, meanwhile jumped ship to lead R&D at AstraZeneca. Then, in a move that took everyone by surprise, Pfizer’s CEO Jeff Kindler suddenly stepped down and Ian Reade took over. At, Merck, president Kenneth Frazier will take over as CEO in January;  Richard T. Clark will stay on as chairman of Merck’s board. And just this week, Sanofi-Aventis saidformer NIH director Elias Zerhouni would replace Marc Cluzel as head of R&D, while Merck KGaA appointed Stefan Oschmann as head of pharmaceuticals. Oschmann comes on from Merck & Co., where he was president of emerging markets.

In the biotech world, the most notable shift came in June, when George Scangos moved over from leading Exelixis totake the top job at Biogen Idec.

13. RNAi Rollercoaster

The year has been a tumultuous one for RNAi technology. Leaders in siRNA technology are experiencing growing pains as they try to turn promising science into commercialized products. Alnylam, arguably the best-known and biggest player in the RNAi arena, laid off 25% of its staff after Novartis decided not to extend its pact with Alnylam. Things only got worse when Roche announced it was exiting RNAi research, a move that hit its development partners Alnylam and Tekmira. Roche seemed to be primarily worried about delivery, an issue that is holding the field back from putting more RNAi-based therapeutics into the clinic.

But it’s not all bad news: the year brought a spate of big-ticket deals for companies developing other kinds of RNAi technology. GSK signed on to use Isis Pharmaceuticals’ antisense technology, which uses single-stranded rather than double-stranded oligonucleotides. And Sanofi entered into a pact with Regulus, the microRNA joint venture between Isis and Alnylam, worth $740 million. Further, Isis and Genzyme made some progress with mipomersen, the cholesterol drug developed using Isis’ antisense technology.

14. Revival of Interest in Cancer Metabolism

In cancer research, the old was new again in 2010, with a flurry of publications about depriving cancer cells of their energy source by taking advantage of quirks in their metabolism. That idea has been around since the 1920′s- when German biochemist Otto Warburg noticed differences in how cancer cells and normal cells deal with glucose. This year, Celgene handed over $130 million upfront for access to any cancer drugs that come out of Massachusetts biotech Agios Pharmaceuticals’ labs. One target in Agios’s crosshairs is an enzyme involved in glucose metabolism- pyruvate kinase M2. In addition to the Celgene/Agios deal, we noted that AstraZeneca and Cancer Research UK are in a three-year pact related to cancer metabolism, and the technology behind GlaxoSmithKline’s much-talked-about $720 million purchase of Sirtris has to do with depriving cells of energy.

15. More Job Cuts

Not to end this list on a sour note, but it wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the ongoing narrative of layoffs and retooling at drug companies. This year brought brutal cuts at AstraZeneca, GSK, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Abbott, along with the widespread and ongoing layoffs at Pfizer and Merck. Several features in C&EN looked at the impact the cuts are having on chemists:

How some laid-off pharma chemists migrate to new careers

How academic programs are adapting

And the views from the ground in New England and California, two hotbeds of pharma/biotech (hint- it ain’t pretty).

For more jobs insight, join the discussions happening with Chemjobber and Leigh aka Electron Pusher, and check out their chemistry jobs blog roundtable, which just wrapped today.