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...

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Two HCV Meds are Better than One for Pharmasset
Oct05

Two HCV Meds are Better than One for Pharmasset

An announcement hinting at the possibility of an all-oral hepatitis C treatment had researchers abuzz last week. Pharmasset, a Princeton, NJ company specializing in antiviral discovery, alluded to upcoming conference data that suggested a combination of ribavirin (a generic antiviral) and Pharmasset’s experimental pill PSI-7977 lowered viral counts to near-undetectable levels in a ten-patient trial (kudos to Adam Feuerstein of The Street for initial reports. . . here at The Haystack, editor Lisa Jarvis has also tracked HCV drug development for some time now). Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a chronic liver virus with an estimated 180 million infected worldwide. Two relatively new extermination options are available: Merck’s Victrelis (boceprevir) and Vertex’s Incivek (telaprevir), approved by the FDA ten days apart last year. Unfortunately, though both drugs are administered orally, each requires co-administration of injected interferon, which can cause severe fatigue and flu-like symptoms. Both oral drugs inhibit the same enzyme: the NS3 protease, which drags down a patient’s immunity and helps the virus to produce new copies of its proteins. In contrast, the ribavirin and PSI-7977 combination involves no injections, making it easier for patients to follow the appropriate medication schedule, and lessening side effects. The PSI compound also clips a different target: NS5B polymerase, an RNA enzyme that helps viral genetic replication. In addition, the PSI-7977 is “pan-genotypic,” meaning it inhibits several genetically different strains of HCV.  A 2010 article (J. Med. Chem. 2010, 53, 7202) details the full story of PSI-7977’s synthesis. Notice anything interesting? It’s really a nucleotide strapped on to a P-chiral prodrug, a “protected” substance the body later converts to the active drug species. This P-chiral motif is seen more often in asymmetric phosphine ligands (compounds that stick to metal catalysts during reactions to modify catalyst activity) than in drug development – often chemists install drug chirality at carbon or sulfur instead. The initial drug lead was actually a mixture of both phosphorus enantiomers (“Sp” and “Rp”), until process chemists realized they could selectively crystallize out the more potent “Sp” product. In the meantime, Pharmasset scientists haven’t stopped pushing their HCV portfolio forward: a recent paper (J. Org. Chem., 2011, 76, 3782) details a new lead: PSI-352938, a cyclic phosphate prodrug attached to a purine-fluororibose nucleotide warhead. The team credits this new prodrug design with a 10-100-fold increase in potency over the “naked” adenine drug for NS5B RNA polymerase inhibition. PSI-352938 recently completed a multiple ascending dose Phase I trial, in which a daily 200 mg dose brought HCV titres down below the detection limit in 5 of 8 patients.     ...

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Merck Seals Hepatitis C Pact with Roche

Merck is going bare knuckles in the marketing battle for Hepatitis C patients. Just days after receiving FDA approval to market its protease inhibitor boceprevir, now known as Victrelis, it revealed Roche has signed on to co-promote the drug alongside its pegylated interferon drug Pegasys, a cornerstone of HCV treatment. Competition in the HCV arena is expected to be fierce, as Vertex Pharmaceuticals is expected to get the FDA nod to market its own protease inhibitor for HCV telaprevir, to be marketed as Incivek, no later than Monday. Both the Merck and Vertex drugs will need to be taken in combination with the current standard of care, pegylated interferon and ribavirin. Although the two drugs have never gone head to head in the clinic, telaprevir is widely considered to have a better dosing regimen and a slight safety and efficacy edge over Victrelis. As such, analysts have believed that Merck’s main advantage in the HCV market would be its ability to promote Victrelis alongside its own pegylated interferon PegIntron. Now, it will also have Roche’s sales force out there hawking Victrelis with Pegasys, as well. No financials for the deal were announced, so its hard to say at this point how much Merck is giving up in its quest for a bigger piece of the HCV market. It’s also important to note that this is a non-exclusive pact, so time will tell whether Roche and Vertex establish a similar alliance. The deal also allows Merck and Roche to “explore new combinations of investigational and marketed medicines.” As readers will recall, the ultimate goal is to eliminate the need for interferon and ribavirin, which have harsh side effects, and treat HCV using only a cocktail of pills. Roche and Merck each have promising small molecules against HCV in their pipelines: Merck has vaniprevir, an NS3/4a protease inhibitor in Phase II trials, while Roche has the polymerase inhibitor RG7128, the protease inhibitor RG7227, and the earlier-phase polymerase inhibitor RG7432. Read here for past coverage of the race to get new HCV drugs to...

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Vertex Unveils Exciting Data for Cystic Fibrosis Drug

In one of those rare cases of good science translating directly into good medicine, Vertex Pharmaceuticals yesterday unveiled positive results from a Phase III trial of VX-770, a small molecule that treats the underlying defect of cystic fibrosis. The data “are very fresh, but nonetheless unambiguous and stunningly clear,” Vertex’s CSO Peter Mueller told analysts on a call yesterday. Further, they clear the way for Vertex to file for regulatory approval for VX-770 in the U.S. and Europe in the second half of this year. Before we get into the details of that data, a quick review of cystic fibrosis. As we described back in 2008, folks with CF have a mutation in the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene, which carries the recipe for making a protein that shuttles chloride ions from one side of a cell membrane to the other. That faulty gene means that people with CF absorb too much salt and have a hard time secreting it. Without the right balance of hydration, their lungs become dotted with dried-out pockets that get clogged with thick mucus, an environment ripe for bacteria growth. Patients suffer from chronic infections, often with the most pernicious of bugs, and take a panoply of antibiotics and other treatments to manage the symptoms of their disease. Vertex’s drug is generating excitement because it addresses the underlying cause of the disease. Think of CFTR as a gate that allows chloride ions out of the cell. Depending on the mutation that causes a patient’s CF—there are a handful of genetic malfunctions—that gate might be rusty, and not opening right, or, more commonly, there simply aren’t enough gates. VX-770 is being tested in people with a mutation akin to the former, and works to increase the flow of chloride ions through the gate, thereby restoring the right level of hydration in the lungs. In the Phase III trial of 161 people, the drug clearly met its primary endpoint of improving lung function. After 48 weeks on the drug, there was a relative improvement in lung function of 16.9% compared to placebo, and the absolute improvement (calculated by dividing the relative improvement by the baseline lung function)  of 10.6%. “This improvement in lung function both on an absolute and relative basis is particularly significant since it came on top of the other therapies patients continue to receive,” Vertex’s chief medical officer Robert Kauffman said yesterday. One of the most striking pieces of information gathered in this trial was the effect on the rate of pulmonary exacerbations, or periods when their disease worsens, Kauffman said. While the ability to improve lung function is critical, for...

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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...

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