Category → Biotech
When you think of reaction screening, what comes to mind? Most would say LC-MS, the pharma workhorse, which shows changes in molecular polarity, mass, and purity with a single injection. Some reactions provide conversion clues, like evolved light or heat. In rare cases, we can hook up an in-line NMR analysis – proton (1H) usually works best due to its high natural abundance (99.9%).
Please welcome a new screening technique: 13C NMR. How can that work, given the low, low natural abundance of ~1.1% Carbon-13?
Researchers at UT-Southwestern Medical Center have the answer: rig the system.
Biocatalysis = big business for the pharma world. The recent Codexis / Merck partnership for HCV drug boceprevir brought forth an enzyme capable of asymmetric amine oxidation. Directed evolution of an enzyme made sense here, since they knew their target structure, but what if we just want to see if microbes will alter our molecules?
Enter the labeled substrates: the researchers remark that they provide an “unbiased approach to biocatalysis discovery.” They’re not looking to
accelerate a certain reaction per se, but rather searching for any useful modifications using the 13C “detector” readout. One such labeled substrate, N-(13C)methylindole, shows proof-of-concept with their bacterial library, producing two different products (2-oxindole and 3-hydroxyindole) depending on the amount of oxygen dissolved in the broth. NMR autosamplers make reaction monitoring a snap, and in short order, the scientists show biotransformations of ten more indole substrates.
This paper scratches multiple itches for various chem disciplines. Tracking single peaks to test reactions feels spookily close to 31P monitoring of metal-ligand catalysis. Organickers, no strangers to medicinally-relevant indole natural products, now have another stir-and-forget oxidation method. Biochemists will no doubt wish to tinker with each bacterial strain to improve conversion or expand scope. The real question will be how easily we can incorporate 13C labels into aromatic rings and carbon chains, which would greatly increase the overall utility.
The following is a guest post from Sally Church (known to many in the twittersphere as @MaverickNY), from the Pharma Strategy Blog.
Not long ago, metastatic melanoma was considered a graveyard for clinical research. But last year brought a major breakthrough in treating skin cancer: the approval of Roche’s Zelboraf (vemurafenib), a small molecule that has proven highly effective at treating the roughly 50% of the patient population that carry the BRAFV600E mutation.
However, Zelboraf has limitations. Patients’ disease eventually becomes resistant to the drug and the lesions caused by the skin cancer tend to return after 6 to 9 months.
At the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting earlier this month, the big two questions on cancer specialists’ minds were: what are the mechanisms of resistance and how can we develop strategies to overcome them?
An amazing thing about current melanoma research is that several physician-scientists involved in the clinical trials are also actively involved in translational research–this is sadly the exception rather than the rule, in oncology. But the connection between basic science and bedside has meant new targets are being identified and quickly tested in the clinic.
One potential target recently discovered was MEK, a kinase that sits along the same signaling pathway as BRAF. When BRAF activity is turned off by Zelboraf, cancer finds a way to compensate for the loss by exploiting other kinases in the pathway. Researchers think that by combining a BRAF inhibitor with a MEK inhibitor, the pathway might be more comprehensively shut down than by either alone.
Consequently, there was a tremendous amount of buzz around a melanoma trial that looked at combining a BRAF inhibitor, GSK2118436 (dabrafenib), and a MEK 1/2 inhibitor, GSK1120212 (trametinib). Previous studies have shown that given alone, dabrafenib could result in solid response rates of 59%; trametinib, meanwhile, produced a 25% response rate when given as a single agent. Continue reading →
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.
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.
Andrew Read thinks evolution is the best lens for staring down the superbugs. He took the stage Thursday at TEDMED, where he warned, “we’re picking a fight with natural selection.”
“Picking a fight without Darwin is like going to the moon without Newton,” Read added. “We are in the dark ages when it comes to evolutionary management.”
Read, director of Penn State University’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, sat down with me on Thursday and shared a few principles he thinks the scientific community should keep in mind in order to keep antibiotic resistance in check. Here are his five tips for would-be superbug slayers. Continue reading →
Gregory Petsko knows why he came to TEDMED. “I’m looking for Al Gore,” he told me flat-out over lunch. Folks who know Petskoknow the former Brandeis University biochemistry department chair isn’t one to mince words. And he’s nailed the reason why an academic might want to look outside traditional conferences and soak up some of the TEDMED aura. He’s looking for a charismatic champion to take up a biomedical cause: in Petsko’s case, it’s support for research in Alzheimer’s disease.
Petsko and Reisa Sperling, director of the Center for Alzheimer’s Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, talked about Alzheimer’s at TEDMED on Wednesday. Both talks were cast as calls to action. Just consider the introduction Petsko got from TEDMED chair and Priceline.com founder Jay S. Walker: “This is a man who hears a bomb ticking.”
Alzheimer’s statistics are sobering and Petsko used them to dramatic effect. People who will reach 80 by the year 2050 have a 1 in 3 chance of developing the disease if nothing is done, he told the audience. “And yet I hear no clamor,” he said. “I hear no sense of urgency.”
Petsko shared some not-yet-published work with TEDMED’s audience. Continue reading →
Watch this space on Sunday as I cover the public unveiling of five drug candidates’ structures. I’ll be liveblogging the “First Disclosures of Clinical Candidates” symposium at the San Diego ACS National Meeting, which runs from 2PM to 5PM Pacific.
1:30PM It’s half an hour before the start of the session and the big ballroom is still pretty empty. Expect that to change in short order.
Company: Lexicon Pharmaceuticals
Meant to treat: type 2 diabetes
Mode of action: dual inhibitor of sodium glucose transporters 1 and 2, which play key roles in glucose absorption in the gastrointestinal tract and kidney
Medicinal chemistry tidbits: this drug candidate had Lexicon’s chemists refamiliarizing themselves with carbohydrate chemistry. Most inhibitors of sodium glucose transporters incorporate D-glucose in some way. Lexicon’s chemists realized they could try something different– inhibitors based on the scaffold of L-xylose, a non-natural sugar. The team has already published a J. Med. Chem paper (2009, 52, 6201–6204) explaining that strategy. LX4211 is a methyl thioglycoside-the team went with a methyl thioglycoside because upping the size too far beyond a methyl lost activity at SGLT1.
Status in the pipeline: LX4211 is currently completing Phase IIb trials.
Company: Bristol-Myers Squibb
Meant to treat: migraine
Mode of action: antagonist of the receptor for calcitonin gene-related peptide- increased levels of this peptide have been reported in cases of migraine
Medicinal chemistry tidbits: This team recently published an orally bioavailable CGRP inhibitor, BMS-846372 (ACS Med. Chem. Lett., DOI: 10.1021/ml300021s). However, BMS-846372 had limited aqueous solubility, something that might make its development challenging. To improve that solubility, the BMS team sought to add polar groups to their molecule, something that’s been tough to do with CGRP inhibitors historically. In the end, the team managed to add a primary amine to BMS-846372′s cycloheptane ring while maintaining CGRP activity, leading to BMS-927711.
Status in the pipeline: Phase II clinical trials
3:05 lots of questions from the audience for this talk! One questioner notes (as was noted in talk) that 4 CGRP inhibitors had gone before this drug in the clinic, and not made it through. Speaker notes that this candidate is more potent than others at CGRP (27 picomolar).
3:53 We’re a bit behind schedule but got plenty of good chemistry…
Meant to treat: tumors with loss-of-function in the tumor suppressor protein PTEN (phosphatase and tensin homolog)- 2nd most inactivated tumor suppressor after p53- cancers where this is often the case include prostate and endometrial
Mode of action: inhibitor of phosphoinositide 3-kinase-beta (PI3K-beta). Several lines of evidence suggest that proliferation in certain PTEN-deficient tumor cell lines is driven primarily by PI3K-beta.
Medicinal chemistry tidbits: The GSK team seemed boxed in because in 3 out of 4 animals used in preclinical testing, promising drug candidates had high clearance. It turned out that a carbonyl group that they thought was critical for interacting with the back pocket of the PI3K-beta enzyme wasn’t so critical after all. When they realized they could replace the carbonyl with a variety of functional groups, GSK2636771 eventually emerged. GSK2636771B (shown) is the tris salt of GSK2636771.
Status in the pipeline: Phase I clinical trials
Company: Gilead Sciences
Meant to treat: chronic infection with hepatitis B and C viruses
Mode of action: agonist of Toll-like receptor 7, which recognizes RNA from viral sources
Medicinal chemistry tidbits: The team paid a lot of attention to particular sidechain in their drug candidates– they examined a range of pKa’s from the acidic side of the scale to the basic side, and learned that a basic amine was important for agonist activity.
Status in the pipeline: Phase Ib clinical trials
Company: Bristol-Myers Squibb
Meant to treat: hepatitis C
Mode of action: inhibitor of viral NS5B replicase
Medicinal chemistry tidbits: This drug candidate is an allosteric inhibitor– early on in the program BMS researchers had evidence to suggest that allosteric inhibition of the replicase would be feasible, and would provide an alternative to the nucleoside analogs that constitute the vast majority of replicase inhibitors. The team started with fused indole lead structures which bound to the thumb site 1 allosteric site in the replicase (Bioorg. Med. Chem. Lett., DOI: 10.1016/j.bmcl.2011.03.067). Adding a morpholine amide enhanced potency, and adding substituents to it abrogated transactivation of the pregnane X receptor (PXR). Ultimately this group was replaced with a methylated piperazine, with substituents stitched together to give another ring. A cyclopropane adjusted the shape of the molecule to jibe with information gathered from an X-ray co-crystal structure.
Status in the pipeline: Phase II clinical trials
4:52 That’s it folks! Watch for additional coverage of these talks in an April issue of C&EN.
Medicinal chemists strive to optimize molecules that fit snugly into their proposed targets. But in the quest for potency, we often overlook the local physics that govern drugs’ binding to these receptors. What if we could rationally predict which drugs bind well to their targets?
A new review, currently out on J. Med. Chem. ASAP, lays out all the computational backing behind this venture. Three computational chemists (David Huggins, Woody Sherman, and Bruce Tidor) break down five binding events from the point-of-view of the drug target: Shape Complementarity, Electrostatics, Protein Flexibility, Explicit Water Displacement, and Allosteric Modulation….whew!
Note: Before we dive into this article, let’s clarify a few terms computational drug-hunters use that bench chemists think of differently: ‘decoy’ – a test receptor used to perform virtual screens; ‘ligand’ – the drug docking into the protein; ‘affinity / selectivity’ – a balance of characteristics, or how tightly something binds vs. which proteins it binds to; ‘allosteric’ – binding of a drug molecule to a different site on an enzyme than the normal active site. Regular readers and fans of compu-centric chem blogs such as The Curious Wavefunction and Practical Fragments will feel right at home!
We’ll start at the top. Shape complementarity modeling uses small differences in a binding pocket, such as a methylene spacer in a residue (say, from a Val to Ile swap) to dial-in tighter binding between a target and its decoy. The authors point out that selectivity can often be enhanced by considering a drug that’s literally too big to fit into a related enzymatic cavity. They provide several other examples with a ROCK-1 or MAP kinase flavor, and consider software packages designed to dock drugs into the “biologically active” conformation of the protein.
Electrostatic considerations use polar surface maps, the “reds” and “blues” of a receptor’s electronic distribution, to show how
molecular contacts can help binding to overcome the desolvation penalty (the energy cost involved in moving water out and the drug molecule in). An extension of this basic tactic, charge optimization screening, can be used to test whole panels of drugs against dummy receptors to determine how mutations might influence drug binding.
Because target proteins move and shift constantly, protein flexibility, the ability of the protein to adapt to a binding event, is another factor worth considering. The authors point out that many kinases possess a “DFG loop” region that can shift and move to reveal a deeper binding cavity in the kinase, which can help when designing binders (for a collection of several receptors with notoriously shifty binding pockets – sialidase, MMPs, cholinesterase – see p. 534 of Teague’s NRDD review).
But these shifting proteins also swim in a sea of water and other cytoplasmic goodies. This means that drug designers, whether they like it or not, must account for explicit water molecules. The authors even suggest a sort of “on-off” switch for including the bound water molecules, but contend that more efforts should be directed to accurate modeling of water in these protein settings.
Finally, the authors weigh the effects of allosteric binding, the potential for a modeled molecule to be highly selective for a site apart from where the protein binds its native ligand. The authors consider the case of a PTP1B ligand that binds 20Å away from the normal active site, at the previously mentioned “DFG loop.” Since this binding hadn’t been seen for related phosphatases, it could then be used to control selectivity for PTP1B.
In each section, the authors provide examples of modeling studies that led to the design of a molecule. Two target classes recur often throughout the review: HIV protease inhibitors (saquinavir, lopinavir, darunavir) and COX-2 inhibitors (celecoxib), which have all been extensively modeled.
Two higher-level modeling problems are also introduced: the substrate-envelope hypothesis, which deals with rapidly mutating targets, and tailoring molecules to take rides in and out of the cell using influx and efflux pumps in the membrane. Since different cell types overexpress certain receptors, we can use this feature to our advantage. This strategy has been especially successful in the development of several cancer and CNS drugs.
Overall, the review feels quite thorough, though I suspect regular Haystack readers may experience the same learning curve I did when adapting to the field-specific language that permeates each section. Since pictures are worth a thousand words, I found that glancing through the docking graphics that accompany each section helped me gain a crucial foothold into the text.