Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Anti-MiR122 Therapeutic Stuns HCV World with Single-Dose Efficacy Results

This morning, Regulus Therapeutics greeted us with amazing results from a phase I study of RG-101, an anti-microRNA 122 oligo for the treatment of HCV infection.  The results show that in the exploratory HCV-infecte patient subgroup, a single dose of 2mg/kg of RG-101 resulted in a mean viral load reduction of 4.1log on day 29.  All responded with viral declines, with 6 and 3 of the 14 patients with viral levels below the level of quantitation on days 29 and 57, respectively.   

These results even exceed my own wildest imaginations (as discussed here yesterday) and I’m amazed how much this virus, in all patients, seems to have come to rely on this host-derived microRNA for replication and/or genome stabilization.

It is not clear whether increasing the dose to 4mg/kg, the pre-planned upper dose in the HCV-infected cohort for which dosing is ongoing will bring any additional benefit given that the biomarker data (host genes targeted by miR-122) from the healthy volunteers showed a plateau already at 2mg/kg, indicating the power of this GalNAc chemistry approach.  My guess is that the main benefit from a higher dose would be a decrease in response variability.

Interestingly, IL-28 status, frequently a predictor of treatment success, did not influence the results, nor did HCV genotype seem to have an impact (small numbers).  This further supports that RG-101 could fill some of the more attractive opportunities in the current HCV market.   

Regarding safety, mild and transient injection site reactions seemed most significant with no serious adverse events in the entire study, including the healthy volunteer cohorts (up to 8mg/kg).  This is also consistent with data for Alnylam’sALN-TTRsc which uses a similar GalNAc chemistry and where multiple doses up to 10mg/kg had been tolerated, with injection site reactions, especially at 10mg/kg, being the main safety finding.   

So what’s it all worth?  The results position RG-101 to facilitate a 4-week HCV dosing regimen (compared to typically 8-12 weeks currently), potentially in combination with a single direct-acting antiviral such as Olysio by Johnson&Johnson.  One or two injections maximum.  Great compliance, potentially pan-genotypic, ideal for the busy practicing physician who does not have the time nor inclination to know the ins and outs of each DAA.

In dollar terms, I’d like to think that with this drug profile, this overlooked compound and company are worth as much as what Merck recently paid for HCV drug developer Idenix: $3.85B. The market valuation of Regulus before the news: $300M.  Needlessly to say that I'm long the stock.

PS: GSK once had rights to a precursor compound of RG-101 which it did not exercise.  Importantly, at the time, Regulus’ anti-miR122 compound was not GalNAc-enabled.  This would have necessitated much more frequent dosing and higher dosages and resulted in less potent and more protracted viral declines, i.e. something that would not have been competitive in the current HCV marketplace.  But as often the case with Big Pharma and cutting-edge technology, today’s data clearly shows them wrong.  It has to be said though that GSK more or less got out of HCV which also would have explained GSK’s decision RE anti-miR122.

PPS: Congrats to Peter Sarnow and Catherine Jopling who in 2005 made the mind-boggling discovery that HCV relies on a microRNA for its replication.  I hope they will be handsomely rewarded for it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Predicting the Outcome of Regulus HCV microRNA Therapeutics Study

Regulus Therapeutics is on track to reveal phase I results of its anti-HCV compound by the end of the year according to a presentation at last week's OTS.  Although the phase I study is largely a healthy volunteer dose-escalating safety study, it does involve a cohort of HCV patients to assess the viral knockdown kinetics following a single dose of anti-miR122 RG-101. 

MicroRNA-122 is a small RNA host factor that had been identified to play an important role in HCV replication.  As a therapeutic target it promises a low risk of viral resistance, pan-genotypic activity, and entirely novel mechanism of action making it suitable for combination therapy.

Based on the experience with an LNA-based competitor compound by Santaris/Roche (Janssen et al. NEJM 2013), I predict a 2 to 3 log viral knockdown, with a 3 log viral knockdown setting the scene for RG-101 as a single shot in a 4-week treatment regimen in combination with other oral direct-acting antiviral agents (DAAs).  If viral reductions were on the low end of my expectations, it may require 2 or 3 doses within 4 weeks for GalNAc, cET-enhanced RG-101 to facilitate such a short treatment period which is considered a necessary attribute of future treatment regimens in an increasingly competitive market.


Miravirsen comparison

Earlier studies by Regulus competitor Santaris/Roche largely form the basis for my predictions.  In particular, a phase II study of 5 weekly doses of miravirsen at 3, 5, and 7mg/kg yielded 1.2log (3mg/kg) and ~3log (5 and 7mg/kg) viral knockdowns.  Miravirsen is an LNA-based antisense compound whereas RG-101 involves the analogous high-affinity cET chemistry.  Conservatively, miravirsen has a slight (1-3x) potency advantage over RG-101 without the GalNAc conjugation when considering non-human primate and clinical AldoA and cholesterol results which reflect anti-miR122 activity.

However, the GalNAc conjugate in RG-101 is giving it a great 10-30x boost in potency, meaning that overall RG-101 should be 3-30x more potent than miravirsen.  It is because of this and considering that RG-101 is given at 2 and 4mg/kg in the phase I trial in HCV patients, that I arrive at a predicted 2-3 log HCV reduction in the phase I study.  This also makes the conservative assumption that 3log viral reductions is all that an anti-miR122 treatment strategy may achieve based on the apparent plateauing of miravirsen at 5mg/kg.  The 3 log prediction would require that a single shot of RG-101 can already achieve super-therapeutic tissue levels of the oligo.  This, however, cannot be assumed given that for non-ligand-targeted phosphorothioate antisense technology at least this would normally require a multi-dose loading schedule.

But isn’t RG-101 late to the HCV game?

It’s long been thought that it’s game over for RG-101 given the dynamics in the HCV markets.  In particular, the already approved and soon-to-be-approved all-oral DAAs which typically achieve cures in >90% of patients in 8-12 weeks in well-supervised clinical trial settings, would make newer agents like RG-101 seem outdated.  On the other hand, especially given cost pressures (~$100K per average treatment and ~4 million infected in the US alone), the uptake of the new treatments has been relatively slow with only 1-2% treated thus far (according to some of the analyst reports that I have read).  And even then, the sales have been spectacular (Sovaldi e.g. is on track to become the most successful drug launch ever being on track for more than $10 billion in sales in its first launch year!!!

It is the cost pressures (pricing per pill, not per cure) and improved adherence that make a shortened 4-week treatment period so desirable.  A single or two subcutaneous injections in the doctor’s office during routine check-ups where blood is taken anyway should add to compliance.  Holding the subcutaneous route of administration of RG-101 against the drug is therefore wrong in my opinion and the ‘all-oral’ notion, a misnomer really, has only been so attractive because the former subcutaneous standard of care, interferon, was so unpopular not because of the needle injections, but because of its side effects.

So place your bets.  I believe RG-101 has value and will not only be superior to the Santaris/Roche drug, but has pretty much caught up with it in development terms given that miravirsen has only been tested with a DAA (telaprevir) that is already long outdated.  As to the necessary Big Pharma/Biotech licensee, Johnson&Johnson tops my list.


Disclosure: Long RGLS as an RNA Therapeutics stock waiting to be re-discovered with an increasingly broad and clinical-stage pipeline and good financials.  The RG-101 results should only be the trigger for the re-discovery of this ~$300M market cap company.   

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Tekmira Presents Solid Pre-clinical Package for Upcoming HBV Clinical Candidate

Yesterday, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals presented the long-anticipated RNAi candidate for the treatment of HBV infection at the Annual Oligonucleotide Therapeutics Society conference (click here for the corresponding slide deck).  Accordingly, it was shown that TKM-HBV mediated solid knockdown of all HBV viral RNAs and proteins.  This included data in the challenging (and costly) mouse model carrying humanized livers (comprised of a mixture of mouse and human liver cells) competent of supporting the full HBV viral life-cycle.

In these mouse models, repeat doses of 0.3mg/kg resulted in ~90% reductions of both the critical HBV surface antigen (HBsAg) and viral DNA.  This may be an underestimate of the true potency of TKM-HBV as suggested by data targeting the human apoB gene in this model.  These suggested (although not proved) that it is much more difficult to achieve potent knockdowns of genes expressed in the human liver cells as compared to genes expressed in the neighbouring mouse cells of the same liver: around 10x the amount of RNAi trigger was required to achieve comparable knockdowns for the human ApoB gene relative to the mouse ApoB gene.

Based on these results, I expect an approx. ~85% knockdown of HBsAg in single-dose studies at doses that I conservatively expect to be very well tolerated (~0.2mg/kg).  As indicated by the recent clinical results with ALN-TTR02 and chimpanzee studies by Alnylam/Merck, both of which involved Tekmira's SNALP LNP delivery technology, these knockdown numbers are likely to improve with more prolonged repeat administration.

In case that Tekmira is able to safely dose escalate to higher dosages, say 0.5mg/kg, significantly more potent knockdowns can be expected.  One ought to, however, keep in mind that such higher doses are not necessarily supported by the clinical history of SNALP LNP which indicates that innate immune stimulations could become an issue around 0.3mg/kg. On the other hand, the otherwise conservative Tekmira management has been surprisingly optimistic as to 3rd gen SNALP LNP-enabled TKM-HBV being devoid of innate immunostimulatory activity.


Comparison with Arrowhead's ARC520

The results support the notion that Tekmira's HBV candidate will be more potent than Arrowhead's competing HBV candidate, ARC520.  However, there are many uncertainties in making such a prediction, most importantly the dose levels found to be safe and well tolerated in the clinical studies.  To wit, ARC520 is still dose-escalating and so far has exhibited a very good safety profile meaning that 90% (1log)-type knockdowns are well within reach, especially with repeat dosing.

Beyond potency, it should be noted that TKM-HBV comprises of 3 different RNAi triggers, both to cover the vast majority of viral sequence variation and to minimize the potential of breeding drug resistance.  To my surprise, such resistance mutations were observed in a woodchuck model that Tekmira conducted together with HBV powerhouse Bristol Myers Squibbs.

Oh, BMS? You can bet that should RNAi Therapeutics be able to meaningfully increase HBV cure rates from the low bar set by current standard of care (~15% with ill-tolerated immune stimulants), not only will BMS, but also the likes of Gilead be very interested to swoop in to pick up one or both of these compounds and/or companies.

An IND filing for TKM-HBV is on track for year-end 2014 with first drug administrations in early 2015.

Disclosure: I am long both TKMR and ARWR.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Extended Use of SNALP Delivery Technology Well Tolerated

On Monday, Alnylam revealed an update on their lead ALN-TTR02 drug candidate for the treatment of the FAP form of TTR amyloidosis. Given that this could be the first commercially meaningful RNAi Therapeutics to hit the market, a lot of attention is being paid to its progress in the clinic.  Success and failure of this program are expected to have widespread repercussions for the RNAi, if not Oligonucleotide Therapeutics field.

Importantly, the data from the phase II open-label extension study provided strong evidence that the underlying SNALP LNP delivery technology, licensed from Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, is safe and well tolerated with 19 of the 27 patients involved having now received ALN-TTR02 once every 3 weeks for at least 6 months.  After 282 doses administered, no drug-related serious adverse events were seen with infusion-related issues as expected the main source of adverse events.  Notwithstanding the 8 mild flushing events and infusion reactions, there have been no drop-outs in the study so far.

On the efficacy side, ALN-TTR02 continued to produce robust sustained 80-90% knockdowns with a trend towards increased knockdown efficacy with prolonged dosing.  This knockdown certainly puts ALN-TTR02 ahead of the competitor antisense drug from ISIS and GSK (ISIS-TTRRx) which is expected to be in the 70% range, but is probably ahead in terms of patient enrolment in their pivotal study.

The results presented at the ANA conference had been widely anticipated because it was the first time that Alnylam revealed measures of therapeutic efficacy beyond the gene knockdown.  Accordingly, at the 6-month time-point patients treated with ALN-TTR02 exhibited less neurological declines as would have been expected from the Natural History of the disease.  Unfortunately, in the absence of hard biomarker evidence indicating improved neurological and, for a subset of patients, cardiac functions, the apparent improvement in the well-being of the patients (mNIS+7) could easily be attributed to the open-label nature and the relatively early time-point of the study.

Therefore, despite of the fact that shares in Alnylam increased 20% on the results and the provider of the delivery technology, Tekmira, barely budged on the news, the most important take-home from the results was that SNALP LNP delivery technology and indeed extended robust RNAi has a remarkably good safety profile.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Antisense Technology Is Feasable for Neurodegenerative Drug Development

Last week at World Muscle, ISIS Pharmaceuticals provided an update on their phase II study results for ISIS-SMNRx for the infant- and child-onset forms of spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).  Importantly, biomarker and biodistribution results were reported that clearly showed that ISIS-SMNRx is doing exactly at what it was designed to do, namely meaningfully increase target gene expression in the central nervous system (CNS).

The data not only greatly de-risk ISIS-SMNRx, but open up phosphorothioate-based antisense technology for a whole range of other, largely severe CNS-based diseases of high unmet need, including Huntington's disease, the spinal cerebellar ataxias, Alzheimer's, Parkinston's- you name it!

Biodistribution

Specifically, the data showed that despite only a focal, intrathecal infusion of the antisense drug into the lower spine, it readily distributed throughout the CNS up to the brain and at concentrations (10-30ug per gram tissue) that are strongly predicted to support both steric blocking and RNaseH antisense mechanism of actions in the CNS for 2' MOE chemistry.  Further chemistry improvements such as cET are opening the therapeutic window even more so.  What is more, these concentrations were maintained for months, thus further supporting the apparent therapeutic benefits seen in these open-label studies.

Note that the effective concentration for antisense mechanisms will differ according to target tissues; e.g. in the liver, largely due to competition from phagocytic Kupffer cells, the effective concentrations are 100ug/g and above with 2' MOE chemistry.

With the generous support of SMA families, the company was also able to look for the drug and the SMN protein in tissue sections from 3 deceased infants.  These investigations showed that the phosphorothioate oligo had been taken up pretty much in every neuronal and non-neuronal cell types. 

Such broad-based uptake may be quite important according to the opening keynote address of ISIS collaborator Don Cleveland last night at the annual OTS meeting in San Diego, given that expressions of disease-causing genes in various cell types, not just the neurons, seem to contribute to most neurodegenerative diseases.


Biomarker

In terms of drug action, the SMN protein was found to be re-expressed in the corresponding cells as intended for the splice-modulating approach of ISIS-SMNRx.  This was shown by immunofluorescent analysis.  Moreover, quantitative PCR showed that the expression of the intended full-length SMN2 mRNA was increased by 2 to 3-fold, consistent with the 2 to 3-fold increases in SMN2 proteins found from cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) samples in the child-onset studies.

No dose-limiting safety issues were seen and the intrathecal infusions which are predicted to be needed on a ~6 month-basis for many of the anticipated CNS-related antisense applications could be performed without having to resort to general anesthesia.

For SMA, genetically speaking all this essentially turns a type I infant-onset SMA baby into a less severe type II/III child, and a type II/III SMA child into a normal one, with the caveat that this benefit obviously only accrues from the time the drug is given which, unfortunately, may be too late for many type I SMA babies.  I was e.g. somewhat disappointed that no apparent correlation was seen between onset of antisense administration and therapeutic outcomes in the infant study, although clearly the numbers may well have been too small (n=20). I am very hopeful, however, that those infants making it out to say 18 months and beyond with ISIS-SMNRx may see very good outcomes indeed.

Despite the caution, all this was accompanied by apparent therapeutic benefits in terms of survival and muscle strength.  While highly intriguing, due to the open-label nature of the studies and the small patient numbers, it is not my intention to delve more into that aspect of the data and instead focus today on the truly mind-blowing pharmacodynamic data.  These should provide hope for many patients and families with neurodegenerative diseases. If not, we might as well give up on rational drug development.

 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Arrowhead’s HBV Candidate Requires Further Dose Escalation

Today, we learned about some hard HBsAg knockdown numbers from the phase IIa Hong Kong study of ARC520 in chronically infected HBV patients.  The data relate to the first 2 cohorts in this ongoing dose escalation trial.  Accordingly, the mean HBsAg knockdown at nadir for the starting dose of 1mg/kg was 39% within a range of 22-57% (n=6) while it was 51% within a range of 46-59% for the 2mg/kg cohort (n=6).

ARC520 was given as a single dose to patients already stably on polymerase inhibitor entecavir.

It should be noted while numerically the improvement in knockdown from 1mg/kg to 2mg/kg was only 12%, this is likely the result of the apparent high variability at the lower dose level with the increased tightness of the knockdown range at 2mg/kg indicating that the RNAi mechanism is starting to be solidly engaged with the expectation of a steepening dose response going forward.



While clearly missing the company’s own guidance of a 1 log reduction at 2mg/kg, the good safety profile-no SAEs at all in the study with all AEs rated to be unrelated to ARC520- in addition to the steepening dose-response curve following 2mg/kg means that ARC520 is far from being out of the HBV knockdown race.  Still, the stock market over-reacted, punishing ARWR stock with a percent decrease that matched the reported knockdowns.

Although even I ended up willing myself into believing that a 70-80% knockdown was possible following a single ARC520 dose of 2mg/kg, revisiting the chimp study which involved 2 doses of ARC520 (first one at 2mg/kg then one at 3mg/kg), it should be noted that at the time the 3mg/kg dose was administered, the HBsAg levels had only declined by 50%...about the same as achieved in the phase IIa study.  It is thus possible that Arrowhead gave the 2nd dose just as HBsAg levels were about to go up again, consistent with the already rebounding levels of HBV DNA and HBeAg in that study.

As a result, my expectations for the single 3mg/kg dose are now 70-75% based on the ~75-80% peak HBsAg knockdown in the chimp study following the 2mg/kg and 3mg/kg doses.  This also means that in order to reach that 1log knockdown goal the company had set for itself, 4mg/kg will most likely be needed.  Importantly, in the concurrent phase I dose-escalating study in healthy volunteers, this quite large amount of drug seemed to be well tolerated and the company is awaiting approval to adopt this dose in the Hong Kong study.

This projection is not much off the 90% knockdown achieved in the ARC-AAT program at 3mg/kg in non-human primates.  The improvement of this 2nd DPC-based candidate about to enter the clinic is possibly explained by progress in the potency of 2-molecule DPC delivery technology.  I add this as today many were confused about what the interim phase IIa results meant for the platform and the value of the company.

Overall, as long as 4mg/kg is an acceptable dose from a tox point-of-view, ARC520 is still in the game to be first-in-class in HBV knockdown.  It would have been much worse if say a 70% knockdown had been reported, but worrisome safety signals emerged.  On the other hand, the continued need for a dose escalation would seem to delay Arrowhead’s broad-based phase IIb study plans, meaning that the competition, in particular Tekmira's TKM-HBV is coming closer.

At a market cap of ~$400M, the market has almost fully discounted the potential of ARC520 given the $150M+ in cash as well as the IND-ready, first-in-class ARC-AAT for which we can expect solid knockdowns in the clinic.  Interestingly, data for this candidate were selected for an oral presentation at AASLD while the ARC520 data will be in less prestigious poster form. Finally, should the single-molecule DPC which got me excited about the Arrowhead RNAi platform in the first place finally reach the clinic, it would necessitate an upward revision of the value of the company.

Disclosure: Long ARWR.  I sold most of my holdings at $11 and change given the underwhelming results and increasingly negative market reaction, but got back in below $6 when I considered the sell-off to be a gross over-reaction and imminent 3mg/kg data having the potential to surprise the market to the upside from now much lowered expectations.  Add to this ARC-AAT, the platform...

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Developing Aerosolized TKM-EBOLA as Airborne Transmission of Ebola Likely

Knowing how a virus is spread, also from a cell biology point-of-view, is critical to curtailing its spread and devising effective treatment strategies.   

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the first symptoms of an Ebola infection are ‘the sudden onset of fever fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat (emphasis mine). Then also consider the following:

1)      Ebola once killed a number of monkeys are apparently spreading through the ventilation system in Reston, VA; 

2)      A nurse became infected in a reference hospital for infectious diseases in Spain despite the protective clothing she was wearing and her limited contacts with the infected patients she was looking after (taking temperatures twice);

3)      A single pregnant woman in Liberia infected atleast 10 people helping her as she came down with Ebola;

4)      Ebola virus can infect numerous cell types in the body (frequently cited are the liver, endothelial cells, and phagocytic cells) and is found in high amounts inthe respiratory tract in infected pigs with the virus spreading readily to cohabiting pigs in the colony;

If you still believe in the narrative, even propagated byotherwise fairly reliable sources such as the CDC, that Ebola is only transmitted by direct contact with body fluids, then you should start considering airborne transmission as a main route the infection is spread.

After all, since when are cough droplets not a bodily fluid?

If airborne is indeed an important route of transmission, this would not only raise concerns that just like in avian flu, a few mutations in the virus adapting it to better latch on to the human respiratory tract could further catalyze the spread of the virus, but would also mean that treating it at the respiratory stage could both prevent the virus from fully entering the body as well as limit its spread from person-to-person.


Enter TKM-EBOLA

An RNAi viral knockdown approach in the respiratory epithelium should obviously be able to achieve that goal.  All that would be required is to take the same RNAi triggers now part of the intravenous TKM-EBOLA formulation and incorporate it in something amenable for respiratory delivery.

Back in 2011, Tekmira revealed that it was developing aerosolized liposomal nanoparticles (LNPs) to deliver RNAi triggers to the respiratory epithelium.  A key challenge was to find formulations that not only could successfully transfect respiratory epithelial cells, but also withstand the shear forces involved in nebulizing them.  Initial structural and tissue culture RNAi knockdown results showed that this can be achieved.

The development was seemingly halted at the rodent preclinical stage as the company had to save financial resources as it was fighting off Alnylam in a trade secret case.  After coming out on top of the litigation in November 2012, the company was then able to once again expand the development of its LNP-based nucleic acid delivery technology, in addition to churning out clinical development candidates (e.g. the important HBV candidate to be revealed next week).
 
Given that the company established a separate biodefense unit headed by the ‘LNP-brain’ of the company, now Chief-Technology-Officer Ian MacLachlan, I would not be surprised if LNP nebulization was part of that effort with the next goal of showing efficacy in monkeys.


Such reformulation of TKM-EBOLA is just another example of the versatility of RNA Therapeutics, just as is the ability to rapidly adjust and optimize the medicine as the virus evolves (note: this is e.g. not possible with antibodies).  It also adds to the importance of scaling up the supply of the RNAi trigger now should airborne be recognized as a major route of transmission.  

Long-term, such developments would obviously benefit the development of LNP-delivered RNA Therapeutics for the lung epithelium in general, including mRNA delivery (e.g. for Cystic Fibrosis) and a universal RNAi agent against flu.   
By Dirk Haussecker. All rights reserved.

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