Thursday, October 4, 2007

Impressions from the 3rd Annual Meeting of the Oligonucleotide Therapeutics Society: Day 1

The 3rd Annual Meeting of the Oligonucleotide Society (OTS) got under way in the stylish Langenbeck-Virchow Auditorium situated in the centre of a culturally vibrant Berlin. The OTS brings together the many disciplines in the rapidly expanding field of oligonucleotide-based drug development, ranging from aptamers, ribozymes, antisense, immunostimulatory nucleic acids to RNAi. Reports from clinical studies of these treatment modalities and oligonucleotide chemistries were at the centre of today’s lecture sessions.

Brett Monia from ISIS Pharmaceuticals chaired the first session and set the stage by reporting that while there are only four approved oligo-based therapies, more than 50 are currently in clinical development. Many of these are designed for cancer applications, but infectious, metabolic, and inflammatory disease applications are emerging as major new focus areas. This may not only be due to considerable unmet medical needs, but also because these may offer better success rates for clinical development. A few talks on cancer therapies with ASOs (antisense oligos) documented the challenges of designing smooth clinical trials for cancer therapies. One problem is the heterogeneity of cancers and matching the gene target with the right cancer. Early trials on a given compound typically involve small patient numbers with a wide spectrum of cancer manifestations. Although safety trials, almost anecdotal evidence of biological activity in a few patients then often guide the design of later phases of clinical development. Clearly, for cancer, there is a need for the development of more reliable biomarkers as early indicators of therapeutic efficacy and for patient stratification, which may be something that Rosetta Genomics’ microRNA diagnostics may be able to facilitate.

Focusing on diseases like viral infection and metabolic disease where efficacy can be routinely evaluated in early stages of clinical development (viral titers, LDL-cholesterol, glucose) should therefore be lower hanging fruits for the next wave of oligonucleotide-based therapeutics. This transformation in the industry is illustrated by ISIS’ new focus on metabolic disease and its out-licensing of the more challenging ASO applications. Rosanne Crooke recounted the clinical experience with 301012, ISIS’ lead compound for the treatment of hypercholesterolemia. As I wrote earlier, one major concern with targeting ApoB100 is the risk of steatosis of the liver due to inhibition of a protein required for the export of triglycerides and which has indeed been observed by a number of groups targeting ApoB100 by RNAi. Possibly motivated by the existence of individuals with null mutations for PCSK9, the new target of choice for hypercholesterolemia, with no evidence for adverse effects due to lack of the LDL-receptor processing protein, a conference participants asked about the existence of ApoB100 knockout mice. Interestingly, no such mice exist, because ApoB100 would have additional roles during development.

Despite reports of steatosis due to knockdown of ApoB100 with RNAi, Sirna Therapeutics is yet another biotech company interested in targeting it for lowering cholesterol. In a talk about siRNA delivery to the liver, Barry Polisky, CSO of Sirna Therapeutics/Merck also noted that in Sirna’s experience, there are genes that can be knocked down extremely well (e.g. ApoB100) and some that are relatively refractory to knockdown by RNAi. Although anecdotal, given the extensive experience of Sirna Therapeutics with screening for effective siRNAs by tiling them across entire genes, and similar findings by Qiagen and others, it will be interesting to determine what makes a gene a good target for RNAi, particularly whether it involves its normal regulation by microRNAs.

Polisky further focused on the need for siRNA modifications to make RNAi therapeutics a reality. Currently, Sirna’s standard siRNA design seems to involve si(R)NAs that lack essentially all 2’OH groups, except for the three 5’ nucleotides of the guide strand, while the passenger strand has 5’ and 3’ modifications that avoid it to be loaded into RiSC to reduce off-targeting. Other speakers and posters also noted that since most nucleotide modifications had been developed with antisense therapies in mind, new modifications may exist for optimal RNAi efficacy, particularly in vivo. Indeed, new synthesis strategies are being developed that will allow this to be tested, such as the 6-membered carbohydrate substitutions of ribose reported by Piet Herdewijn from the University of Leuven, Belgium.

Polisky further characterized siRNA delivery to the liver as efficient, albeit not optimal. Progress is clearly illustrated by the fact that >30% of siRNA formulated into liposomal nanoparticles now end up in the liver with first-pass kinetics with no evidence for toxicity in the 1-9mg/kg range (mostly rodent studies), whereas >99% of unformulated siRNAs are rapidly filtered out by the kidney.

The liver is also the organ where the first microRNA-based therapies are likely to be targeted. Like Regulus and Rosetta, I was amazed, or maybe not, at how many groups are currently working at abrogating miR-122 function for treating either hypercholesterolemia or HCV infection. LNAs, owned by the privately held Danish company Santaris, appear to be a particularly promising oligonucleotide class for achieving potent microRNA down-regulation in vivo. Similarly, antisense strategies based on LNA appear to rival siRNA potency in a number of settings, and it will be interesting to learn more about the toxicologies of these compounds, which would certainly be facilitated if Santaris decided to enable to field by allowing better access to their technology. It also highlights the need for specialized chemistries for therapeutic targeting of microRNAs which in my mind is something that Regulus ought to consider.

With regard to delivery outside the liver following systemic administration, PEI-formulated siRNAs (see recent PolyPlus-Alnylam deal) are now being used successfully by a number of groups for lung delivery. Other interesting delivery data was presented by a Portuguese group in a poster on RNAi in the brain. By non-covalently adding transferrin protein to cationic liposome-siRNA particles, they were able to efficiently target neuronal cells both in vitro and in vivo which, similar to cancer cells (see Calando’s cancer cell targeting with transferrin), are studded with transferrin receptors.

PS: A nuisance to most scientists in the field, immunostimulation by oligonucleotides is exploited by Dynavax as an adjuvant for vaccines. Poor adjuvants activity lead to insufficient immune responses and the need for multiple booster injections affecting compliance. HBV vaccination is a case in point, and as a consequence around 50% of patients in the US fail to successfully complete vaccination. Very high HBsAg antibody titers after only two injections of recombinant HBsAg with an immunostimulatory oligo from Dynavax as adjuvant, instead of alum, suggests that they may be able to greatly improve on those numbers.


Clear thoughts said...

Dirk, thanks for the great write up. Keep the good work on.

NR_EYE said...

Did Brett mention the four approved drugs? I could come up with only two (Vitravene & Macugen).

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