Monday, October 15, 2007
The Race to Knocking Down Cardiovascular Disease
Assuming that it is a safe bet that cholesterol levels can be reduced with oligo-based strategies, what will determine regulatory success? Given that low cholesterol is a life-long effort, any drug taken over a long period of time, even before disease onset, will have to be safe first of all. Risk can be largely grouped into four categories: target risk, risks inherent to the therapeutic platform, sequence risk, and risks associated with route of delivery and drug formulation. Arguably the target best validated on the grounds of human genetics is PCSK9, a protease that degrades LDL-receptors and therefore inhibits clearance of bad cholesterol from circulation. Research mostly from the University of Texas Southwestern has shown that mutations that increase the activity of PCSK9 increase cholesterol levels, whereas individuals with nonsense mutations in PCSK9 that reduce PCSK9 activity have lower cholesterol levels and, importantly, a much reduced risk for cardiovascular events. Moreover, the absence of any functional PCSK9 throughout life has no obvious adverse side-effect while retaining the health benefits of low cholesterol.
Before PCSK9 came to the fore, ApoB100, a protein required for the assembly of LDL-cholesterol, used to be the target of choice. Indeed, the development of PCSK9-based treatment strategies have extensively made use of ApoB100 as a marker protein for evaluating RNAi delivery and knockdown in the liver. Pioneering research mostly by ISIS Pharmaceuticals has shown that indeed ApoB100 knockdown has the ability to lower LDL-cholesterol. Although ISIS has not seen fatty liver in clinical trials and preclinical research of their lead antisense compound ISIS 301012 (currently in late phase II) to be a problem, various other groups have observed this side-effect following ApoB100 knockdown, which would not be that surprising given the role of ApoB100 in fat metabolism. However, even if fatty liver will be observed in larger phase III trials and post-approval, ISIS has made the right decision to test 301012 first for patient populations most at risk for CVD.
Similar to ApoB100 and PCSK9, inhibition of microRNA-122 by antisense technologies has been now shown numerous times to also have LDL-cholesterol lowering effects. Strangely, despite the fact that this is by far the most abundant microRNA in the liver, no obvious toxicities have been associated with miR-122 inhibition. Consequently, a number of groups such as Regulus and Santaris hope to develop this into a treatment for hypercholesterolemia.
Taken together, my bet is on PCSK9 knockdown to lead the way in oligo-based therapies for the long-term treatment of hypercholesterolemia. New targets, however, should emerge, partly as a result of now being able to apply RNAi itself for target identification, for example by transiently targeting essentially any gene of interest in the liver in vivo and the use of transgenic RNAi mice (Artemis), a combination of the two latest Nobel prize-winning technologies.
Next to target choice, the nature of the knockdown technology, antisense versus RNAi, itself will also have important safety implications. As I am quite fascinated about the prospect of RNAi for various reasons, please keep in mind that my natural inclination is to favour RNAi any time. In terms of potency, once equal amounts of oligos get delivered into the cell, RNAi has been shown frequently to be generally superior to antisense oligos (ASO), although antisense technologies can be quite diverse. Lower dosages will not only reduce cost of a treatment that has to be taken long-term, but, more importantly, allow for dosages that fall well within therapeutic windows. Moreover, in the case of RNAi, I feel quite comfortable with a technology where the risks such as immuno-stimulation, off-targeting, and potential interference with the endogenous microRNA pathway are reasonably well understood, intensely studied, bioinformatics- and chemistry-based solutions devised, and well taken into account in current RNAi-based drug development efforts. This in fact reflects a new awareness in RNA-targeted therapies, largely driven by the renewed interest generated by the discovery of RNAi. Accordingly, the therapeutic utility of any two RNAi compounds, or antisense compounds for that matter, may differ dramatically due to sequence-dependent toxities.
These toxicities may also be linked to route of delivery and related oligo formulation. A technically quite uncomplicated approach, as taken by 301012, is to simply administer relatively large amounts of unformulated oligos (200mg/week in the case of 301012) to make sure that enough of it ends up in the liver. By contrast, liver uptake of siRNAs is thought to require additional formulation. Indeed, liposomal formulations that are set to enter the clinic within the next year increase liver uptake of siRNAs from less than 1% of injected material to over 30%, allowing for lower dosages to be used. Some toxicities, however, were observed at relatively high dose levels with some of the cationic liposomes, and it remains to be seen whether lipidoids and other “not-so-cationic” liposomes will come to dominate the liver delivery field. Also, while most of the disclosed liposomal delivery vehicles efficiently enhance liver uptake, they are often not specific for uptake into the hepatocyte population in the liver, the cell type of interest. Particularly uptake into Kupffer cells, a type of immune cell in the liver, can lead to dosing and safety complications, and ultimately the path taken recently by scientists from Mirus, which by the way has an RNAi delivery collaboration with Pfizer, to specifically target formulated siRNAs to hepatocytes, but not other liver cell types, may substitute non-specific liposomes in the second wave of RNAi-based therapies for hypercholesterolemia. While delivery is often described as the Achilles Heel for RNAi therapeutics, the charge (ironically) and chemical similarity of siRNAs as a class makes them ideally suited to devise drug targeting strategies that can be broadly applied and should lead to safer therapies, something that is nearly impossible for say small molecules.
ISIS’ ApoB100-targeting antisense 301012 has good chances of becoming the first oligo-based therapy for CVD, at least for people with familial hypercholesterolemia and for whom statins don’t work. Although only a fraction of the overall market, the sheer size of the cholesterol market makes this a lucrative goal nonetheless. I am somewhat surprised that, to my knowledge and despite potential target risk, there is little talk of other ApoB100-targeting therapies. It will be interesting to see what companies like Merck, which has clearly stated their admiration for 301012 at the last OTS Meeting, are willing to pay for rights to 301012. PCSK9-targeting therapies are in late preclinical development and therefore about 3 years behind 301012, but I believe these to be the safest bet for a widely applied oligo-based drug for hypercholesterolemia with a number of organisations ramping up their PCSK9 programs.
Alnylam appears to be leading this race with the recent announcement of first-ever non-human primate data of an RNAi compound that safely and effectively knocked down PCSK9 with concomitant reductions in total and LDL-cholesterol. An IND is planned for the end of this year, or early next year, and probably will depend on finding the delivery solution that most importantly is safe for long-term administration. Importantly, Alnylam enjoys a particularly strong IP position and know-how in targeting PCSK9 by RNAi, due to their own position in fundamental RNAi technology, and important collaborations on the biology of PCSK9 with UT Southwestern, which has been leading in the genetics of PCSK9, as well as in delivery with the Anderson/Langer lab at the MIT and exclusive access to Tekmira’s cationic liposomal delivery IP for RNAi. Sirna-Merck may want to dispute this with an patent on targeting the same PCSK9 by RNAi that issued recently and was filed in July 2006 as part of their brute-force approach to patenting genes for RNAi. Alnylam, however, presented their first PCSK9 RNAi data in mice at last year’s 2nd Annual OTS Meeting, and it is anybody’s guess when their or rather UT Southwestern’s first lab-book entry on PCSK9 RNAi occurred. Probably at a similar stage to Alnylam is the PCSK9-antisense collaboration of ISIS with Bristol-Myers Squibbs for which mouse data have been published earlier this year. Santaris’ antisense compounds for PCSK9/ApoB100 and miR-122 should also be heading soon towards the clinic.
New delivery technologies, including oral formulations, and targets should ensure that the oligo-CVD field will remain lively in the years to come. Also, since there have been a number of recent data demonstrating efficient targeting of RNAi to the endothelia of blood vessels, new RNAi strategies aimed directly at the atherosclerotic plaques may emerge.
It would not be the first time that several similar compounds, small molecule, antibody or recombinant protein, with essentially the same molecular targets, would co-exist in a market, a concept also very familiar to the hypercholesterolemia field. IP, careful clinical development involving the best scientists in both oligonucleotide technology, delivery and the biology of the drug targets, together with a bit of luck, will decide who will reap the largest benefits from the potentially first knockdown blockbuster.
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