Antisense company Santaris seems hardly able to catch its breath these days. After being sued by ISIS Pharmaceuticals for patent infringement, reporting first clinical proof-of-concept for a MicroRNA Therapeutic, it has now been revealed that the company prematurely terminated a phase I trial of its PCSK9 phosphorothioate LNA RNase H antisense inhibitor SPC5001 for the treatment of hypercholesterolemia. This study had been initiated in May of this year with an estimated enrollment of 40 healthy and familial hypercholesterolemia subjects.
Reasons for the trial termination were not revealed. However, since this was a phase I safety trial, it is likely that the trial termination was due to some safety issue. Supporting this is that, coinciding with the PCSK9 trial termination, enrollment has been halted in another phase I hypercholesterolemia trial sponsored by Santaris, this time targeting ApoB (SPC4955).
Consequently, after the premature trial termination last year of BMS/ISIS’ phosphorothioate 2’ MOE RNase H PCSK9 antisense inhibitor (BMS-844421), Alnylam’s SNALP-delivered ALN-PCS has suddenly taken the lead in the race to develop a PCSK9-targeting RNA Therapeutic, pitting it against the monoclonal antibodies by the likes of Regeneron and Amgen.
Without explanations for the trial terminations, it is difficult to pin down the exact cause(s) of the presumed toxicities. What the compounds by Santaris and BMS/ISIS Pharmaceuticals obviously share is that they both use phosphorothioate chemistries and work via an RNaseH mechanism. Phosphorothioates are widely used in antisense development because they bind to proteins in the plasma and various tissues, thereby allowing one to achieve tissue concentrations high enough such that mass action will allow for cell penetration and target gene knockdown. In my opinion, phosphorothioate oligonucleotides are promising for a number of local applications. The problem with systemic applications, however, is that the high concentrations reached in tissues such as liver, spleen, and kidney, ultimately limit their therapeutic window. Some industry experts have referred to this issue as the ‘hazardous waste’ problem of systemic phosphorothioate oligonucleotides.
ISIS supporters will point out that Santaris’ specific LNA chemistry is the most likely culprit, whereas ISIS’ chemistries are relatively safe as supported by
RNA Therapeutics is intensely competitive as they compete for pretty much the same investment dollars. Investors, including Big Pharma, are easily influenced by public opinions and fashion trends. 4 years ago it was all about the fear of being left behind in RNAi Therapeutics, with little attention being paid to true enablement and expertise in a noisy field. This made antisense look like the ugly cousin. In the last 2 years, however, antisense has regained favor as the RNAi delivery ‘problem’ became widely publicized which made antisense look deceptively simple. Santaris especially made a living of that by advertising, e.g. at conferences and press releases, the delivery problem of RNAi Therapeutics and getting a few laughs by stating their motto of 'staying naked’ and ‘staying short’.
Needless to say, my favored technology is RNAi Therapeutics: ‘natural’ and ‘potent’ is my motto. The hypercholesterolemia arena will be a particularly good battleground for antisense and RNAi Therapeutics to test their metals: same targets, easy biomarkers, chronic applications. The next chapter will be top-line data from Alnylam’s ALN-PCS phase I trial which are expected by year-end.