By: Dirk Haussecker
Note: A PDF version of this article is available at myfirstnameDOTmylastnameATgmailDOTcom
Shortly after the 2006-8 period of exuberance during which access to capital was easy, the RNAi Therapeutics industry found itself in a financially difficult position. At the roots of this change were the eventual recognition of some poor science, clinical setbacks, and the tension arising from the more gradual progress of science and impatient markets. Clinical validation of RNAi-mediated gene knockdown following systemic delivery was seen as the only way out of this situation. This review summarizes how such critical validation was provided by a series of recent clinical results from the ALN-VSP02, Atu027, ALN-TTR01, and ALN-PCS02 development programs. These results are expected to reinvigorate investments in the technology.
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In the spring of 2011, the RNAi Therapeutics industry had just gone through two financially very stressful years. A few large pharmaceutical companies (‘Big Pharma’), among them Roche and Pfizer, made high-profile exits from the space , pure-play RNAi Therapeutics companies were crashing, and optimism gave way to a sense that RNAi in humans may take much longer to achieve than once thought due to the delivery challenge and the risk of causing immune stimulations . This negative view of the technology and its financial prospects came sudden. After all, it was only in 2006-8 that the medical importance of RNAi had been recognized with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine , and Merck and Roche alone accounted for almost $2B of investments in the technology.
The argument can be made that the RNAi Depression was catalyzed by the US Housing Crisis and the ensuing global financial turmoil towards the end of 2008. This triggered a retrenchment of capital from high-risk innovation, capital that failed to return to the RNAi space. The seeds, however, had already been planted during the RNAi Therapeutics hype phase. As often is the case in such periods, it attracted the attention of the notorious promotional biotech schemes which in turn were readily followed by the fast money crowd, all of which, of course, did not mix well with the more gradual pace of technological progress. The scientifically leading pure-play RNAi Therapeutics companies can be accused as well for having catered to the cravings of fast money by over-promising on timelines and pushing programs into the clinic which were not adequately mechanistically validated (e.g. clinical candidates based on the local administration of naked, sometimes entirely unmodified siRNAs to the eye and respiratory epithelium). Similarly, the scientific community and journals can be blamed for failing to better police the quality of the science that got published [4,5]. Consequently, considerable investments were made (and wasted) with little discernment to what was deserving science and what was not. When it was realized that only a very few of the claimed technical solutions had clinical potential, the equally erroneously conclusion was drawn that the technology as a whole had poor prospects instead of realizing that only a very few successful platform technologies can already create considerable value.
With investors tiring of ‘promising’ pre-clinical results and refusing to put more money into RNAi Therapeutics development unless clinical validation was seen, it was up to the science to prove itself in Man. If not, probably all of the significant pure-play RNAi Therapeutics companies, possibly with the exception of Alnylam, would find it impossible to raise capital on acceptable terms. Fortunately, despite the attendant contraction in the number of new development programs, some of the early capital meant that four candidates in particular had entered clinical development in time to be the industry’s chance at unambiguously validating RNAi in Man: ALN-VSP02, Atu027 ALN-TTR01, and ALN-PCS02. If this could be achieved, it was likely that capital would return to the space. If not, the added wait before such clinical validation could come would have been a great setback to the industry, a setback from which it might have been difficult to recover from financially.
ALN-VSP02 and Atu027: clinical safety of two leading delivery technologies
Together with CALAA-01 (sponsor: Arrowhead Research), Alnylam’s ALN-VSP02 and Atu027 by Silence Therapeutics were the three leading RNAi Therapeutics candidates in cancer, with enrolment starting in 2008-2009. Not only were these candidates important in their own right for their medical and commercial potential, they were supposed to clinically validate the three distinct systemic delivery platforms on which they were based: the cyclodextrin-containing polycation RONDEL technology (CALAA-01), the AtuPLEX lipoplex technology (Atu027), and SNALP liposomes (ALN-VSP02). In addition to cancer, together with hepatic applications the commercially most critical application of RNAi Therapeutics in the near to medium term, AtuPLEX has potential for endothelial cell-directed gene knockdown in general, and systemically administered SNALP also for liver and phagocytic cell-directed gene knockdown.
CALAA-01 enjoyed a year head-start and reported a first data update in a high-profile paper in April of 2010 . Attracting the widespread interest was the fact that by taking tumor biopsies, the investigators were able to demonstrate, with the help of the 5’ RACE assay on tumor biopsies, that RNAi had occurred in target tissues. Moreover, evidence was provided that consistent with this functional finding, RONDEL nanoparticles could be detected in the biopsies. On the other hand, the data on the target knockdown was more ambiguous. Although the RNA analysis suggested measurable gene suppression, the protein analysis did not fully support that. The early promise was only short-lived, however, as a subsequent 2010 ASCO presentation (Abstract No: 3022) showed ample innate immune stimulations which forced the company to concede in late 2011 that at least another phase I trial was necessary in an effort to better manage them. In retrospect, it seems obvious that a major omission of the program was in leaving the RNAi trigger (targeting the M2 subunit of ribonucleotide reductase, RRM2) chemically unmodified, meaning that the risk of inducing such responses was quite high. In the absence of evidence for clinical efficacy and unexplained trial delays (it has taken ~3 ½ years to conclude enrolment), the CALAA-01 phase I results were thus unable to positively impact perceptions of RNAi Therapeutics.
An important step forward in that direction was made with the 2011 ASCO presentations of the fully enrolled phase I study of ALN-VSP02 and a quite encouraging interim update for Atu027. The data suggested that Atu027, an endothelial cell-directed multilamellar cationic lipoplex containing an RNAi trigger against PKN3 , was surprisingly well tolerated as dose escalation had reached dosages at which gene knockdown efficacy could be expected based on the preclinical animal data. Dose escalation has been ongoing since and has exceeded predicted RNAi-functional doses- and still no dose-limiting toxicities or serious adverse events were claimed as of December 2011. The reason why this is somewhat unexpected is that the positively charged lipoplexes may have been considered prone to induce various innate immune responses , also because no immune suppressive regime was used in the trial. It is possible that the extensive 2’-O-methylation of the AtuRNAi-type trigger partly accounted for that. Activations of the alternative complement pathway, however, were noted, although these were claimed to be clinically not significant. Tumor responses by stringent RECIST criteria meanwhile remain to be demonstrated. Nevertheless, the overall safety profile and well-behaved pharmacokinetics have encouraged further investments in the AtuPLEX and related cationic lipoplex delivery platforms from Silence Therapeutics and can be considered a meaningful step forward for the field.
Of the three candidates, the most ambitious phase I study was that for ALN-VSP02, a SNALP formulation that includes two siRNAs, one against VEGF and KSP for anti-angiogenic and anti-proliferative mechanisms of action, respectively. Enrolling 41 patients with advanced solid cancer with liver involvement, this study included a battery of tests, including biopsies to test for target mRNA cleavage and siRNA tissue concentrations, the measurement of tumor blood perfusion as an indicator of anti-VEGF activity, and various other pharmacological parameters. The study succeeded in demonstrating that this SNALP formulation was fairly well tolerated in these advanced cancer patients at dosages of up to 1.0-1.25mg/kg (ASCO 2011 poster #3025). Among the dose-limiting toxicities were a liver failure with subsequent death at 0.7mg/kg, two cases of transient grade 3 thrombocytopenia at 1.25mg/kg, a grade 3 hypokalemia at 1.5mg/kg, and four grade 1-2 rigor/chills at 1.0mg/kg (one case) and 1.25mg/kg (three cases). The death at the 0.7mg/kg dose was deemed to be possibly related to study drug and occurred in a patient where the tumor burden in the liver was quite extensive. The enrolment criteria were subsequently adjusted to exclude similar patients with a greater than 50% tumor burden in the liver.
Based on the pre-clinical studies (AACR 2009 poster #B204), knockdown activity could have been expected at dosages of 1.0-1.25mg/kg. Consistent with this notion, the 5’ RACE for VEGF (but not KSP) RNAi cleavage performed on the biopsies revealed RNAi activity. In terms of functional activity, the Ktrans, a measure of tumor blood perfusion, declined by 40% or more in over half the patients that had received one or more doses and was consistent with anti-angiogenic activity of the drug. It has to be said though that the Ktrans response was not nearly dose related. Evidence for dose-responsiveness, however, was provided when categorizing patients according to RECIST criteria of tumor responses. Accordingly, only one in 13 patients treated with up to 0.4mg/kg had stable disease for two months or more. This compared to 12 of the 24 given higher doses. Moreover, there was a 70% partial tumor response in an endometrial cancer patient at 0.7mg/kg who stayed on study drug for months; at the 1.0mg/kg dose, the recommended dose for further studies, 7 of 11 achieved stable disease. Despite these preliminary signs of activity, there remain questions about the choice of the target genes, particularly the suitability of VEGF as an RNAi target and the absence of detectable KSP cleavage. Moreover, systemic SNALP delivery to even tumors in the liver is thought to require extended blood circulation times in order to harness the EPR effect, yet the half-life of siRNA in the blood was only in the 15-30 minute range. This is consistent with the relatively short C14-PEG lipid anchor in this formulation. Notwithstanding, the ALN-VSP02 study was a stringent test for the safety of SNALP delivery and added considerable clinical pharmacokinetic experience to this technology. Among the latter was the detection of amounts of siRNAs in normal liver which strongly indicated  that gene knockdown with SNALP was possible for liver-expressed genes.
ALN-TTR01 and ALN-PCS02: most impressive demonstrations of RNAi in Man
Despite the largely acceptable safety and promising pharmacokinetic data from the Atu027 and ALN-VSP02 studies, the field still lacked black-and-white evidence for target gene knockdown following systemic delivery. The SNALP-enabled TKM-ApoB by Tekmira in early 2010 was close to providing such evidence. Unfortunately, concomitant with the achievement of slight ~20% ApoB reductions, moderate immune stimulations were observed at 0.6mg/kg in the dose escalation trial, causing the company to terminate the trial (http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00927459?). The burden thus fell onto ALN-TTR01, another SNALP-enabled RNAi Therapeutics targeting the liver-expressed transthyretin gene. Mutations of this genes frequently cause familial amyloidotic polyneuropathies and cardiomyopathies which shorten the lives of ca. 50,000 patients worldwide.
This time implementing transient immune suppression (corticosteroids and H1/H2 histamine receptor blockade) as a precautionary measure, the trial began enrolling patients in June 2010 in
The RNAi clinical dataflow culminated in early January 2012 with Alnylam announcing dose escalation data for the phase I study of ALN-PCS02 for the treatment of hypercholesterolemia. As predicted, equivalent knockdown to ALN-TTR01 were obtained at much reduced dosages with this improved ‘MC3-type’ SNALP formulation from Tekmira: ~60% mean peak reductions in serum PCSK9 for the 0.15mg/kg and 0.25mg/kg dose cohorts. As PCSK9 antagonizes ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol removal from circulation , its inhibition was accompanied by ~35% reductions in LDL cholesterol. Due to the favorable safety profile (rashes were noted, but these were likely related to route of administration as they also occurred in the placebo cohort), dose escalation is expected to proceed. At the higher dosages, more robust, less variable knockdown can be expected for both PCSK9 and LDL-cholesterol. This would put it in a favorable competitive position vis-à-vis the PCSK9 monoclonal antibody competition (e.g. REGN727/SAR236553).
The most significant limitation of the ALN-PCS02 study turned out to be the use of transient immune suppression. These caused short-lived (+65%) spikes and (-25%) depressions of PCSK9 and LDL-cholesterol, respectively. While transient immune suppression should be acceptable for many of the initial indications of high unmet medical need for which SNALP-based therapeutics are largely being developed at the moment, especially if once every month or two dosing can be achieved, they can not only complicate the analysis of studies such as ALN-PCS02, but would also restrict the eligible patient population for a condition such as hypercholesterolemia. Introduced as a precautionary measure following the TKM-ApoB experience, the question is whether it is possible to do entirely without it as SNALP potency has improved , lipid-specific toxicities been minimized, and more predictable innate immune stimulation assays been introduced as presented by Tekmira at a Drug Information Association (DIA) meeting on March 23, 2010, in Bethesda, MD.
The clinical results not only provided the long-awaited clinical validation and are a boost of confidence for the entire RNAi Therapeutics industry, but they directly de-risk two of the most important systemic delivery technologies: SNALP and AtuPLEX. The results with SNALP in particular set the stage for a forceful expansion of this delivery platform with already 5-6 candidates in active clinical development: ALN-VSP02, ALN-TTR01+02, TKM-PLK1, TKM-EBOLA, and ALN-PCS02. More still are expected to enter the clinic over the next two years. The following months should also add to the SNALP clinical experience in the form of results from the fully enrolled and dose-escalated ALN-TTR01 and ALN-PCS02 trials, an update on Tekmira’s cancer therapeutic candidate TKM-PLK1, and safety data from the TKM-EBOLA volunteer study. Since the ASCO 2011 presentation, Atu027 has attracted commercial interest in the form of various technology evaluations of AtuPLEX and related delivery technologies from Silence Therapeutics (partners: InteRNA Technologies, Mirna Therapeutics, an undisclosed Japanese ‘Top Ten’ global pharmaceutical company, and miRagen).
The space, however, awaits confidence expressed in the form of a more major financial commitment by a larger pharmaceutical company. This might break the gridlock caused by Roche’s decision to stop in-house RNAi Therapeutics development, a decision so powerful that it essentially caused all capital to retrench to the sidelines or leave RNAi Therapeutics entirely. What should not be lost is that the current situation also represents an attractive technical risk-financial reward opportunity for those companies that dare rely on their own scientific instincts rather than follow the herd. This includes mid-sized pharmaceutical companies and those in the newly emerged and emerging economies which are playing an increasingly important role in RNAi Therapeutics. As access to capital normalizes, platforms in addition to SNALP and AtuPLEX will likely emerge and help further expand the therapeutic reach of RNAi Therapeutics.
5’ RACE: 5’ rapid amplification of cDNA ends; Ktrans: volume transfer coefficient; RECIST: Response Evaluation Criteria of Solid Tumors; RONDEL: RNAi/Oligonucleotide Nanoparticle Delivery; siRNA: small interfering RNA; SNALP: stable nucleic acid lipid particle.
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