Monday, March 2, 2015

RNA Therapeutics Are Back in the Cardiometabolic Game

In the mid- to late 2000s, in the wake of Vioxx, I remember sounding the alarm bell on developing RNAi Therapeutics for cardiometabolic indications.  The FDA would simply refuse to approve cardiometabolic drugs even when strong data on widely accepted biomarkers such as blood glucose in diabetes and LDL-cholesterol levels in cardiovascular disease suggested that they should be efficacious.  Instead, the agency was demanding ridiculously expensive outcome trials for even the most underserved patient population, making cardiometabolic drug development difficult to justify financially.

Regulatory and technology changes

10 years later, the situation has changed dramatically due to a confluence of regulatory and technology changes.  In the regulatory arena, the staged approval process which involves a fast-to-market strategy for high unmet need orphan populations based on surrogate markers followed by the roll-out in larger patient populations, partly supported by the clinical experience gathered from the orphan indications, has been successful at rekindling interest in cardiometabolic drug innovation in general.

In terms of technology, both RNAi and antisense technologies have matured to a point that the risk:reward proposition looks highly promising not only for the most severe patient populations, but suitable for even the more general population.  The Old is exemplified by gen 2.0 RNaseH antisense oligonucleotide mipomersen for which it will be very difficult to break into markets beyond the ultra-orphan homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia one due to its weak drug activity and considerable side effects. 

In RNAi Therapeutics, the Old was represented by the need for intravenous administration with the former gold standard in RNAi delivery, 1st and 2nd generation SNALP liposomal nanoparticles (LNP), and their confounding effect on lipid metabolism (see the need for various normalizations in the phase I results of ALN-PCS02).  

Today, however, we not only have improved SNALP LNPs and 2nd generation RNaseH antisense (2.2), but more importantly GalNAc-targeted RNAi and antisense technologies by Arrowhead Research, ISIS Pharmaceuticals, Regulus Therapeutics, and Alnylam.  Importantly, due to their highly specific targeting of hepatocytes in the liver, the therapeutic window has been widened considerably.  In addition, the surprisingly long duration of target engagement makes monthly, if not quarterly dosing conceivable, therefore not only erasing, but surpassing oral small molecules in terms of patient convenience.  And we have not even considered the superior therapeutic utility that they promise by their ability to go after all conceivable targets- individually or in combination.  This, after all, is what we all should care about most.

The attraction of cardiometabolic applications is also reflected by the recent establishments of related franchises by Alnylam (cardiometabolic STAr) and ISIS Pharmaceuticals (Akcea lipid commercial subsidiary), with development programs targeting ApoCIII (ISIS Pharmaceuticals), PCSK9 (Alnylam/The Medicines Company), Lp little a (ISIS Pharmaceuticals), and ANGPTL3 (ISIS/Alnylam) looking already very favorable.  In addition, ISIS Pharmaceuticals sports a couple of interesting diabetes-focused programs (targets: PTB, GCGR, GCCR) which are showing novel therapeutic/safety profiles that could be suitable for specific sub-populations in the enormous, but equally complex diabetes market (e.g. insuling sensitization, reduction of glucose production).

Competitive outlook
As ISIS Pharmaceuticals and Alnylam compete for some of the same targets, the most common pattern you will likely see is that ISIS has a first-mover advantage (à IP and experience) with non-GalNAc generation 2.2 candidates due to their formerly somewhat fool-hardy, but now genius-looking pursuit of the cardiometabolic area.  When there is direct competition, the gen2.2-based drugs will likely be outcompeted by Alnylam’s GalNAc-siRNA conjugates due to their a) longer duration of action, and b) their possibly superior safety profile.

However,  as ISIS Pharmaceuticals is giving their cardiometabolic franchise a GalNAc overhaul, the company will also likely have the once monthly dosing frequency and a safer alternative turning it into a head-to-head race between Alnylam and ISIS Pharmaceuticals with winners that could differ from target to target.  Long-term, ISIS Pharmaceuticals may another ace in the competitive race as the single-stranded phosphorothioate oligonucleotide approach currently seems more amenable to oral dosing than double-stranded RNAi approaches.
While Tekmira’s SNALP LNP technology may be competitive when it comes to multiplexing targets, it is Arrowhead Research that is best positioned to surpass both Alnylam and ISIS Pharmaceuticals should they succeed in progressing their single-molecule subQ DPC technology into the clinic as indicated in last quarter’s conference call.  The endosomal release chemistry gives it a potency, and potentially also dosing frequency advantage over Alnylam’s simpler GalNAcs. 

Expect the CEO of Alnylam to increasingly attack the Arrowhead competition by raising safety concerns as he did in the recent RBC Healthcare conference presentation. I find this remarkable given that Arrowhead Research has not released the full safety data from its phase I study of ARC520.  But if you don't think you can win on potency, it may be best to sow seeds of safety doubt based on innuendo.

So watch this space. Next up are results from ISIS-GCCRRx (diabetes) and ISIS-ANGPTL3Rx (lipid disorders), clinical results from which are imminent.  Head-turning ALN-PCSsc results could be out in Q3. 


Anonymous said...

I thought Tekmira's 3rd/4th/5th generation LNPs were going to be the silver bullet, and GalNAc was an inferior technology that was going to have to rely on its SubQ gimmick to compete (because IV infusions really aren't that inconvenient, plus docs might actually prefer them because they generate more income for them). Oh wait, those safety concerns with LNPs were a real thing, weren't they?

Anonymous said...

Dirk you forgot to mention Benitec (again)...

Anonymous said...

Dirks not holding TKMR at this time therefore it's not in flavour.. take your guess as to what he is holding?? surprised MRNA isnt mentioned

Anonymous said...

And Dirk's on the attack once again on his twitter feed re: Benitec's clinical trial progress, which he would well understand is progressing broadly in line with established industry norms.

Betcha he's trying to mop up cheap BLT stock while levelling his biased, manipulative diatribe at unsuspecting investors.

He should be ashamed of himself.

Anonymous said...

interesting speaker to have on this list

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