Wednesday, May 27, 2015

RXi Pharmaceuticals Could Be Much More Than Skin Wound Healing

RXi Pharmaceuticals today commenced a secondary offering setting it on course to raise ~$10M, enough to finance the company for another year while expanding its pipeline and technology.  It could thus mark a new chapter in the life of this company which had shoe-boxed itself into a single-product (RXI-109 for dermal wound healing) company following a toxic 2012 financing that gave Tang Capital Partners de facto control over the company (pro tip: when you see the likes of Tang or Deerfield getting involved, it usually is not to the benefit of common stock holders). 

The news this morning that the preferred stock overhang (àTang Capital Partners) had finally been cleared, then paved the way towards the financing (amount and pricing to be determined).  

With RXI-109 winding its way through phase II studies, it became clear that RXi had to open itself up to new opportunities enabled by its promising self-delivering RNAi platform.  The financing will initially allow RXi to develop RXI-109 also for ocular (retinal and corneal) scarring-related indications such as wet AMD and cataract surgery.  First eye-related clinical trials with self-delivering RNAi triggers are expected to commence later this year.

The eye is an interesting application of sd-RNAi technology not only for the lucrative eye disease market (both genetic and age-related of considerable unmet medical need), but also because they seem to be able to penetrate throughout the eye (see image) whereas in the skin, distribution currently is limited to areas close to the injection site barring new delivery breakthroughs (patches, creams and the like).  In addition to cholesterol, it may also be interesting to test other ligands such as Vitamin A and E for enhanced uptake into certain ocular cell types.

Lots of unexplored potential

Beyond the skin and eye, self-delivering RNAi strategies hold considerable promise for other tissue targets, both by direct/local and systemic delivery.  In terms of local delivery, I would be highly interested in the biodistribution of intrathecally administered sd-RNAi triggers in non-human primates.  This is because of their long phosphorothioated single-strand overhang and thus similarity to phosphorothioate antisense oligonucleotides which are starting to show amazing results in the clinic for CNS applications (watch out for update on the infant ISIS-SMNRx study by Isis Pharmaceuticals).

In terms of systemic delivery, sd-RNAi chemistry and structure may synergize well with conjugate-RNAi approaches, both in their simple (--> Alnylam GalNAc-type) and more refined form (--> Arrowhead DPC-type).  Even without further modification, RXi-type self-delivering RNAi has shown surprising knockdown efficacy in models of pre-eclampsia as shown by respected UMass scientists Melissa Moore and Anastasia Khvorova (formerly of RXi Pharmaceuticals).  

If RXi can get the backing from serious biotech investors and eventually a new management fit to lead a modern biotechnology company, the current $16M market valuation (for RXI-109 in the clinic for dermal scarring and soon in the eye; self-delivering platform potential; stake in MirImmune) of the company could make it an irresistible investment opportunity.  If management, however, continues to dig in their heels and refuses to listen to outside advice chances are that the financial death spiral will continue. 
Suspicious shorting into financing

It used to be common biotech practice that investors-in-the-know were allowed to short into financing resting assured that the offering will allow them to cover at a lower share price.  It is therefore remarkable that in the days and weeks before the financing, the short interest has sky-rocketed from virtually none to around 10% of the float and possibly much more by now due to the delays in reporting short interest.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Aptamer-Targeted RNAi Trigger Delivery

In honor of 25 years of aptamers, or better the SELEX process which underlies the discovery of aptamers, I thought it might be a good time to revisit aptamers for the delivery of RNAi Therapeutics.

Aptamers are nucleic acids that have been selected to preferentially recognize a target, usually a protein, via their 3-dimensional structure in analogy to how monoclonal antibodies recognize their targets.  Aptamers are showing most promise in therapeutic development for the targeting of extracellular proteins in the eye for applications like wet AMD and diabetic macular edema (see Fovista from Ophthotech). 

Its success for systemic applications has been much more modest, however, with short circulation times and unexpected adverse events in a recent phase III study (likely due to the PEG portion of the aptamer drug) largely accounting for it.

Aptamers have also been considered as cell-targeting agents for RNAi Therapeutics.  Early reports suggested efficacy in HIV and cancer models.  Skepticism around the on-target mechanism in these examples was considerable though largely due to questions around how they were supposed to escape the endosomes.

I also fell into the camp of doubters (and still have some reservations), but have adjusted my view to a more productive one after it became clear that IF you had highly productive endosomal uptake like ASGPR/GalNAc and a highly stabilized RNAi trigger, gene silencing is possible even without explicit endosomal release chemistry.

Time to try the next iteration: Aptamer-DPCs

As there may not be another ASGPR-type receptor in the body and to compensate for lower drug exposure compared to the liver, in the quest to make aptamer-delivered RNAi Therapeutics more robust, the new learnings of RNAi trigger stability are probably best applied within the context of DPC delivery technology by Arrowhead Research.

Accordingly, the perhaps 10x lower uptake in say PSMA-expressing prostate cancer cells will be compensated by adding the RNAi trigger-aptamer complex (as one or separately) to a masked endosomal release polymer.  In case that the target cell receptor is only abundant, but does not support productive endosomal uptake, another aptamer may target a second co-receptor on the same cell (akin to some bispecific antibodies, co-receptors in viral cell uptake).

Following endosomal uptake, the masking groups come off, endosomal permeability increased so that the RNAi trigger may escape into the cytoplasm.  In certain configurations, a Dicer substract-type RNAi trigger structure may simplify design and increase stability.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Dicerna Keeps Searching for Its Identity

Dicerna Pharmaceuticals recent move from Watertown to Cambridge is symbolic for its continued search for a place in the RNAi Therapeutics landscape.  Following some setbacks in its cancer and home-brew LNP efforts, the company now pins its hope on that it can compete head-on with Alnylam in the development of GalNAc-RNAi trigger conjugates for gene knockdown in the liver.

Oncology on hold

Like others in the field, confidence in its cancer program (DCR-MYC in phase I/II studies for solid cancers and HCC) seems to be low.  In the absence of clear-cut early development-stage cancer responses and confirmation of bona fide tumor-wide gene knockdown, cancer drug development remains a hit-and-usually-miss for the Oligonucleotide Therapeutics industry.

As a result, Dicerna seems to view their own mouse data with skepticism just as I myself have yet to see data supporting tumor penetration and bona fide knockdown in well-controlled studies.  The company has to be credited that it is now setting the bar for DCR-MYC quite high when clinical data from higher-dose cohorts is expected to emerge around year-end.  If DCR-MYC does not make the cut, Dicerna will likely cut its losses in cancer drug development and LNP research in general.

DCR-PH1 close call

Dicerna management was also surprisingly frank about their hesitations about the technical success of their most interesting current program, namely DCR-PH1 for the treatment of hyperoxaluria type I. 
After reviewing the latest non-human primate studies, it now appears that at least an 85% mRNA knockdown of the HAO-1 target gene will be required to see the key oxalate biomarkers ‘move’, and over 90% for more robust movement.  Based on rodent data, the company had thought that 75% might be sufficient.

In NHP studies of DCR-PH1, an 84% average peak knockdown was seen following a single dose of 0.3mg/kg of a Tekmira SNALP LNP formulation with 68% knockdown remaining at week 4.  0.3mg/kg seems to be the current well-tolerated upper dose of Tekmira’s LNP formulations and almost identical (protein) knockdowns were observed with 0.3mg/kg of Tekmira LNP-formulated ALN-TTR02. 

In clinical 3-weekly multi-dose studies of ALN-TTR02, this translated into sustained 80-85% target gene knockdowns.  This means that Dicerna now relies on the safety of DCR-PH1 to allow for doses of around 0.5mg/kg.  Not impossible, but probably a close call given the history of SNALP LNP and further exposes DCR-PH1 to competitive threats.

GalNAcs coming

Given the stage of their internal cancer and LNP efforts, Dicerna is now pinning its hopes on taking on Alnylam with GalNAc-RNAi trigger.  This is where Dicerna is currently investing most of its R&D efforts in.

It has now disclosed non-human primate data from those efforts, with 5 consecutive daily doses of 2.5mg/kg GalNAc-Dicer substrates resulting in ~70% knockdown of HAO-1 2-3 weeks after this loading dose.  Given the larger molecular size of the extended Dicer-substrates versus Tuschl-type siRNAs, this corresponds on a molar basis to ~1.5mg/kg of Alnylam’s GalNAc-siRNAs.  

This is somewhat less than what Alnylam presented for their PH1 program at OTS 2014 (ED80s in rodents of ~2.5mg/kg weekly) and Dicerna's GalNAcs would seem to require some further refinements to be competitive.

But in this case, they will end up with something that has little pharmacological distinction, is 3-4 years behind Alnylam, which in turn is not shy to put legal/IP pressure on its competition.

In my opinion, Dicerna management and Board need to put in quality time to find their true identity.

Disclosure: I am short DRNA as a relative valuation short for my ARWR long position. DRNA has a slightly larger market cap than ARWR, but ARWR has a distinguished, more mature DPC pipeline with ARC-520 and ARC-AAT two attractive candidates in the clinic whereas DRNA has nothing in the clinic it apparently has confidence in.  It's possible that both stocks are grossly undervalued, but relative valuation is one of my main RNAi investment methods and this is why I'm applying it here. Nothing personal.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Arrowhead Publishes SubQ Delivery Technology to Go Beyond the Liver

In late 2012, Arrowhead Research shocked the Oligonucleotide Therapeutics world when it presented spectacularly potent and prolonged gene knockdown data in non-human primates using a subcutaneously administered single-molecule Dynamic Polymer Conjugate (DPC) formulation.  This arguably represented the most elegant delivery technology at the time.  Moreover, also due to its small, but not too small size (10-20nm) and slight negative charge, it provided us with a glimpse into the future of systemic RNAi delivery for regulating genes beyond the liver.

It certainly got my full attention and made me invest almost 100% of my stock portfolio back then.

Unfortunately, despite the validation in non-human primates which suggested clinical readiness would not be far off, the subQ DPC technology has seemingly struggled to reach clinical/commercial maturity. Not only Arrowhead’s lead development candidate, ARC520 for HBV, but also its second development candidate, ARC-AAT for AAT-related liver disease, was still based on the intravenously administered two molecule DPC version.  Although the reasons for the delays were never really disclosed, a few comments here and there made it seem very likely that chemistry and manufacturing issues were behind the delay.

Back to the Future

Last week, Arrowhead Research finally published a paper showing that single molecule DPC is still alive and kicking (Rozema et al.2015) and is progressing towards clinical application.  In essence, the new single-molecule subQ DPC prototype comprises of a membrane-active polymer which has been masked from premature cytotoxic interactions by pegylation and cell-targeting ligands that are added via protease-sensitive bonds; as before, the highly modified/stabilized RNAi triggers are appended by disulfide chemistry. 

The DPC is made in a 4-step process followed by a purification step to remove unwanted side-products and reactants.  The latter step is apparently important when going into primates.

The new old DPCs are thus distinguished from the intravenous version not only in that it combines the RNAi trigger and endolysosomal release polymer in a single molecule, but most importantly by the nature of its triggered release mechanism.  Whereas in the former DPC generations triggered release was dependent on changes in pH such as they occur when a DPC is endosomally taken up, they are now responsive to the presence of certain proteases in lysosomes

pH-dependent formulations apparently suffered from instabilities both in the body and during storage.  This was adequate for targeting genes in the liver because of the ready access of macromolecules in the circulation to this organ following intravenous administration, but not when the DPC first has to reach the circulation from the subcutaneous space and when less well accessible target organs are the ultimate destination.

Accordingly, non-liver single-molecule DPCs of the latest publication had impressive circulation half-times of the intact, protected molecule of 11 hours.  Similarly, such DPCs are stable for at least a year both in solution and when lyophilized. 

The extra-hepatic potential thus facilitated by increased stability now needs to be demonstrated by finding suitable targeting ligands and I’m sure Arrowhead has been busy working on that.  It should be noted that for target tissues where high concentrations comparable to the liver are unlikely to be achieved following systemic delivery, the extra kick that comes from an explicit release chemistry could provide a critical advantage over competing approaches.  These include simple conjugates of the GalNAc-type and probably also self-delivering RNAi trigger chemistries which incorporate ‘milder’ release chemistries (like lipid tails).

Knockdown lasting for weeks and months

The most impressive demonstration of the single molecule DPC performance in the Rozema paper came from the primate studies.  Here, a single administration of 0.5mg/kg 2’-O-methyl/F-modified RNAi trigger led to a highly potent knockdown (peak knockdown >95%) of liver expressed Factor VII with >80% knockdown of 2 and 4 months following subcutaneous and intravenous administration, respectively.

Following the 2012 delays and some uncertainties around what was really new and old in the recent publication, I am somewhat hesitant to declare that subQ DPC is now fully de-risked and ready-to-go.  In that regard, it would be helpful to learn more about the tox profile of the new molecules and related to that which polymers will be eventually used (e.g. 2-molecule with melittin-like peptide, a polyacrylate in the publication).

Nevertheless, since Arrowhead has said that the new 2015 development candidate may be from the subQ line of DPCs (or if not going after a extra-hepatic target) one would think that the most important challenges have now been overcome.
By Dirk Haussecker. All rights reserved.

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