Monday, October 9, 2017

HBV RNAi 2.0

Gene knockdown, in particular RNAi and RNaseH antisense, holds great promise in the treatment of hepatitis B viral infection.  It is currently the only practical means to potently inhibit all viral gene products*.  It therefore is poised to become a cornerstone of future treatment regimens aiming at functionally curing HBV, an infection predisposing more than 200 million patients worldwide currently to liver failure and cancer.

Arrowhead- lessons learned

Unfortunately, the field took a big hit last year when HBV RNAi trailblazer Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals had to abandon its efforts due to preclinical toxicity resulting from its particular approach to releasing the RNAi triggers into the target cell cytoplasm (monkey deaths due to the DPC).
Nonetheless, after more than a dozen trials in WoMan, the company had learned a great deal about HBV and how to best tackle it by RNAi.  Chief among those lessons were the observations that RNAi can suppress viral genes, most notably the surface antigens HBsAg by sometimes more than 2-3 logs.  Moreover, in HBe-antigen negative and those HBe-antigen positive patients previously exposed to polymerase inhibitors (‘nukes’), Arrowhead painfully found that most HBsAg is derived from host genomically integrated HBV.  Consequently, RNAi trigger target sites placed downstream of the HBsAg ORF may be lost and RNAi rendered futile (ARC520àARC521 transition). 
Finally, consistent with the experience with nukes and interferons, it appears that RNAi treatment success (functional cure) should follow complex viral and host immune dynamics and while intriguing changes were observed in the clinic with ARC520/1 (e.g. new lower baselines following treatment cessation), it remains unclear how long an RNAi agent would have to be given.  This has implications for whether intravenous routes of administrations are practical or not.

The competition
Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals, however, has not been the only RNAi game in town developing HBV therapeutics.  Its main competitor in terms of scientific prowess has been Arbutus Biopharma (renamed from Tekmira after biotech wonder boy Vivek Ramaswamy of Axovant fame spectacularly raided the company in 2015).  Its lead RNAi candidate ARB-1467 comprises of 3 RNAi triggers which are formulated in lipids (LNP) and is given intravenously alongside steroids.

While I like the 3-trigger strategy for pangenotypic coverage and for minimizing the risk of the virus developing drug resistance (including by genomic integration), the more cumbersome intravenous route of administration- now reduced to short 2-week intervals in an effort to increase potency- and the steroids makes ARB-1467 uncompetitive in a world of more potent and less frequent simple subcutaneous competition.  The use of immune suppressive steroids, of course, in HBV patients is a dicey proposition and would also seem to run counter to the ultimate aim of achieving immune control of the virus.
Unless it turns out to promote a functional cure along with other agents in short order, say less than 6-12 months, ARB-1467 will likely end up as a science project without much clinical impact.

RNAi powerhouse Alnylam Pharmaceuticals meanwhile is the third RNAi company that has begun clinical development of an HBV RNAi agent.  Importantly, it has been the first company using a simple subcutaneous GalNAc-conjugate format, therefore positioning it to be useful even when more prolonged treatment will turn out to be necessary.
After review of the program, however, it appears that the company prematurely rushed the single trigger ALN-HBV into the clinic without thinking too much about resistance issues.  To start with, ~2% of tested HBV genotypes have mismatches with the trigger that mitigate targeting efficiency.  As a single trigger candidate, ALN-HBV will also have to be given alongside highly potent replication inhibitors (nukes) as one can easily see how ALN-HBV resistant genotypes would otherwise eventually take over.

ALN-HBV moreover targets a site downstream of the HBsAg ORF, around the DR2 repeat element with marks the integration hotspot that has bedeviled ARC-520 before.  While Alnylam has been going around claiming ALN-HBV doesn’t suffer from ARC-520-type issues, I would challenge them with two points:

1)     under selection pressure by ALN-HBV to maintain HBsAg expression and thus evade host immune detection, the virus may ‘choose’ to break up upstream the ALN-HBV target site without affecting the HBsAg ORF; 

2)      more troublesome, closer inspection of the very paper Alnylam points to for making its claim (Jiang et al. Genome Research 22: 593) and which analyzes HBV integration hotspots, shows that ~40% of DNA break points appear to be upstream of the ALN-HBV target site (compare ‘position 1600’ below).      

One can therefore easily see why the project leader behind ALN-HBV, Laura Sepp-Lorenzino, has recently left the company to join Vertex Pharmaceuticals.  One has to get the impression that ALN-HBV, just like ALN-GO1 have only been rushed to the fore as a front in order to keep a lid on their competition by creating doubt about the ability of Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals and Dicerna, respectively, to compete with juggernaut Alnylam. 

It is yet another lesson that in drug development, a detailed understanding of the disease is as important as the technology used to tackle it.  Half-hearted side projects typically lead nowhere.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention the RNaseH antisense efforts by Ionis along with partner GSK, and those of Roche.  Ionis/GSK are not only developing an unconjugated fully phosphorothioated antisense molecule, which I believe has little chance of competing in the market due to predictable safety and potency issues, but also a more interesting GalNAc-conjugate version (IONIS-HBV-LRx).  Although I currently see RNAi ahead of antisense in gene knockdown in hepatocytes (potency, frequency of administration, and safety), the GalNAc-conjugate version potentially has the advantage of also being able to access the pregenomic RNA directly, while direct pgRNA cleavage by RNAi of this non-mRNA remains to be shown.  My prediction is that  while RNAi can to some degree access pgRNA, this is not as effective compared to its cleaving mRNA.  What all of this means biologically remains to be seen.

Arrowhead HBV RNAi 2.0

Therefore, after all the drama and competitive noise, Arrowhead is poised to recapture the HBV RNAi lead with its new GalNAc-based candidate.  ARO-HBV is poised to enter the clinic in the first half of 2018.   It is subcutaneously administered and involves 2 RNAi triggers that are claimed to cover the viral resistance bases, including HBsAg derived from genomically integrated HBV.
The company expects the agent to be used once a month or less frequently, an attribute valuable should functional cures take longer to emerge.

Given knowledge leadership in HBV gene knockdown and prior practical experience, Arrowhead should also be able to navigate through the HBV clinical development maze faster than its competition.  As can be seen from its resurging stock price, this view is also shared by an increasing number of investors. 
Arrowhead has paid for taking some short-cuts when it was compelled to push ARC-520 into the clinic to give it a shot of becoming a serious player in RNAi before it ran out of capital.  It took some risks and failed, but that failure could well be the soil from which future success will emerge. 

Disclosure: long Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals







* it is unclear whether RNAi can directly cleave pregenomic RNA, whereas RNaseH antisense should be able to do that.


Anonymous said...

ARWR gets ahead and finds results in HBV, the sky is the limit for them and their TRiM platforms for so many hundreds of other less complicated human diseases. ALL about DELIVERY and the Proof of Concept has been reached via AlNY. I've loaded my ARWR boat to the rim.

Anonymous said...

Dirk, you have no credibility. Everyone knows the exact company you are bashing, ie ABUS, is the one you are buying. If anyone followed your lead, ie short ALNY when it was 30, Short Sgmo at 7 dollars, short ABUS, buy MRNA, RXII, ARWR, IONS, DRNA they would be losing money.

So, why do you even bother?

scout41 said...

No mention of Benitec HBV program?

scout41 said...

Dirk does sparks news change your mind regarding Benitec since it is a gene therapy company?
Spark is a benitec partner- does this change your mind about benitec?

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