Friday, June 11, 2010

We've moved!

Haberman Associates' Biopharmconsortium Blog has moved to our own site. You can now find it at

Please go to the new site, which has many new posts on it. We invite you to keep reading our blog, to subscribe to it, and to make useful comments to our blog posts if you so desire.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

We're moving!

Haberman Associates' Biopharmconsortium Blog is in the final stages of moving to our own site. You can now find it at

Our new site is now also powered by WordPress. We hope that you like the new format, and the WordPress features. We are new to WordPress, so will be making further improvements as we learn more about the system.

We hope that you will also make use of the other resources on our website,

As you may have noticed, many blogs that start out as Blogspot blogs (hosted by Google's Blogger) eventually change to WordPress, and migrate to the blogger's own site. Now our blog has migrated as well.

We shall keep this old blog online for awhile to help our visitors and subscribers to make the transition to the new site. However, all new posts will appear only on the new blog.

We hope that you will continue to visit the Biopharmconsortium Blog at its new home, and to subscribe to our posts. We also welcome your constructive comments as always.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A frog jumps into the animal model lineup

The cover of the 30 April 2010 issue of Science bears a photo of a tadpole of the western clawed frog Xenopus tropicalis. In that issue is a report on the draft sequence of the genome of this organism, and a short companion news feature. The report on the genome emphasizes X. tropicalis’ role as an emerging animal model in developmental and evolutionary biology and in comparative genomics.

X. tropicalis is also an emerging animal model in biomedical research, potentially including development of disease models for drug discovery. We emphasize that potential role in Chapter 5 (“Xenopus tropicalis: an emerging model system”) of our book-length report, Animal Models for Therapeutic Strategies, published by Cambridge Healthtech Institute in March 2010.

The Nature news feature, authored by Elizabeth Pennisi, also cites the potential role of this frog in biomedical research. X. tropicalis has about 1700 genes that are related to human genes that have been linked to disease. Some of these diseases are type 2 diabetes, acute myeloid leukemia, congenital muscular dystrophy, alcoholism, and sudden infant death syndrome. In our book chapter, we discuss efforts to develop an X. tropicalis model of congenital spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). We also discuss studies aimed at using the frog as an animal model of human congenital heart disease, and for developing novel therapies for these conditions.

The related frog Xenopus laevis (known as the African clawed frog) is an old animal model that has long been used in developmental and cell biology research. However, X. laevis (pictured above) is genetically intractable, since its genome is allotetraploid, having been formed by fusion of diploid genomes from two different species. This makes genetic and genomic studies with this frog difficult. In contrast, X. tropicalis is diploid. X tropicalis also has a much shorter generation time than X. laevis, and is much smaller, thus requiring less space and making breeding and experimentation much more feasible than with X. laevis.

Some of the same researchers that have been participating in the X. tropicalis genome sequencing project have been developing genetic tools such as transgenics, genetic screening, and gene knockdown using antisense morpholinos. With the determination of the genome sequence, X. tropicalis may join the zebrafish as a lower vertebrate animal model in developing novel therapeutic strategies for human diseases.

Elsewhere on the animal model genome front, researchers recently published a draft sequence of the genome of Hydra magnipapillata. Hydra, a freshwater cnidarian or polyp, has long been a staple of high school and university biology lab courses, so is a favorite of many biologists. The University of California at Irvine, whose researchers participated in the Hydra genome project along with many others (e.g., leading genomics researcher J. Craig Venter), has long been a center of Hydra research, beginning in the late 1960s.

Hydra is used as an animal model in the study of regeneration, body patterning, and stem cell biology. The determination of the genome sequence of Hydra will facilitate these studies, as well as studies of comparative genomics and evolutionary biology.

Hydra may also be of interest for biomedical research. As discussed in the genome report, Hydra possesses four homologues of the Myc oncogene, which is involved in human cancers and also regulates pluripotency and self-renewal of mammalian stem cells. Myc is also central to the pluripotentency of Hydra stem cells. The researchers also found genes in the Hydra genome that are linked with Huntington's disease and with the beta-amyloid pathway of Alzheimer's disease.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

More on anti-aging research: Continuing controversy, opportunity, and good news

1. Continuing Controversy

In our blog post on 10 February 2010, we discussed the controversy over Sirtris/GlaxoSmithKline’s reseveratrol formulation, and its second-generation sirtuin-1 (SIRT1) activators. Researchers at Amgen and Pfizer found that the apparent in vitro activation of SIRT1 by these compounds was an artifact of the experimental method used by Sirtris researchers. The Amgen group found that the fluorescent SIRT1 peptide substrate used in the Sirtris assay is a substrate for SIRT1, but in the absence of the covalently linked fluorophore, the peptide is not a SIRT1 substrate. Although resveratrol appears to be an activator of SIRT1 if the artificial fluorophore-conjugated substrate is used, resveratrol does not activate SIRT1 in vitro as determined by assays using two other non-fluorescently-labeled substrates.

Last month, I attended two meetings at which this controversy was discussed. One was the Bio-IT World Conference & Expo in Boston. At that conference, Christoph Westphal (then CEO of Sirtris) gave a keynote address. In that presentation, Mr. Wesphal stuck with the story that Sirtis’ compounds and its assays are valid. The day after his presentation, Mr. Westphal resigned as Sirtris’ CEO, and now is the head of GSK’s SR One venture fund. He and other Sirtris and Vertex founders also started the Longwood Founders Fund in February of this year.

At the other meeting (which was Harvard-related), one of the most respected leaders of the longevity-related pathway field (whose name I am withholding) stated that the whole resveratrol/sirtuin-activator story is nonsense. He did, however, concur with our views on anti-aging pathways as expressed in our November 8, 2009 article on this blog. We do not go as far as calling the resveratrol story nonsense, but remain unconvinced of the mechanistic basis for resveratrol action pending further evidence.

Meanwhile, Derek Lowe’s “In the Pipeline” blog has a discussion of Mr. Wesphal’s talk at the Bio-IT conference.

In its 25 March 2010 issue, Nature also has a News Feature centered upon the controversy. This article (written by Cambridge MA-based Nature reporter Heidi Ledford) basically says that the controversy remains unsettled, but that several laboratories are working to resolve the assay issue. These include corporate researchers at Sirtris, Leonard Guarente of MIT (another leader in the longevity-related pathway field, who is co-chair of Sirtris’ scientific advisory board), and Anthony Sauve of Weill Cornell Medical School (also a member of Sirtris’ scientific advisory board).

2. Opportunity

There was a review of longevity-related pathways in the 16 April 2010 issue of Science. It covers all the bases of anti-aging research in yeast, worms, flies, and mammals, with an emphasis on the TOR and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) pathways. Sirtuins and resveratrol rate a minimal mention in the review.

Cynthia Kenyon, another leader in the longevity pathway field, published a review on the genetics of aging in a special Nature Insight section on aging in the 25 March 2010 issue. In this review, Dr. Kenyon discussed the panoply of aging-related pathways in worms, flies, and mice, especially the insulin/IGF-1 and TOR pathways, as well as several other biomolecules and biological processes. Dr. Kenyon discusses sirtuins, but notes the unknowns in aging-related mechanisms involving sirtuins, especially in mammals. She also notes the difficulties in interpreting results with resveratrol. In addition to the issue with the assays involving the fluorescent substrate, she notes that although (in studies conducted by Sirtris researchers and their academic colleagues) resveratrol has been found to extend the lifespan of mice fed a high-fat diet, it did not extend the lifespan of mice fed a normal diet. Dr. Kenyon also cited the results of studies with resveratrol in yeast, worms, and flies that are not consistent with the hypothesis that resveratrol extends lifespan by acting as a sirtuin activator.

The bottom line of the discussion in the two reviews in Science and Nature is that lifespan is controlled by sets of complex, interacting pathways. Sirtuins represent only one control point in these pathways, which might not be the most important one. Thus no one company “owns” the anti-aging field in terms of drug discovery and development, and there is a lot of opportunity out there. Even Mr. Westphal stated as much in his Bio-IT World presentation.

Interestingly, Dr Kenyon notes that different closely related animals can have large differences in lifespan. For example, rats live for three years, but squirrels for 25. She speculates that differences in longevity might be easily evolvable, and mechanisms by which lifespan changes during evolution (perhaps involving mutations in regulatory genes or that affect rates of respiration) might constitute novel intervention points.

3. Good News

Now for some good news about aging. In an article in the 25 March 2010 Nature Insight section by James W Vaupel (Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, and Duke University), the author presents evidence that human senescence (i.e., deterioration with age)—at least in advanced countries—has been postponed by a decade. This process, first noted in 1994, is continuing. The factors that are making this possible are prosperity (which promotes good health) and medicine (including medical and surgical interventions to prevent or treat disability, and public health efforts). These two factors enable people to reach old age in better health, as well as promoting better health in older people.

This ongoing postponement of senescence and mortality provides a foundation for ongoing anti-aging research and eventual treatments based on that research. (One must remember, however, that regulatory agencies as well as the practical considerations of drug development will not permit researchers and companies to utilize mortality as an endpoint in clinical trials. Companies must therefore develop putative “anti-aging drugs” for specific diseases associated with aging, such as diabetes, cancer, various cardiovascular indications, and dementia.) The postponement of senescence also has profound implications for how one lives one’s life, as well as for social policy and the practice of medicine.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Agios Pharmaceuticals partners with Celgene

On December 31, 2009, we posted an article on this blog about Agios Pharmaceuticals (Cambridge, MA). Agios is a private research-stage biotech company that is developing a pipeline of oncology drugs based on targeting metabolic pathways in cancer cells. In our article, we focused on Agios’ research on mutations in the metabolic enzyme cytosolic isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH1) as a causative factor in gliomas and glioblastomas. We also mentioned Agios’ research on pyruvate kinase M2 (PKM2) and aerobic glycolysis in cancer.

On April 15, 2010, it was announced that Agios and Celgene Corporation (Summit, NJ), a public biotechnology company with marketed products, had formed a strategic collaboration in the area of cancer metabolism.

Celgene markets Thalomid (thalidomide), which is approved by the FDA for treatment of multiple myeloma (MM). Thalidomide was notorious for causing birth defects in the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, beginning in the late 1990s, this drug has undergone a rehabilitation, provided that proper precautions are maintained to prevent its use in pregnant women and women who may become pregnant. Celgene has also been developing a class of thalidomide-derivative immunomodulatory drugs (IMiDs), which are designed to have greater efficacy against cancer and lesser toxicity than thalidomide. Of these drugs, Revlimid (lenalidomide) is approved by the FDA for treatment of MM and myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) (life-threatening diseases of the bone marrow in which abnormally functioning immature hematopoietic cells are made; MDS can progress to acute myeloid leukemia in a substantial percentage of patients.) Celgene is researching additional indications for lenalidomide, and is also developing other IMiDs for various indications in cancer and inflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases.

Celgene’s Vidaza (azacitidine), a nucleoside metabolic inhibitor, is also indicated for the treatment of MDS. Celgene acquired Vidaza via its 2007 acquisition of Pharmion (Boulder, CO), which had developed the drug. Vidaza is an inhibitor of DNA methyltransferases (DNMT), which are enzymes that methylate DNA at specific sites and are important in epigenetic regulation. It was the first approved drug that works via an epigenetic mechanism. (Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene function that do not involve changes in the nucleotide sequence of DNA. Major epigenetic processes include DNA methylation, modification of histones in chromatin, and RNA interference.)

Since Vidaza’s approval in 2004, two histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors, which also modulate epigenetic regulation, have been approved. In late 2009, Celgene acquired the HDAC inhibitor romidepsin (Istodax) [approved in 2009 for the treatment of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (CTCL)], via its acquisition of Gloucester Pharmaceuticals (Cambridge MA).

Celgene is also developing several other anti-inflammatory drugs and kinase inhibitors.

The goal of the Agios/Celgene collaboration is to discover, develop, and commercialize novel oncology therapeutics based on Agios’ innovative cancer metabolism platform. Celgene sees the potential for early drug development opportunities in Agios’ IDH1 and PKM2 programs, as well as future opportunities based on new targets expected from Agios research programs. Celgene also sees opportunities to harness Agios’ R&D to expand its own pipeline in cancer and other diseases.

Under the terms of the agreement, Agios will receive a $130 million upfront payment, including equity. In return, Celgene will receives an initial period during which it will have the exclusive option to develop any drugs resulting from the Agios cancer metabolism platform. Celgene may also extend this exclusivity period through additional funding. Agios will lead discovery and early development for all cancer metabolism programs. During the period of exclusivity, Celgene will have an exclusive option to license any clinical candidates at the end of Phase I, and will lead and fund global development and commercialization of licensed programs. On each program, Agios may receive up to $120 million in milestones as well as royalties, and may also participate in the development and commercialization of certain products in the United States.

The Celgene collaboration continues Agios’ record of success in fundraising, and in gaining the recognition of the scientific and corporate communities. Despite the generally unfavorable financial environment for young biotech companies, Agios has raised, through alliances and investments, over $163 million in less than two years. This is despite the fact that the company has not one drug in the clinic. Agios expects to have a lead compound in the clinic some time in 2010, however. As is always the case, the validation of Agios’ innovative biology-driven platform awaits the results of human clinical trials and the attainment of regulatory approval.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Some notes on acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL)

In our last blog post (April 15, 2010), we discussed genetically engineered mouse cancer models, with emphasis on the work of Dr. Pier Paolo Pandolfi (Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center Cancer Center and the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, Boston MA) and his colleagues. Part of that discussion was on Dr. Pandolfi’s earlier work on the construction of genetically engineered models of acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), and the use of these models in designing therapies for that disease. As the result of these studies and the work of others, the major form of APL (in which leukemic cells express the fusion protein PML-RARα) is now treated with a combination of all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) and arsenic trioxide (As2O3). What once was an invariably fatal disease now has about a 90% survival rate.

For those of you who are interested in the mechanisms by which ATRA and As2O3 work in treatment of APL: the 9 April 2010 issue of Science has a Perspective and a research report that focus on the mechanistic basis for the action of As2O3. For the mechanistic basis of the action of ATRA in APL, you may read a November 2008 research report published in Nature Medicine.

As soon as I posted the blog article on Dr. Pandolfi’s work, I received my 9 April issue of Science with the articles on As2O3 in APL. So I am passing this information on to readers of this blog.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Developing improved mouse models of cancer for drug discovery and development

The April 1, 2010 issue of The Scientist has an article, entitled “Building a better mouse”, on efforts of researchers to develop improved mouse models of cancer.

Current mouse models of cancer, mainly xenograft models in which human cancer cell lines are transplanted into immune deficient mice, are notoriously unpredictive of efficacy when oncology drug candidates are tested in them. This is a major factor in the high failure rate of oncology drugs in clinical trials. It is estimated that oncology drugs that enter human clinical trials have a 95 percent attrition rate, as compared to the 89 percent attrition rate for all clinical candidates. (Poorly predictive animal models are a major factor in the failure of clinical candidates in all therapeutic areas, but cancer models are particularly unpredictive.)

The Scientist article focuses on the ongoing “co-clinical mouse/human trials” now being led by Pier Paolo Pandolfi, MD, PhD (Director, Cancer and Genetics Program, Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center Cancer Center and the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center). Dr. Pandolfi and his colleagues have constructed genetically engineered transgenic mouse strains that have genetic changes that mimic those found in human cancers. These mouse models spontaneous develop cancers that resemble the corresponding human cancers. In the co-clinical mouse/human trials, researchers simultaneous treat a genetically engineered mouse model and patients with tumors that exhibit the same set of genetic changes with the same experimental targeted drugs. The goal is to determine to what extent the mouse models are predictive of patient response to therapeutic agents, and of tumor progression and survival. The studies may thus result in validated mouse models that are more predictive of drug efficacy than the currently standard xenograft models.

The human clinical trials being “shadowed” by simultaneous studies in mice include Phase III trials of several targeted therapies for lung and prostate cancer. Xenograft models in which tumor tissue from the patients have been transplanted into immunosuppressed mice are being tested in parallel with the genetically engineered mouse models. This two-year project represents the most rigorous test to date of how well genetically engineered mouse models of cancer can predict clinical outcomes.

Dr. Pandolfi started in the mouse cancer model field with his studies of acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). Unlike humans, mice do not naturally develop APL. Chromosomal translocations, in which the gene for the retinoic acid receptor alpha (RARα) (located on chromosome 17) becomes fused to one of several partner genes (known as “X genes”) on different chromosomes, are involved in the causation of APL. In over 98% of cases of APL, RARα is fused to the promyelocytic leukemia (PML) gene, located on chromosome 15. In a relatively small percentage of cases, RARα is fused to other X genes. An example of one of these other genes is the promyelocytic leukemia zinc finger (PLZF) gene, located on chromosome 11.

In studies in the late 1990s, Dr. Pandolfi and his colleagues constructed transgenic mice that expressed either PML-RARα or PLZF-RARα transgenes, in a promyelocytic-specific manner. (Expression of these transgenes in every cell of a mouse embryo results in embryonic lethality, and their expression in all early hematopoietic progenitors results in impaired myelopoiesis but no leukemia; these transgenic mice are thus not informative with respect to APL. The researchers were able to model PML only by expressing the transgenes specifically and exclusively in promyelocytes.)

The promyelocytic-specific PML-RARα-transgenic mice exhibit abnormal hematopoiesis over their first year of life, and between 12-14 months of age 10% of them develop APL. The promyelocytic-specific PLZF-RARα transgenic mice also exhibit a long latency period, and a subset of these mice eventually develops a leukemia that has features of human chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML).

Importantly, the above transgenic mouse models were useful in designing therapies for human patients. The leukemias in both the PML-RARα-transgenic mice and in patients with the PML-RARα translocation were responsive to treatment with all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) (Genentech’s Vesanoid, generics). However, both the PLZF-RARα transgenic mice and patients with APL bearing the PLZF-RARα translocation were not responsive to ATRA. APL patients who initially responded to ATRA developed resistance to the drug, as did the PML-RARα transgenic mice. Using the PML-RARα transgenic mice, the researchers found that a combination of ATRA with arsenic trioxide (As2O3) (Cephalon’s Trisenox) cured the mice of leukemia. This later proved to also be true for human patients with APL bearing the PML-RARα translocation. Thus a cancer that once was uniformly fatal now has an approximately 90% survival rate.

Leukemic mice with the PLZF-RARα transgene were not responsive to As2O3. However, later studies have indicated that histone deacetylase inhibitors such as phenylbutyrate, in combination with ATRA, may be effective in treating these transgenic mice. These drug combinations may therefore be effective in APL patients with the PLZF-RARα translocation.

The success of Dr. Pandolfi’s genetically engineered mouse model in designing an effective therapy for the major type of APL illustrates the potential power of improved mouse models for cancer. Of course, this is a special case, since researchers were able to use the model to design an effective therapy using already-approved drugs. In most cases, researchers use the models to develop novel therapeutic strategies for a particular cancer, which involves discovery and development of new drugs or design of clinical trials using experimental drugs that have yet to be approved. The “co-clinical mouse/human trials” being run by Dr. Pandolfi and his colleagues may result in additional validation of the power of genetically engineered mouse models of cancer, and may thus encourage their adoption by companies developing new oncology drugs.

Our recently published book-length report, Animal Models for Therapeutic Strategies, includes a case study on a genetically engineered model of pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal of cancers. Although models bearing transplanted human pancreatic tumors (i.e., xenograft models) are sensitive to numerous chemotherapeutic agents, human pancreatic cancers are insensitive to the same agents. Using a genetically engineered mouse model of pancreatic cancer, researchers hypothesized that the reason for the insensitivity of human pancreatic cancer (and of tumors in the mouse model) is impaired drug delivery. Researchers have been using the mouse model to develop novel therapeutic strategies to enhance drug delivery and thus to achieve improved treatment of this disease.

Our 2009 book-length report, Approaches to Reducing Phase II Attrition, includes a case study on adoption of genetically engineered cancer models by industry. Most animal models designed to enable researchers to develop novel therapeutic strategies for complex human diseases are developed by academic researchers. This includes genetically engineered cancer mouse models. However, most drugs are developed by industry, not academia. Industrial researchers are hampered in their ability to develop successful new oncology drugs by the poorly predictive xenograft models. Genetically engineered mouse models of cancer may help biotechnology and pharmaceutical company researchers to be more productive in oncology drug development, provided the corporate researchers can adopt these animal models for use in their discovery research and preclinical studies. However, for several reasons, industry has not widely adopted these models.

Our report discusses the barriers to adoption of these models, large pharmaceutical companies that are beginning to adopt the models, and the biotechnology company Aveo Pharmaceuticals, whose technology platform is based on in-licensing genetically engineered mouse cancer models from its principals’ academic laboratories and developing new models in-house. Aveo uses its models in its own internal drug discovery and development, and also collaborates with several large pharmaceutical companies. Aveo thus serves as a means of technology transfer from academia to industry, including both to its own internal programs and to its partners. The article in The Scientist also discusses Aveo’s research on genetically engineered mouse cancer models, and their use in the company’s internal drug development programs.