Drug development becomes even more complex as time passes. Increased regulation, new scientific methods, coupling of drugs with biomarkers, and an attempt to build drugs for much more specific populations – even individuals – all make clinical development more expensive and time-consuming. But the pressure is also constantly increasing to develop new, innovative medicines faster. So companies invest more dollars, with steadily decreasing yields in terms of such drugs on the market.
"Collaborations are in many cases the only possible solution--a powerful force driving old and new models."
The traditional models for clinical development are thus not producing the best results. Can collaboration between companies, academic institutions, and public (government and non-profit) organizations help solve the problem?
Collaboration has in fact yielded important developments in diagnostic and therapeutic products. However, truly collaborative efforts are in the minority. Particularly for biotech, diagnostic, device and pharmaceutical companies with stock traded on the public markets, or with funding from venture capital, private equity, or other investment-oriented platforms, there are strong drivers for limiting collaboration.
Particularly onerous are intellectual property (IP) concerns. Patent attorneys are normally terrified of collaborations, where the ownership of IP may be explicitly or implicitly impaired. Investment banks and fund managers are very nervous about modeling financial returns on new products where IP is shared. Development companies often have overt or implied policies greatly favoring internal development over collaboration. It could be argued that the greatest motivation behind the huge product in-licensing game is the desire to fully own product rights rather than to continue collaborations where the rights are not exclusive.
Bu the good news is that long-standing models and newer innovations in collaboration do work. Some examples are worth exploring. A huge influence currently on collaboration models across the spectrum is the revolution in immuno-oncology. More cash has gone into the development of drugs which enlist the immune system to attack cancer than any other field of drug development in history, some estimate by a factor of three. The great majority of current human clinical trials in the U.S. are in this field. There are over 200 separate drugs in development that attack a single target, PD-1--completely unprecedented. Due to the vast complexity of the human immune system, and also to the great promise that these drugs have shown in previously intractable cancers, the field has recognized that these drugs can only perform to full potential when used in combination. But the rationale for combinations is very obtuse, there are huge numbers of new drug targets and candidates, and there are many hundreds of institutions and companies involved in development of these combinations. Thus, collaborations are in many cases the only possible solution--a powerful force driving old and new models.
"As drugs have become more expensive, a huge drive has emerged, spurred by the brokers of health care, to limit the populations eligible to be prescribed an expensive new drug."
As marketing and reimbursement become increasingly complex, large commercial companies share the marketing of more products. Almost every large pharmaceutical and biotech company has products which are jointly sold with others.
Some pharmaceutical companies do a creditable job, often driven by ethical rather than economic concerns, of identifying drugs in their commercial or development portfolios which would be best in the hands of others, or which should be combined with products owned by others to achieve maximum patient benefit. Pfizer, for example, has a strong internal culture of not allowing products to become "dormant" in its hands, and actively seeks to collaboratively develop or license out such products.
Particularly in the immuno-oncology field, given the lack of firm knowledge about which combinations will work best in patients, both large and small companies are collaborating on both preclinical and clinical development. Merck, with its drug Keytruda, the leading anti-PD-1, has almost 1000 collaborative trials in progress. In most cases, the IP rights to a successful combination are not specified up-front; the desire is to see what works and deal with the rights and financial issues later.
Other companies have specifically engaged non-profit foundations and/or public bodies in collaborative efforts. This is of course not new--there is a very long history of pharmaceutical, diagnostic, and device companies either collaborating with the NIH or disease-focused foundations for development of products born from institutional research. The reverse is also true--both the NIH and foundations are often engaged to collaborate on development of products owned by industry. Sometimes these collaborations can be relatively complex. For example, Astra-Zeneca, Sloan Kettering, the Cancer Research Institute, and the National Cancer institute have engaged in a partnership to conduct clinical trials on combination cancer therapies involving the portfolio owned by Astra-Zeneca in combination with drugs owned by others, with device therapies and procedures, and with diagnostic products.
As drugs have become more expensive, a huge drive has emerged, spurred by the brokers of health care--the so-called 'insurance' companies and pharmaceutical benefit managers--to limit the populations eligible to be prescribed an expensive new drug. Thus, the field of "companion diagnostics" has crystallized. In a number of fields, including cardiology, urology, neurodegenerative disease, and oncology, developers of diagnostics and drugs seek each other out to jointly develop drug/diagnostic pairs which appropriately select patients for treatment. The number of such collaborations is escalating dramatically, although many large pharmaceutical companies have their own in-house programs.
"The lack of clinical trial data sharing has engendered some notable collaborative efforts."
But most large pharmaceutical companies are not in the business of selling diagnostic products, even if those products are so closely linked to a specific drug that they are included in the FDA-approved 'label' of that drug. As a result, some very collaborative relationships are emerging. Merck, which has a very large and active companion diagnostics development group, almost always seeks development and commercialization partners for internally innovated diagnostics – to the extent that the company actually gives away the rights and the commercial benefits of the diagnostic product. Such was the case with the Merck-developed Tau imaging agents related to Alzheimer's disease, which Merck made available without license to the entire industry. The company continues to drive such non-financial collaborations in other clinical disciplines.
Collaborations certainly take place between academic centers, but in comparison to others, they are few and of far less productive outcome. Many appear to be innovative and have great potential, but the results are often different. The collaboration between medical schools and research institutions in Northeast Ohio seems promising, but it is in large part just a means for gathering hard-to-find clinical trial patients into the giant local institutions, Case Western and the Cleveland Clinic. And the actual output of academic versus commercial development programs is usually poor. One new company recently did an exhaustive search for new clinical drug development candidates in a specific therapeutic area in academia and came up empty-handed, only to find a solid handful of candidate drugs "hiding" in pharmaceutical companies that they were willing to provide collaboratively or to license.
The lack of clinical trial data sharing has engendered some notable collaborative efforts. The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy initially set out to promulgate standards for clinical trial data collection to make trial results in the thousands of combination trials more comparable. However, after some initial frustration, they are now working collaboratively with biotech companies, academia, and pharmaceutical companies to drive forward specific combination trials that experts believe should be done.
Foundations and public organizations also enable or initiate collaborative research. The Prostate Cancer Foundation has aggressively put academic and hospital-based research institutions together with industry to push the development of new effective therapies and diagnostics for prostate cancer, with remarkable success. The Veterans Administration has recently embarked on an aggressive program of collaborations with industry (with the help of funding from the Prostate Cancer Foundation) to allow use of the VA population and the very complete patient records to start clinical trials and other development efforts that would otherwise be very difficult.
"The near future will bring some surprising collaborative successes in the development of new drugs, devices, and diagnostics, but of course, some serious disappointments as well."
Finally, the financial industry at times facilitates collaborations, although they are usually narrow. Fund managers often get two or more of their portfolio companies to pool assets and/or IP to push forward more rapid development, or to provide structure for developments that otherwise could not go forward due to size or other resource limitations. For example, Orbimed, a health-care-focused investment firm, consistently drives cross-company development efforts within its large portfolio of drug and device companies.
So collaborative efforts are very much alive and well, which is great news for patients. Current realities in science, politics, reimbursement, and finance are driving diversity in collaborative arrangements. The near future will bring some surprising collaborative successes in the development of new drugs, devices, and diagnostics, but of course, some serious disappointments as well. And the very negative influence of the IP profession on collaborations will not be soon defeated.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.