Bile duct cancer is a rare and aggressive form of cancer that is often difficult to diagnose. Patients with advanced forms of the disease have an average life expectancy of less than two years.
Many patients who get cancer in their bile ducts – the tubes that carry digestive fluid from the liver to the small intestine – have mutations in the protein FGFR2, which leads cells to grow uncontrollably. One treatment option is chemotherapy, but it’s toxic to both cancer cells and healthy cells, failing to distinguish between the two. Increasingly, cancer researchers are focusing on biomarker directed therapy, or making drugs that target a particular molecule that causes the disease – FGFR2, in the case of bile duct cancer.
A problem is that in targeting FGFR2, these drugs inadvertently inhibit the FGFR1 protein, which looks almost identical. This causes elevated phosphate levels, which is a sign of kidney damage, so doses are often limited to prevent complications.
In recent years, though, a company called Relay has taken a unique approach to picking out FGFR2, using a powerful supercomputer to simulate how proteins move and change shape. The team, leveraging this AI capability, discovered that FGFR2 and FGFR1 move differently, which enabled them to create a more precise drug.
Preliminary studies have shown robust activity of this drug, called RLY-4008, in FGFR2 altered tumors, especially in bile duct cancer. The drug did not inhibit FGFR1 or cause significant side effects. “RLY-4008 is a prime example of a precision oncology therapeutic with its highly selective and potent targeting of FGFR2 genetic alterations and resistance mutations,” says Lipika Goyal, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. She is a principal investigator of Relay’s phase 1-2 clinical trial.
Boosts from AI and a billionaire
Traditional drug design has been very much a case of trial and error, as scientists investigate many molecules to see which ones bind to the intended target and bind less to other targets.
“It’s being done almost blindly, without really being guided by structure, so it fails very often,” says Olivier Elemento, associate director of the Institute for Computational Biomedicine at Cornell. “The issue is that they are not sampling enough molecules to cover some of the chemical space that would be specific to the target of interest and not specific to others.”
Relay’s unique hardware and software allow simulations that could never be achieved through traditional experiments, Elemento says.
Some scientists have tried to use X-rays of crystallized proteins to look at the structure of proteins and design better drugs. But they have failed to account for an important factor: proteins are moving and constantly folding into different shapes.
David Shaw, a hedge fund billionaire, wanted to help improve drug discovery and understood that a key obstacle was that computer models of molecular dynamics were limited; they simulated motion for less than 10 millionths of a second.
In 2001, Shaw set up his own research facility, D.E. Shaw Research, to create a supercomputer that would be specifically designed to simulate protein motion. Seven years later, he succeeded in firing up a supercomputer that can now conduct high speed simulations roughly 100 times faster than others. Called Anton, it has special computer chips to enable this speed, and its software is powered by AI to conduct many simulations.
After creating the supercomputer, Shaw teamed up with leading scientists who were interested in molecular motion, and they founded Relay Therapeutics.
Elemento believes that Relay’s approach is highly beneficial in designing a better drug for bile duct cancer. “Relay Therapeutics has a cutting-edge approach for molecular dynamics that I don’t believe any other companies have, at least not as advanced.” Relay’s unique hardware and software allow simulations that could never be achieved through traditional experiments, Elemento says.
How it works
Relay used both experimental and computational approaches to design RLY-4008. The team started out by taking X-rays of crystallized versions of both their intended target, FGFR2, and the almost identical FGFR1. This enabled them to get a 3D snapshot of each of their structures. They then fed the X-rays into the Anton supercomputer to simulate how the proteins were likely to move.
Anton’s simulations showed that the FGFR1 protein had a flap that moved more frequently than FGFR2. Based on this distinct motion, the team tried to design a compound that would recognize this flap shifting around and bind to FGFR2 while steering away from its more active lookalike.
For that, they went back Anton, using the supercomputer to simulate the behavior of thousands of potential molecules for over a year, looking at what made a particular molecule selective to the target versus another molecule that wasn’t. These insights led them to determine the best compounds to make and test in the lab and, ultimately, they found that RLY-4008 was the most effective.
Promising results so far
Relay began phase 1-2 trials in 2020 and will continue until 2024. Preliminary results showed that, in the 17 patients taking a 70 mg dose of RLY-4008, the drug worked to shrink tumors in 88 percent of patients. This was a significant increase compared to other FGFR inhibitors. For instance, Futibatinib, which recently got FDA approval, had a response rate of only 42 percent.
Across all dose levels, RLY-4008 shrank tumors by 63 percent in 38 patients. In more good news, the drug didn’t elevate their phosphate levels, which suggests that it could be taken without increasing patients’ risk for kidney disease.
“Objectively, this is pretty remarkable,” says Elemento. “In a small patient study, you have a molecule that is able to shrink tumors in such a high fraction of patients. It is unusual to see such good results in a phase 1-2 trial.”
A simulated future
The research team is continuing to use molecular dynamic simulations to develop other new drug, such as one that is being studied in patients with solid tumors and breast cancer.
As for their bile duct cancer drug, RLY-4008, Relay plans by 2024 to have tested it in around 440 patients. “The mature results of the phase 1-2 trial are highly anticipated,” says Goyal, the principal investigator of the trial.
Sameek Roychowdhury, an oncologist and associate professor of internal medicine at Ohio State University, highlights the need for caution. “This has early signs of benefit, but we will look forward to seeing longer term results for benefit and side effect profiles. We need to think a few more steps ahead - these treatments are like the ’Whack-a-Mole game’ where cancer finds a way to become resistant to each subsequent drug.”
“I think the issue is going to be how durable are the responses to the drug and what are the mechanisms of resistance,” says Raymond Wadlow, an oncologist at the Inova Medical Group who specializes in gastrointestinal and haematological cancer. “But the results look promising. It is a much more selective inhibitor of the FGFR protein and less toxic. It’s been an exciting development.”
Schizophrenia is a debilitating mental health condition that affects around 24 million people worldwide. Patients experience hallucinations and delusions when they develop schizophrenia, with experts referring to these new thoughts and behaviors as positive symptoms. They also suffer from negative symptoms in which they lose important functions, suffering from dulled emotions, lack of purpose and social withdrawal.
Currently available drugs can control only a portion of these symptoms but, on August 8th, Karuna Therapeutics announced its completion of a phase 3 clinical trial that found a new drug called KarXT could treat both positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia. It could mean substantial progress against a problem that has stymied scientists for decades.
A long-standing problem
Since the 1950s, antipsychotics have been used to treat schizophrenia. People who suffer from it are thought to have too much of a brain chemical called dopamine, and antipsychotics work by blocking dopamine receptors in the brain. They can be effective in treating positive symptoms but have little impact on the negative ones, which can be devastating for a patient’s quality of life, making it difficult to maintain employment and have successful relationships. About 30 percent of schizophrenia patients don't actually respond to antipsychotics at all. Current drugs can also have adverse side effects including elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and movements that patients cannot control.
The recent clinical trial heralds a new treatment approach. “We believe it marks an important advancement for patients given its new and completely different mechanism of action from current therapies,” says Andrew Miller, COO of Karuna.
Scientists have been looking to develop alternatives. However, “the field of drug treatment of schizophrenia is currently in the doldrums,” says Peter McKenna, a senior researcher at FIDMAG Research Foundation in Spain which specialises in mental health.
In the 2000s there was a major push to target a brain receptor for a chemical called glutamate. Evidence suggested that this receptor is abnormal in the brains of schizophrenia patients, but attempts to try glutamate failed in clinical trials.
After that, many pharmaceutical companies dropped out of the race for a more useful treatment. But some companies continued to search, such as Karuna Therapeutics, led by founder and Chief Operating Officer Andrew Miller and CEO Steve Paul. The recent clinical trial suggests their persistence has led to an important breakthrough with their drug, KarXT. “We believe it marks an important advancement for patients given its new and completely different mechanism of action from current therapies,” Miller says.
How it works
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that pass signals between neurons. To work effectively, neurotransmitters need a receptor to bind to. A neurotransmitter called acetylcholine seems to be especially important in schizophrenia. It interacts with sites called muscarinic receptors, which are involved in the network of nerves that calm your body after a stressful event. Post mortem studies in people with schizophrenia have shown that two muscarinic receptors in the brain, the M1 and M4 receptors, are activated at unusually low levels because they don’t receive enough signals from acetylcholine.
The M4 receptor appears to play a role in psychosis. The M1 receptor is also associated with psychosis but is primarily thought to be involved in cognition. KarXT, taken orally, works by activating both of these receptors to signal properly. It is this twofold action that seems to explain its effectiveness. “[The drug’s] design enables the preferential stimulation of these muscarinic receptors in the brain,” Miller says.
How it developed
It all started in the early 1990s when Paul was at pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. He discovered that Xanomeline, the drug they were testing on Alzheimer's patients, had antipsychotic effects. It worked by stimulating M1 and M4 receptors, so he and his colleagues decided to test Xanomeline on schizophrenia patients, supported by research on the connection between muscarinic receptors and psychosis. They found that Xanomeline reduced both positive and negative symptoms.
Unfortunately, it also caused significant side effects. The problem was that stimulating the M1 and M4 receptors in the brain also stimulated muscarinic receptors in the body that led to severe vomiting, diarrhea and even the temporary loss of consciousness.
In the end, Eli Lilly discontinued the clinical trials for the drug, but Miller set up Karuna Therapeutics to develop a solution. “I was determined to find a way to harness the therapeutic benefit demonstrated in studies of Xanomeline, while eliminating side effects that limited its development,” Miller says.
He analysed over 7,000 possible ways of mixing Xanomeline with other agents before settling on KarXT. It combines Xanomeline with a drug called Trospium Chloride, which blocks muscarinic receptors in the body – taking care of the side effects such as vomiting – but leaves them unblocked in the brain. Paul was so excited by Miller’s progress that he joined Karuna after leaving Eli Lilly and founding two previous startups.
“It's a very important approach,” says Rick Adams, Future Leaders Fellow in the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Centre for Medical Image Computing at University College London. “We are in desperate need of alternative drug targets and this target is one of the best. There are other alternative targets, but not many are as close to being successful as the muscarinic receptor drug.”
Following a successful phase 2 clinical trial in 2019, the most recent trial involved 126 patients who were given KarXT, and 126 who were given a placebo. Compared to the placebo, patients taking KarXT had a significant 9.6 point reduction in the positive and negative syndrome scale (PANSS), the standard for rating schizophrenic symptoms.
KarXT also led to statistically significant declines in positive and negative symptoms compared to the placebo. “The results suggest that KarXT could be a potentially game-changing option in the management of both positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia,” Miller says.
Robert McCutcheon, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Oxford University, is optimistic about the side effects but highlights the need for more safety trials.
McKenna, the researcher at FIDMAG Foundation, agrees about the drug’s potential. “The new [phase 3] study is positive,” he says. “It is reassuring that one is not dealing with a drug that works in one trial and then inexplicably fails in the next one.”
Robert McCutcheon, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Oxford University, said the drug is an unprecedented step forward. “KarXT is one of the first drugs with a novel mechanism of action to show promise in clinical trials.”
Even though the drug blocks muscarine receptors in the body, some patients still suffered from adverse side effects like vomiting, dizziness and diarrhea. But in general, these effects were mild to moderate, especially compared to dopamine-blocking antipsychotics or Xanomeline on its own.
McCutcheon is optimistic about the side effects but highlights the need for more safety trials. “The trial results suggest that gastrointestinal side effects appear to be manageable,” he says. “We know, however, from previous antipsychotic drugs that the full picture regarding the extent of side effects can sometimes take longer to become apparent to clinicians and patients. Careful ongoing assessment during a longer period of treatment will therefore be important.”
The team is currently conducting three other trials to evaluate the efficacy and long-term safety of KarXT. Their goal is to receive FDA approval next year.
Karuna is also conducting trials to evaluate the effectiveness of KarXT in treating psychosis in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s.
The big hope is that they will soon be able to provide a radically different drug to help many patients with schizophrenia. “We are another step closer to potentially providing the first new class of medicine in more than 50 years to the millions of people worldwide living with schizophrenia,” says Miller.
Opioids are one of the most common ways to treat pain. They can be effective but are also highly addictive, an issue that has fueled the ongoing opioid crisis. In 2020, an estimated 2.3 million Americans were dependent on prescription opioids.
Opioids bind to receptors at the end of nerve cells in the brain and body to prevent pain signals. In the process, they trigger endorphins, so the brain constantly craves more. There is a huge risk of addiction in patients using opioids for chronic long-term pain. Even patients using the drugs for acute short-term pain can become dependent on them.
Scientists have been looking for non-addictive drugs to target pain for over 30 years, but their attempts have been largely ineffective. “We desperately need alternatives for pain management,” says Stephen E. Nadeau, a professor of neurology at the University of Florida.
A “dimmer switch” for pain
Paul Blum is a professor of biological sciences at the University of Nebraska. He and his team at Neurocarrus have created a drug called N-001 for acute short-term pain. N-001 is made up of specially engineered bacterial proteins that target the body’s sensory neurons, which send pain signals to the brain. The proteins in N-001 turn down pain signals, but they’re too large to cross the blood-brain barrier, so they don’t trigger the release of endorphins. There is no chance of addiction.
When sensory neurons detect pain, they become overactive and send pain signals to the brain. “We wanted a way to tone down sensory neurons but not turn them off completely,” Blum reveals. The proteins in N-001 act “like a dimmer switch, and that's key because pain is sensation overstimulated.”
Blum spent six years developing the drug. He finally managed to identify two proteins that form what’s called a C2C complex that changes the structure of a subunit of axons, the parts of neurons that transmit electrical signals of pain. Changing the structure reduces pain signaling.
“It will be a long path to get to a successful clinical trial in humans," says Stephen E. Nadeau, professor of neurology at the University of Florida. "But it presents a very novel approach to pain reduction.”
Blum is currently focusing on pain after knee and ankle surgery. Typically, patients are treated with anesthetics for a short time after surgery. But anesthetics usually only last for 4 to 6 hours, and long-term use is toxic. For some, the pain subsides. Others continue to suffer after the anesthetics have worn off and start taking opioids.
N-001 numbs sensation. It lasts for up to 7 days, much longer than any anesthetic. “Our goal is to prolong the time before patients have to start opioids,” Blum says. “The hope is that they can switch from an anesthetic to our drug and thereby decrease the likelihood they're going to take the opioid in the first place.”
Their latest animal trial showed promising results. In mice, N-001 reduced pain-like behaviour by 90 percent compared to the control group. One dose became effective in two hours and lasted a week. A high dose had pain-relieving effects similar to an opioid.
Professor Stephen P. Cohen, director of pain operations at John Hopkins, believes the Neurocarrus approach has potential but highlights the need to go beyond animal testing. “While I think it's promising, it's an uphill battle,” he says. “They have shown some efficacy comparable to opioids, but animal studies don't translate well to people.”
Nadeau, the University of Florida neurologist, agrees. “It will be a long path to get to a successful clinical trial in humans. But it presents a very novel approach to pain reduction.”
Blum is now awaiting approval for phase I clinical trials for acute pain. He also hopes to start testing the drug's effect on chronic pain.
Learning from people who feel no pain
Like Blum, a pharmaceutical company called Vertex is focusing on treating acute pain after surgery. But they’re doing this in a different way, by targeting a sodium channel that plays a critical role in transmitting pain signals.
In 2004, Stephen Waxman, a neurology professor at Yale, led a search for genetic pain anomalies and found that biologically related people who felt no pain despite fractures, burns and even childbirth had mutations in the Nav1.7 sodium channel. Further studies in other families who experienced no pain showed similar mutations in the Nav1.8 sodium channel.
Scientists set out to modify these channels. Many unsuccessful efforts followed, but Vertex has now developed VX-548, a medicine to inhibit Nav1.8. Typically, sodium ions flow through sodium channels to generate rapid changes in voltage which create electrical pulses. When pain is detected, these pulses in the Nav1.8 channel transmit pain signals. VX-548 uses small molecules to inhibit the channel from opening. This blocks the flow of sodium ions and the pain signal. Because Nav1.8 operates only in peripheral nerves, located outside the brain, VX-548 can relieve pain without any risk of addiction.
"Frankly we need drugs for chronic pain more than acute pain," says Waxman.
The team just finished phase II clinical trials for patients following abdominoplasty surgery and bunionectomy surgery.
After abdominoplasty surgery, 76 patients were treated with a high dose of VX-548. Researchers then measured its effectiveness in reducing pain over 48 hours, using the SPID48 scale, in which higher scores are desirable. The score for Vertex’s drug was 110.5 compared to 72.7 in the placebo group, whereas the score for patients taking an opioid was 85.2. The study involving bunionectomy surgery showed positive results as well.
Waxman, who has been at the forefront of studies into Nav1.7 and Nav1.8, believes that Vertex's results are promising, though he highlights the need for further clinical trials.
“Blocking Nav1.8 is an attractive target,” he says. “[Vertex is] studying pain that is relatively simple and uniform, and that's key to having a drug trial that is informative. But the study needs to be replicated and frankly we need drugs for chronic pain more than acute pain. If this is borne out by additional studies, it's one important step in a journey.”
Vertex will be launching phase III trials later this year.
Finding just the right amount of Nerve Growth Factor
Whereas Neurocarrus and Vertex are targeting short-term pain, a company called Levicept is concentrating on relieving chronic osteoarthritis pain. Around 32.5 million Americans suffer from osteoarthritis. Patients commonly take NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, but they cannot be taken long-term. Some take opioids but they aren't very effective.
Levicept’s drug, Levi-04, is designed to modify a signaling pathway associated with pain. Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) is a neurotrophin: it’s involved in nerve growth and function. NGF signals by attaching to receptors. In pain there are excess neurotrophins attaching to receptors and activating pain signals.
“What Levi-04 does is it returns the natural equilibrium of neurotrophins,” says Simon Westbrook, the CEO and founder of Levicept. It stabilizes excess neurotrophins so that the NGF pathway does not signal pain. Levi-04 isn't addictive since it works within joints and in nerves outside the brain.
Westbrook was initially involved in creating an anti-NGF molecule for Pfizer called Tanezumab. At first, Tanezumab seemed effective in clinical trials and other companies even started developing their own versions. However, a problem emerged. Tanezumab caused rapidly progressive osteoarthritis, or RPOA, in some patients because it completely removed NGF from the system. NGF is not just involved in pain signalling, it’s also involved in bone growth and maintenance.
Levicept has found a way to modify the NGF pathway without completely removing NGF. They have now finished a small-scale phase I trial mainly designed to test safety rather than efficacy. “We demonstrated that Levi-04 is safe and that it bound to its target, NGF,” says Westbrook. It has not caused RPOA.
Professor Philip Conaghan, director of the Leeds Institute of Rheumatic and Musculoskeletal Medicine, believes that Levi-04 has potential but urges the need for caution. “At this early stage of development, their molecule looks promising for osteoarthritis pain,” he says. “They will have to watch out for RPOA which is a potential problem.”
Westbrook starts phase II trials with 500 patients this summer to check for potential side effects and test the drug’s efficacy.
There is a real push to find an effective alternative to opioids. “We have a lot of work to do,” says Professor Waxman. “But I am confident that we will be able to develop new, much more effective pain therapies.”