Category: New Compounds and Treatments

New Treatment Quadruples 3-year Survival for Rare and Aggressive Cancer

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

An innovative treatment significantly increases the survival of people with malignant mesothelioma, a rare but rapidly fatal type of cancer with few effective treatment options, according to results from a clinical trial led by Queen Mary University of London and published in JAMA Oncology.

The phase 3 clinical trial, led by Professor Peter Szlosarek at Queen Mary and sponsored by Polaris Pharmaceuticals, has unveiled a breakthrough in the treatment of malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM), a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer with limited therapeutic options.

The ATOMIC-meso trial, a randomised placebo-controlled study of 249 patients with MPM, found that a treatment – which combines a new drug, ADI-PEG20, with traditional chemotherapy – increased the median survival of participants by 1.6 months, and quadrupled the survival at 36 months, compared to placebo-chemotherapy.

The findings are significant, as MPM has one of the lowest 5-year survival rates of any solid cancer of around 5-10%. This innovative approach marks the first successful combination of chemotherapy with a drug that targets cancer’s metabolism developed for this disease in 20 years.

MPM is a rare, aggressive cancer that affects the lining of the lungs and is associated with exposure to asbestos. It’s usually treated with potent chemotherapy drugs, but these are seldom able to halt the progression of the disease.

The premise behind this new drug treatment is elegant in its simplicity – starving the tumour by cutting off its food supply. All cells need nutrients to grow and multiply, including amino acids like arginine. ADI-PEG20 works by depleting arginine levels in the bloodstream. For tumour cells that can’t manufacture their arginine due to a missing enzyme, this means their growth is thwarted.

The ATOMIC-meso trial is the culmination of 20 years of research at Queen Mary’s Barts Cancer Institute that began with Professor Szlosarek’s discovery that malignant mesothelioma cells lack a protein called ASS1, which enables cells to manufacture their own arginine. He and his team have since dedicated their efforts to using this knowledge to create an effective treatment for patients with MPM.

Professor Szlosarek said: “It’s truly wonderful to see the research into the arginine starvation of cancer cells come to fruition. This discovery is something I have been driving from its earliest stages in the lab, with a new treatment, ADI-PEG20, now improving patient lives affected by mesothelioma. I thank all the patients and families, investigators and their teams, and Polaris Pharmaceuticals for their commitment to defining a new cancer therapy.”

There are ongoing studies assessing ADI-PEG20 in patients who have sarcoma or glioblastoma multiforme and other cancers dependent on arginine. The success of this novel chemotherapy in MPM also suggests that the drug may be of benefit in the treatment of multiple other types of cancer. 

Source: Queen Mary University London

Dual Immunotherapy Drugs Show Promise vs a Range of Advanced Cancers

Squamous cancer cell being attacked by cytotoxic T cells. Image by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

In an early phase clinical trial, a combination of antibody-based medications targeting the immune system generated promising safety data and anti-tumour activity in individuals with various types of advanced cancer. The findings appear online in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society.

Both medications tested in the trial are checkpoint inhibitors, and support immune responses against tumour cells. CS1002 increases the activation and proliferation of T immune cells by binding to a T cell receptor called CTLA-4. CS1003, also called nofazinlimab, blocks the programmed cell death protein 1 that is expressed on various types of immune cells and plays a role in suppressing the immune system.

In this first-in-human multicentre, open-label study conducted from April 26, 2018 to January 18, 2022 at 9 study sites in Australia and China, phase Ia involved monotherapy dose-escalation (Part 1), which was followed by phase Ib combination therapy dose escalation (Part 2) and expansion (Part 3). Various dosing schedules of CS1002 (0.3, 1, or 3mg/kg once every three weeks, or 3mg/kg once every 9 weeks) were evaluated with 200mg CS1003 once every three weeks.

Parts 1, 2, and 3 of the trial included 13, 18, and 61 patients, respectively, who had advanced/metastatic solid, relapsed, or refractory tumors. During treatment, investigators did not observe any dose-limiting toxicities or a maximum tolerated dose. Treatment-related side effects such as diarrhoea, fatigue, and rash were reported in 30.8%, 83.3%, and 75.0% of patients in Parts 1, 2, and 3, respectively. Serious side effects such as intestinal inflammation and severe skin reactions were experienced by 15.4%, 50.0%, and 18.3% of patients in each part.

Of 61 patients evaluable for treatment efficacy, 23 (37.7%) with different types of tumours experienced a positive response. Higher response rates occurred with conventional and high-dose CS1002 regimens (1mg/kg once every three weeks or 3mg/kg once every 9 weeks) compared with low-dose CS1002 (0.3mg/kg once every three weeks) in certain cancers such as melanoma and skin cancer.

“CS1002 in combination with CS1003 had manageable safety profile across a broad dosing range and showed promising anti-tumor activities across CS1002 dose levels when combined with CS1003,” the investigators wrote. They concluded that this warranted more testing of CS1002 in combination with CS1003 for the treatment of solid tumours.

Source: Wiley

Abatacept may Hold Back Progression of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya

Results from a Phase 2b clinical trial, published in The Lancet, provides hope for arthritis sufferers after it was shown that the biologic drug abatacept reduces progression to this agonising chronic inflammatory disease.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that typically (but not always) starts in middle age, with joint pain, swelling and significant disability. Until now there is no cure or prevention.

Abatacept is currently used as an effective second or third line treatment for people living with established rheumatoid arthritis and is given by weekly injections at home or intravenously in hospital.

Researchers from King’s College London recruited 213 patients at high risk of the disease to understand whether a year-long treatment of the biologic drug could be used to prevent progression to rheumatoid arthritis.

They recruited men and women over the age of 18 with early symptoms such as joint pain but no joint swelling, and treated half with the drug and half with a placebo every week for a year. The study drug was then stopped, and study participants monitored for a further 12 months.

After twelve months of treatment, 6% of patients treated with abatacept had developed arthritis compared to 29% in the placebo arm. By 24 months, the differences were still significant, with a total of 25% progressing to rheumatoid arthritis in the abatacept arm compared to 37% in the placebo arm.

Secondary outcomes for the trial showed that abatacept was associated with improvements in pain scores, function and quality of life measurements, as well as lower scores of inflammation of the lining of joints detectable by ultrasound scan.

Professor Andrew Cope, Professor of Rheumatology from School of Immunology & Microbial Sciences, said: “This is the largest rheumatoid arthritis prevention trial to date and the first to show that a therapy licensed for use in treating established rheumatoid arthritis is also effective in preventing the onset of disease in people at risk.

“These initial results could be good news for people at risk of arthritis as we show that the drug not only prevents disease onset during the treatment phase but can also ease symptoms such as pain and fatigue. This is also promising news for the NHS as the disease affects people as they age and will become more expensive to treat with a growing aging population.”

Philip Day, a 35-year-old software engineer and founder of FootballMatcher from Eltham, was at high-risk for rheumatoid arthritis. A keen football player, Philip’s joint pain deterred him from playing and affected his day-to-day life. He was enrolled in the trial in 2018, at the age of the 30, and was prescribed abatacept.

He said: “The pain got so terrible I stopped going to football, and I got lazier and felt progressively worse physically and mentally. The pain was unpredictable, it would show up in my knees one day, my elbows the next, and then my wrists or even my neck. At the time, my wife and I wanted to have children and I realised my future was pretty bleak if the disease progressed. I’d always wanted to be the kind of dad that played football with his son and I knew the pain would stop me from realising that dream.

“Enrolling in the trial was a no-brainer; it was a ray of hope at a dark time. Within a few months I had no more aches or pains and five years on I’d say I’ve been cured. Now, I can play football with my three-year-old son and have a normal life.”

One year’s treatment with abatacept costs the NHS about £10 000 (ZAR 238 000) per patient. Side effects include upper respiratory tract infections, dizziness, nausea and diarrhoea, but these are generally mild.

Professor Cope added: “There are currently no drugs available that prevent this potentially crippling disease. Our next steps are to understand people at risk in more detail so that we can be absolutely sure that those at highest risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis receive the drug.”


Destroying Tumour Cells with Calcium

Colourised scanning electron micrograph of a breast cancer cell. Credit: NIH

Calcium ions are essential for cells, but can be toxic in higher concentrations. A team of researchers has now designed and prepared a combination drug that kills tumour cells by modulating the calcium influx into the cell. An external calcium source is not necessary because only the calcium ions already present in the tumour tissue are used, according to the study published in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

Biological cells need calcium ions, among other things, for the proper functioning of the mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cells.

However, if there is too much calcium, the mitochondrial processes become unbalanced and the cell suffocates.

A research group led by Juyoung Yoon of Ewha Womens University in Seoul, South Korea, together with teams from China, has now taken advantage of this process and developed a synergistic antitumour drug that can open calcium channels and thus trigger a deadly calcium storm inside the tumour cell.

The researchers targeted two channels, the first one in the outer membrane, and the other was a calcium channel in the endoplasmic reticulum, a cell organelle that also stores calcium ions.

The channel located in the outer membrane opens when it is exposed to a large amount of reactive oxygen species (ROS), while the channel in the endoplasmic reticulum is activated by nitric oxide molecules.

To generate the ROS that open the outer membrane calcium channel, the researchers used the dye indocyanine green.

This bioactive agent can be activated by irradiation with near-infrared light, which not only triggers reactions that lead to ROS, but it also heats up the environment.

The team explains that the high local temperature activates the other active agent, BNN-6, to release nitric oxide molecules that open the channel in the endoplasmic reticulum.

Following successful trials in tumour cell lines, the team tested an injectable formulation in tumour-implanted mice.

To create a biocompatible combined drug, the researchers loaded the active ingredients into tiny modified porous silica beads that are not harmful to the body, but can be recognized by tumour cells and transported into the cell.

After injecting the beads into the bloodstream of the mice, the researchers observed that the drug accumulated in the tumour.

Exposure to near-infrared light successfully triggered the mechanism of action, and the tumour disappeared after a few days in mice that received the preparation.

The authors emphasise that this ion influx approach may also be useful in related biomedical research areas where a similar mechanism could activate ion channels different from calcium in order to find new therapeutic approaches.

Source: Wiley

New Drug with a Different Approach Holds Promise as a Treatment for Multiple Sclerosis

This is a pseudo-colored image of high-resolution gradient-echo MRI scan of a fixed cerebral hemisphere from a person with multiple sclerosis. Credit: Govind Bhagavatheeshwaran, Daniel Reich, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health

Researchers have found in pre-clinical studies of a small molecule drug that it has promise as a potential new treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS). The results from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health-led study have been published in the journal Science Advances.

Expanding on Dr Fang Liu’s earlier work that identified a novel drug target for the treatment of MS, she and her team have now created a small molecule compound that is effective in two different animal models of MS. This represents a key advancement that brings this MS research closer to the clinic to impact patient care.

MS is a progressive neurological disease that currently has no cure.

It is associated with a wide-range of debilitating symptoms, including problems with coordination, cognition, muscle weakness and depression. For unknown reasons, it is more common in northern latitudes and more than twice as common in women.

It is known that MS damages myelin, a protective sheath that forms around nerves in the brain and spinal cord. As the myelin damage is triggered by inflammation in the immune system, up until now all current drug treatments for MS target the immune system.

In this study, CAMH Senior Scientist Dr Fang Liu and her team treated MS in a completely different way – targeting the glutamate system. Study results showed that the newly synthesised lead compound not only reduced MS-like symptoms, it also may repair the damaged myelin in two different pre-clinical models of MS.

“Our compound had a stunning effect on rescuing myelin and motor function in the lab models, and I hope these effects will translate to the clinic to add to current treatments and bring new hope to patients with MS,” said Dr Liu.

“As with cancer chemotherapy drug cocktails, simultaneous targeting of the MS disease pathway at multiple points can have synergistic effects and result in better outcomes.”

Dr Iain Greig, Reader in Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Aberdeen, alongside his team, are working to turn the molecules identified by Dr Liu into advanced “drug-like” molecules suitable for continued development towards clinical use in patients.

He added: “In all my years as a medicinal chemist, I have never seen a more promising starting point for a drug development project. It has been a huge pleasure to be involved in this program and I am looking forward to continuing to drive it towards to the clinic.”

Much of the funding for this novel treatment for MS, which Dr. Fang and her team have been investigating for over a decade, has come from the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society USA’s Fast Forward commercial research program.

“We are pleased to have helped enable the early development of a novel neuroprotective strategy for MS, and look forward to seeing it progress through the critical next stages needed to determine its potential benefits for people living with MS,” said Walt Kostich, PhD, head of the National MS Society (USA)’s Fast Forward commercial research programme.

Dr. Liu believes that the evidence of efficacy and tolerability generated in this study for the small molecule drug makes it a good candidate to be developed for human trials. The next steps in drug development will involve some further pre-clinical research, including investigating safety and stability of the compound. CAMH and the University of Aberdeen have already filed patent applications to protect this research and are actively seeking industry partners to further advance this work towards clinical trials over the next few years.

Source: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

Christmas Came Early with These FDA Approvals

AI art generated by GenCraft.

After the stupendous effort for COVID vaccines and treatments, it may seem like other diseases were being neglected. Nevertheless, the US Food and Drug Administration suddenly had a fire lit underneath it, and got cracking with accelerated drug approvals. Now, 2023 seems to have brought plenty of new drugs to bolster the physician’s armamentarium – some are the first-ever treatment for their indications. Hopefully, with FDA and European Medicines Agency (EMA) approvals, South African approvals should not be too far behind.

Since the pandemic, hotly anticipated drugs have made a big splash or sunk without a trace. In 2021, semaglutide was approved for weight management, unleashing a wave of people using (and some abusing) the GLP-1 agonist for weight loss. Adagrasib, which targets KRAS, previously thought undruggable, was a major advance for the treatment of non-small-cell lung cancer and was one of a few notable new non-COVID pharmaceuticals.

Aducanumab/Aduhelm was the top tip for new drugs in 2021, but turned out to be an absolute debacle: it wound up being an astronomically expensive, mostly ineffective drug with significant side effects. There were even questions raised over how it got approved in the first place.

Alzheimer’s disease

Last year, Aduhelm seemed like yet another false start in the long battle against Alzheimer’s disease. This year though, it looks like help finally arrived for fight against the dreaded neurodegenerative disease with not one but two breakthrough drugs, both  antiamyloid antibodies.

Up first is lecanemab/Leqembi from Eisai/Biogen. It targets the buildup of amyloid proteins in the brain, which otherwise lead to the formation of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles of tau protein, the hallmarks of the disease.

The other candidate is donanemab, which did not secure FDA approval last year, after pharma company Eli Lilly witnessed the disaster that was Aduhelm. It did show a reduction in decline in one measure of Alzheimer’s disease but not another, so its effects are a mixed bag.

Like Aduhelm, donanemab and lecanemab both have a serious downside: brain swelling, which claimed the lives of at three donanemab trial participants.


Previously minimised by the pandemic’s social distancing and routine masking, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) experienced a resurgence in the wake of lifting these restrictions. RSV afflicts primarily those over 60 and young children. Among those 65 and older with RSV in the US, the Centers for Disease Control estimated 120 000 annual hospitalisations, with up to 10 000 of whom dying. Among children under 5, the figures are 58 000 annual hospitalisations and 100 to 300 deaths. Historically, RSV vaccine developments wound up being ineffective. Fortunately, this year saw the first approval for an RSV vaccine. A 120µg dose of their Arexvy vaccine produced statistically significant and clinically meaningful reductions in cases of lower respiratory tract disease caused by RSV in adults aged 60 years and older. Pfizer and Moderna are hot on HSK’s heels with their own vaccine applications.

Age-related macular degeneration

Apellis got an approval for pegcetacoplan this year, for geographic atrophy (GA) secondary to age-related macular degeneration, in its intravitreal injection. This is the first and so far only treatment for this indication. “The approval of SYFOVRE is the most important event in retinal ophthalmology in more than a decade,” said Eleonora Lad, MD, PhD, lead investigator for the phase 3 study. “Until now, there have been no approved therapies to offer people living with GA as their vision relentlessly declined. With SYFOVRE, we finally have a safe and effective GA treatment for this devastating disease, with increasing effects over time.”

Interestingly, Apellis also got an approval for paroxysmal nocturnal haemoglobinuria (PNH) with a patient-injectable version of pegcetacoplan. The disease results from the destruction of red blood cells by the immune system.


Abbvie and Genmab’s epcoritamab, for certain cases of large B-cell lymphoma (LBCL), got accelerated FDA and EMA approval earlier this year. The FDA has also granted accelerated approval to Roche’s glofitamab. The drugs bind to binding to CD20 on malignant B cells and CD3 on T cells to kill cancer cells, creating an effect like CAR-T cell therapy but without the complexity (and presumably, cheaper too).

Major depressive disorder, postpartum depression

Mental health is full of gaps needing to be filled by effective treatments. Not much has made been added for depression since selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) came onto the market in the 1990s. Zuranolone, from Biogen and Sage Therapeutics, is the first oral treatment for postpartum depression, which previously was treated only by IV injection in a healthcare facility. Unlike slow-acting SSRIs, this treatment, which targets the GABA-A receptor, is a short course.

Inflammatory bowel disease

There has been a steady drip of new biologic drugs for inflammatory diseases, such as bimekizumab (psoriasis and deucravacitinib which recently received FDA approval. Eli Lilly entered this crowded marketplace with ixekizumab. Now, after trouncing Novartis’ Cosentyx for psoriasis with its own mirikizumab, it pulled its application for that indication and switched it to ulcerative colitis – beating about a dozen competitors to be the first IL-23 inhibitor. It aims to get an approval for Crohn’s disease in 2025. Pfizer’s etrasimod for ulcerative colitis got approval in October 2023, and should receive EMA approval in 2024. Its phase 3 trial achieved 27% remission versus 7.4% for placebo.

Pulmonary arterial hypertension

Last is sotatercept, a new drug for pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), which previously had no real treatment. Unlike the current therapy aimed at simply dilating blood vessels, sotaracept targets BMPR-II signalling, addressing the cause of PAH. It earned a priority preview by the FDA based on its phase 3 trial data, with possible approval by March 2024.

Nanoparticles from Coffee Grounds could Stall Neurodegenerative Disease Development

Photo by Mike Kenneally on Unsplash

Researchers may potentially have found a preventive solution for neurodegenerative disorders in the most unlikely of sources: used coffee grounds. The researchers found caffeic-acid based Carbon Quantum Dots (CACQDs) have the potential to protect brain cells from the damage caused by several neurodegenerative diseases – if the condition is triggered by factors such as obesity, age and exposure to pesticides and other toxic environmental chemicals.

Carbon Quantum Dots are essentially simple nanoparticles made of carbon that have found a growing number of applications, including bioimaging thanks to its fluorescent properties and as photochemical catalysts. Their active surfaces can be doped with different elements for desired effects, are biocompatible and can be produced simply from a range of organic substances such as lemon juice and used tea leaves.

The University of Texas at El Paso team behind the study was led by Jyotish Kumar, a doctoral student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and overseen by Mahesh Narayan, PhD, a professor and Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in the same department. Their work is described in the journal Environmental Research.

“Caffeic-acid based Carbon Quantum Dots have the potential to be transformative in the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders,” Kumar said.

“This is because none of the current treatments resolve the diseases; they only help manage the symptoms. Our aim is to find a cure by addressing the atomic and molecular underpinnings that drive these conditions.”

Neurodegenerative diseases, when they are in their early stages and are caused by lifestyle or environmental factors, share several traits.

These include elevated levels of free radicals in the brain, and the aggregation of fragments of amyloid-forming proteins that can lead to plaques or fibrils in the brain.

Kumar and his colleagues found that CACQDs were neuroprotective across test tube experiments, cell lines and other models of Parkinson’s disease when the disorder was caused by a pesticide called paraquat.

The CACQDs, the team observed, were able to remove free radicals or prevent them from causing damage and inhibited the aggregation of amyloid protein fragments without causing any significant side effects.

The team hypothesises that in humans, in the very early stage of a condition such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, a treatment based on CACQDs can be effective in preventing full-on disease.

“It is critical to address these disorders before they reach the clinical stage,” Narayan said.

“At that point, it is likely too late. Any current treatments that can address advanced symptoms of neurodegenerative disease are simply beyond the means of most people. Our aim is to come up with a solution that can prevent most cases of these conditions at a cost that is manageable for as many patients as possible.”

Caffeic acid belongs to a family of compounds called polyphenols, which are plant-based compounds known for their antioxidant, or free radical-scavenging properties. Caffeic acid is unique because it can penetrate the blood-brain barrier and is thus able to exert its effects upon the cells inside the brain, Narayan said.

In the simple one-step ‘green chemistry’ method, the team ‘cooked’ caffeic acid at 230°C for two hours to reorient the caffeic acid’s carbon structure and form CACQDs. The CACQDs were then extracted according to a molecular weight cutoff of 1kDa.

The sheer abundance of coffee grounds is what makes the process both economical and sustainable, Narayan said.

Source: University of Texas at El Paso

Autofluorescent Compound Paints a Bright Future for Antimalarial Research

Red Blood Cell Infected with Malaria Parasites Colourised scanning electron micrograph of red blood cell infected with malaria parasites (teal). The small bumps on the infected cell show how the parasite remodels its host cell by forming protrusions called ‘knobs’ on the surface, enabling it to avoid destruction and cause inflammation. Uninfected cells (red) have smoother surfaces. Credit: NIAID

New compounds are continuously required due to the risk of malaria parasites becoming resistant to the medicines currently used. A team of researchers at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) combined the anti-malaria drug artemisinin with coumarin, and developed a compound from both bioactive plant-derived substances. This compound is also autofluorescent, making it particularly useful as it can be used for imaging in live cells.

The working group, led by Prof Dr Svetlana B. Tsogoeva, also discovered that the autofluorescent artemisinin-coumarin hybrids are able to destroy a certain drug-resistant malaria pathogen called Plasmodium palcifarum. They published their findings in the journal Chemical Science.

Artemisinin is a highly-effective and common ingredient for the manufacture of malaria medication gained from a plant called sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua L.). Coumarin is a secondary plant compound found in various plants.

In the development of drugs against malaria, active substances such as artemisinin are labelled with fluorescent substances in order to identify how they act against malaria pathogens in precise chronological order using imaging techniques.

Combining substances to achieve autofluorescence

A significant disadvantage of labeling with fluorescent substances is the fact that they alter how the medication works.

For example, this means that in certain circumstances cells infected with malaria absorb a drug like artemisinin differently after fluorescent marking than previously.

The solubility of the drug can also change. This was avoided by the development of autofluorescent hybrids, which are compounds made of two or more basic compounds that are inherently fluorescent and whose mode of action can be precisely observed using imaging techniques.

Active agent with special skills

The team decided to combine artemisinin with bioactive coumarins because coumarin derivatives also possess anti-malaria properties. They can also be easily chemically altered so that they become extremely fluorescent.

The researchers discovered that it was not only possible to observe the mode of action of this first autofluorescent artemisinin-coumarin hybrid in living red blood cells infected with P. falciparum.

In conjunction with Prof. Barbara Kappes (Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, FAU) and Dr. Diogo R. M. Moreira (Instituto Gonçalo Moniz, Fiocruz Bahia, Brazil), they also discovered that the active agent was highly effective against P. falciparum strains in vitro that are resistant to chloroquin and other malaria drugs.

Above all, however, the new compound also proved highly effective against the malaria pathogens in vivo in mouse models.

With the creation of the first autofluorescent artemisinin-coumarin hybrid, the FAU researchers hope that they have laid the foundation for the development of further autofluorescent agents for treating malaria and have made significant process in overcoming multi-drug resistance in the treatment of malaria.

Source: Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg

New Compound Outperforms Gabapentin for Pain Relief

Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

A new compound reversed four types of chronic pain in animal studies, according to new research published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). It outperformed gabapentin without troublesome side effects, providing a promising candidate for treating pain.

Researchers led by NYU College of Dentistry’s Pain Research Center developed this small molecule, which binds to an inner region of a calcium channel to indirectly regulate it.

Calcium channels play a central role in pain signaling, in part through the release of neurotransmitters such as glutamate and GABA – “the currency of the pain signal,” according to Rajesh Khanna, director of the NYU Pain Research Center and professor of molecular pathobiology. The Cav2.2 (or N-type) calcium channel is the target for three clinically available drugs, including gabapentin and pregabalin, which are widely used to treat nerve pain and epilepsy.

Gabapentin mitigates pain by binding to the outside of the Cav2.2 calcium channel, affecting the channel’s activity. However, like many pain medications, gabapentin use often comes with side effects.

“Developing effective pain management with minimal side effects is crucial, but creating new therapies has been challenging,” said Khanna, the senior author of the PNAS study. “Rather than directly going after known targets for pain relief, our lab is focused on indirectly targeting proteins that are involved in pain.”

Inside the channel

Khanna has long been interested in a protein called CRMP2, a key regulator of the Cav2.2 calcium channel that binds to the channel from the inside. He and his colleagues previously discovered a peptide derived from CRMP2 that could uncouple CRMP2 from the calcium channel. When this peptide – calcium channel-binding domain 3 (CBD3) – was delivered to cells, it acted as a decoy, blocking CRMP2 from binding to the inside of the calcium channel. This resulted in less calcium entering the calcium channel and less neurotransmitter release, which translated to less pain in animal studies.

Peptides are difficult to synthesise as drugs because they are short-acting and easily degrade in the stomach, so the researchers sought to create a small molecule drug based on CBD3. Starting with the 15 amino acids that make up the CBD3 peptide, they honed in on two amino acids that studies showed were responsible for inhibiting calcium influx and mitigating pain.

“At that point, we realised that these two amino acids could be the building blocks for designing a small molecule,” said Khanna.

From 27 million to one

In collaboration with colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, the researchers ran a computer simulation that screened a library of 27 million compounds to look for a small molecule that would “match” the CBD3 amino acids.

The simulation narrowed the library down to 77 compounds, which the researchers experimentally tested to see if they lessened the amount of calcium influx. This further pared the pool down to nine compounds, which were assessed using electrophysiology to measure decreases in electrical currents through the calcium channels.

One compound, which the researchers named CBD3063, emerged as the most promising candidate for treating pain. Biochemical tests revealed that CBD3063 disrupted the interaction between the CaV2.2 calcium channel and CRMP2 protein, reduced calcium entering the channel, and lessened the release of neurotransmitters.

“Many scientists have screened the same library of compounds, but have been trying to block the calcium channel from the outside. Our target, these two amino acids from CRMP2, is on the inside of the cell, and this indirect approach may be the key to our success,” said Khanna.

Four labs, four types of pain

Khanna’s lab then tested CBD3063 with mouse models for pain related to injury. The compound was effective in alleviating pain in both male and female mice – and notably, in a head-to-head test with the drug gabapentin, the researchers needed to use far less CBD3063 (1–10mg) than gabapentin (30 mg) to reduce pain.

To explore whether CBD3063 helped with different types of chronic pain, Khanna partnered with researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University, Michigan State University, and Rutgers University. Collaborators ran similar studies administering CBD3063 to treat animal models of chemotherapy-induced neuropathy, inflammatory pain, and trigeminal nerve pain – all successfully reversing pain, similar to gabapentin.

But unlike gabapentin, the use of CBD3063 did not come with side effects, including sedation, changes to cognition such as memory and learning, or changes to heart rate and breathing.

What’s next

The researchers are continuing to study CBD3063, refining its chemical composition and running additional tests to study the compound’s safety and assess if tolerance develops.

Long-term, they hope to bring a CBD3063-derived drug to clinical trials in an effort to offer new options for safe and effective pain relief.

“Identifying this first-in-class small molecule has been the culmination of more than 15 years of research. Though our research journey continues, we aspire to present a superior successor to gabapentin for the effective management of chronic pain,” said Khanna.

Source: New York University

New Drug Effective for 3 of 4 Trial Patients with Relapsed Blood Cancer

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

A new targeted drug, may offer a new treatment option for patients with blood cancers, including chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) and Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) whose disease has stopped responding to standard treatments.

In the first clinical trial of this drug in humans, nemtabrutinib was effective in three-fourths of cancer patients tested, without severe side effects. The results of the trial were published in the journal Cancer Discovery.

Haematologist and study lead investigator Jennifer Woyach, MD, notes that about half a dozen drugs are available to treat these B-cell cancers. Although most patients respond to these drugs initially, over time, many patients experience disease progression. The study was done by researchers at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).

“Blood cancers that have relapsed after initial treatments can be difficult to treat, and even with our effective medications, some patients run out of standard treatment options.  In this trial, nemtabrutinib looks very promising for patients whose cancer has progressive after other treatments.” said Woyach, who is co-leader of the Leukemia Research Program at the OSUCCC – James.

How this drug therapy works

When an antigen, such as a virus or bacteria, enters the bloodstream, it triggers a set of signals in B-cells to produce antibodies. In some people, said Woyach, this process goes haywire. Instead of fighting infections, the B-cells begin to divide uncontrollably, resulting in cancer. Drugs against B-cell cancers work by binding to a key enzyme, called Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK). This enzyme is involved in the signaling process. The drugs block the action of the enzyme, and as a result, the abnormal B-cells die.

In many patients, this effect is temporary with available drugs. Over time, the BTK enzyme to which the drugs bind mutates so they can no longer stop its action. Soon, the cancer returns. Nemtabrutinib was designed to bind to BTK even in the presence of common mutations that make other BTK inhibitors stop working. It also binds to a number of proteins besides BTK that are important in B cell cancers. These two properties made this drug very appealing to study in this patient population.

Study methods and results

The researchers tested the new drug on 47 patients who have had at least two prior therapies for their blood cancer. Over half of these patients had relapsed CLL, while the others had NHL. The researchers gave these patients one pill of nemtabrutinib every day, with different doses along the trial. They observed the patients’ response to the drug over time and monitored them for side effects.

The study found more than 75% of the patients with relapsed CLL responded to the drug, at an optimal dose of 65mg. These included patients who had mutations in BTK. Most patients remained cancer free for at least 16 months during the trial. While all patients experienced some side effects – which is common with chemotherapeutic drugs – many of these were minor and manageable, proving that the drug was also very safe.

“The drug is being moved to larger and more definitive trials, where it will be compared against other standard-of-care drugs, and in combination with other active medications,” said Woyach.

The blood cancers investigated in this trial affect B lymphocytes, which is a cell that is responsible for producing antibodies and fighting infections. CLL is the most common leukaemia making up a quarter of leukaemia cases among adults, and NHL accounts for 4% of all cancers in the United States.

Source: Ohio State University