Pharma Industry Invests in Epigenetics

Pharma IQ

In its latest analysis, IMS Health predicted oncology would remain the leading therapeutic class until 2015, although growth was expected to slow as existing targeted therapies are now widely adopted.

Pharmaceutical companies, however, appear to have a slightly different scenario in mind and are investing heavily in the field of epigenetics in the hope of bringing new cancer therapies on the market, which target the DNA in cells which could make them cancerous.

The trend was recently reported on by Bloomberg BusinessWeek, with Jean-Pierre Issa, an oncologist at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, telling the news provider: "Every major company I know of has a [epigenetics] program."

Indeed, there are experts which think addressing epigenetics could be just as important as those behaviours or risk factors believed to cause cancer, and with the high-profile deals being inked  in the area, it would seem pharmaceutical companies agree.

Epigenetics in combating breast cancer

A recent study conducted by researchers in Belgium, presented at theIMPAKT Breast Cancer Conference, served to highlight the potential epigenetics have in treating cancers.

"Our goal was to assess the epigenetic differences between normal tissue and primary tumour samples on a genome-wide scale, similarly to what has been done for gene expression patterns," Dr. Sarah Dedeurwaerder, from Universite Libre de Bruxelles, explained.

Changes in the DNA molecule covered by epigentics include methylation, which is a form of chemical modification. The researchers used two sets of breast tissue for their study – 123 within the main set and 125 within the control set.

From these two, subgroups were created based on their methylation profiles, with the results showing estrogen receptor-negative tumours and estrogen receptor-positive tumours have different methylation profiles.

The researchers went on to find that by using methylation profiles, cancers could be classified into further subgroups than they currently are.

"Indeed, several patients displaying the same known sub-type of breast cancer can respond differently to a given drug. An epigenetic difference between the tumours of these patients might explain the difference observed in terms of treatment response," Dr. Dedeurwaerder said.

She went on to explain these methylation markers could aid in early detection of cancers, as well as better helping classify patients and predicting their response to certain therapies.

Dr. Dedeurwaerder also concluded it was "conceivable" epigenetic therapy could be used alone to alongside other cancer treatments.

Industry investment in epigenetics

It is this latter point which members of the pharma industry are banking serious investments on.

In the latest of a series of deals within the field of epigenetics, Epizyme and Eisai announced a worldwide partnership in March for the development and commercialisation of a treatment targeting epigenetic enzyme for the treatment of lymphoma, among other cancers.

Epizyme received $6 million (£3.7 million) up front for development, with Eisai funding 100 percent of the research and development, before offering Epizyme and profit share and co-commercialisation agreement in the United States.

EpiTherapeutics and Abbott also signed a similar deal in late 2010 for making cancer drugs targeted at epigenetic molecules, although few financial details of the three-year agreement were released.

James Sullivan, vice president of Pharmaceuticals Discovery at Abbott, said the company focuses "on the discovery and development of targeted, less toxic therapies that work against the processes cancers need to survive", which requires it to take a "diverse approach" to developing disease targets.  

One of the larger deals in this area, however, remains the agreement inked between GlaxoSmithKline and SuperGen, inked in 2009.

SuperGen could potentially receive commercialisation and development payments of $375 million (Epizyme is only in line for around $200 million from its deal) for the multi-year agreement.

Commenting at the time, James SJ Manuso, chairman, president and chief executive officer of SuperGen, said: "We are excited to be working with GlaxoSmithKline, a company that has demonstrated a significant global commitment to bringing novel cancer therapeutics to patients."

The investments made in the area since, and the current buzz, suggest there are many others who are willing to make a commitment to epigentics as a way of providing better treatment to cancer patients.