Pills, Proteins & Peptides

In The WEEKLY by Emily Burke

Promising Peptide Therapies

The front runners in the game of drug delivery include small molecule and large molecule drugs, but there is another class that lands right in between: peptides.

Several companies, including Rhythm Pharmaceuticals (Boston, MA), Kalos Therapeutics (San Diego, CA), Aileron Therapeutics (Cambridge, MA), and Bicycle Therapeutics (Cambridge, MA) have emerged as prominent players in the peptide arena.

Let’s review the differences between the drug classes and explain where peptides fit into the picture. Then we’ll take a spectator’s interest in the companies and products leading the charge in peptides therapeutics.

Easily Confused: Small Molecule vs. Large Molecule vs. Peptide

Small molecule drugs are chemically synthesized — made by a series of chemical reactions in the lab. They are typically taken as a pill or capsule. The pill or capsule dissolves in the gastrointestinal tract and the active ingredient is easily absorbed into the bloodstream via the intestinal wall. The molecules that make up these drugs are so tiny they are able to penetrate cell membranes and get inside of cells.

In contrast, large molecule drugs — protein-based therapeutics known as biologics — are made by living cells. They must be administered via injection because they will be destroyed by digestive enzymes in the gastrointestinal tract if given orally. Their large size, anywhere from 50 to 1,000 times larger than a typical small molecule drug, makes it impossible for them to penetrate cells. On the flip side, large molecules are highly specific for their target — typically a cell-surface receptor on the outside of the cell.

The FDA defines a peptide therapeutic as a chain of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) containing 40 amino acids or less, and regulates them as small molecules. Peptide therapeutics are similar to small molecule drugs in that they can be synthesized in the lab using a peptide synthesis machine — a machine that links amino acids together in a specified order. Peptides also share key characteristics with large molecule drugs which include sensitivity to digestive enzymes, delivery by injection, and high specificity for their target.

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Examples of peptide drugs on the market today include glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor activators, such as Byetta (AstraZeneca; Cambridge, England), Victoza (Novo Nordisk; Bagsvaerd, Denmark), and Trulicity (Eli Lilly; Indianapolis, Indiana). These peptide drugs work by interacting with a receptor on the surface of pancreatic beta cells and stimulate the release of insulin for diabetes.

In The Rhythm

Rhythm Pharmaceuticals is prepping to enter Phase III clinical studies of their anti-obesity peptide drug setmalnotide. Designated as a breakthrough therapy by the FDA, early clinical trial results in rare genetic forms of obesity were promising, helping to attract $41 million from key investors including  Pfizer Venture Investments and Third Rock Ventures to fund the upcoming Phase III.

Setmalnotide works by activating the melanocortin-4 receptor (MC4R), a receptor present on the surface of cells in the hypothalamus of the brain, a region involved in regulating both appetite and satiety. Mutations in MC4R that result in reduced activation are the most common genetic cause of obesity, and account for approximately 6-8% of obesity cases.

Kalos Fights Cancer

Kalos Therapeutics has a peptide drug in development based on a straightforward observation: despite constant activity, heart muscles don’t get bigger, and cancers of the heart are extremely rare. At least part of the reason for this is a peptide known as atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP), which is produced in the heart. It helps to control cell growth and division, making sure that the heart doesn’t get too big for the chest. Since cancer is caused by out-of-control cell growth and division, a connection was made: perhaps these peptides could play a role in controlling tumor cell growth.

Kalos Therapeutics has identified a portion of ANP and is synthesizing and testing it as a potential anti-cancer agent. Dubbed KTH-22, the agent is cytostatic, meaning it halts the growth and division of cancer cells, but does not directly kill them as a cytotoxic (toxic to cells) agent would. KTH-22 is in preclinical research, with data supporting its use in the treatment of pancreatic and ovarian cancers.

Staples & Bicycles

Most peptide therapeutics do not penetrate cell membranes. Designing peptides that could enter cells would truly endow them with the best characteristics of both large and small molecule therapies. Aileron Therapeutics and Bicycle Therapeutics are aiming to do just that.

Aileron Therapeutics is developing “stapled peptides.” These peptides are synthesized according to an optimized amino acid sequence. Next, a chemical linker is used to connect two amino acids within the chain, creating a folded or “stapled” version of the peptide. These stapled peptides still recognize their target protein, are more stable, and better able to penetrate cell membranes than the linear versions.

Aileron’s leading stapled peptide candidate, ALRN-6924, activates p53, a protein that triggers cell death in cancer cells but is inactivated in a range of malignancies. ALRN-6924 is in Phase II clinical studies for lymphoma. The company is pursuing the development of stapled peptides in a range of therapeutic areas, including inflammation and endocrine and metabolic diseases.

Bicycle Therapeutics also uses chemically linked peptides to increase stability, target interaction, and penetrate cells. Their peptides are formed — using a chemical linker — into the shape of a bicycle.

Bicycle’s lead candidate, BT1718, is a “bicycle drug conjugate” — a bicyclic peptide with a toxic drug attached. The peptide targets a protein called “membrane type 1 matrix metalloproteinase” (MT1-MMP) which is overexpressed in many tumors. BT1718 delivers its toxic payload to tumors overexpressing MT1-MMP. Preclinical trials have shown high efficacy against these tumors, and clinical trials are expected to start by the end of 2017.

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Already capable of affecting a range of therapeutic targets with high specificity, continued innovations in peptide design and delivery should make this class of drug an important player.