Specialization a Clear Trend
Still, CROs that effectively span the full range of drug discovery and development services are an elite group. Most CROs continue to provide some means of specialization. Prestwick Chemical expressly focuses on medicinal chemistry. In his talk, Bruno Giethlen, Ph.D., CSO, stressed that the function of medicinal chemistry must always be to advance likely candidates for testing and eventual registration, never synthesis for its own sake.
Prestwick’s customers are not likely to have already designed their compounds, as those seeking med-chem help traditionally have been, according to Dr. Giethlen. The company proposes and designs compounds in-house, communicating with its clients about research priorities in order to complement customers’ own competence and create synergies.
To do so, Prestwick combines traditional med chem with more modern methods such as computational chemistry and structure-based, or ligand-based, design. The firm shares executive managerial ties with in silico discovery company Inte:Ligand, allowing co-development of specific software capabilities as needed to respond to the CRO’s customers’ needs.
Interestingly, Prestwick does run some of its own drug discovery projects but never in areas that overlap with customer pipelines; furthermore, the company seeks only to bring these projects to preclinical stage, with the goal of establishing eventual licensing agreements. This is the business model adopted in an agreement with Merck Serono announced in January this year, focused on a modulator of metabotropic glutamate receptor mGluR4 to treat Parkinson disease. “We completed a license agreement with Merck Serono after we co-developed this compound with Domain Therapeutics” Dr. Giethlen explained.
Still, the company’s main focus is to provide its med-chem expertise, informed by computer-assisted drug design and in silico screening, to help its customers select from among their lead scaffolds those compounds with “more affinity, selectivity, bioavailability, and less toxicity, as quickly as possible.”
A decade ago, he observed, CROs might be given more than two years to get a project running; now pharma customers expect go/no-go decisions every three to six months. “Prestwick Chemical applies its med-chem skills to improve compounds with very rapid turnaround. For this, cheminformatics is absolutely essential, as is solid communication with the client on a frequent and regular basis, to ensure that assay development—which we do not do in house—renders information that will directly influence the likelihood of getting lead candidates successfully through clinical trials.”
Ion Channels: Niche Focus
Olaf Scheel, Ph.D., CSO at Cytocentrics, also noted major reorganizational changes in big pharma, as well as “significant budget restrictions.” This comes in an era when the number of potential assay applications is actually dizzying. Furthermore, the delicate inverse relationship between throughput and data quality persists, all of which is “creating a demand for division of work between pharmas and CROs.”
This affords a growth opportunity for CROs focused on customer-identified critical skills. Cytocentrics has expertise in ion channels and patch-clamp methods. The company also offers its in-house-created CytoPatch™ instrument, an automated whole-cell patch-clamp device for voltage- and ligand-gated ion channels “optimized for flexibility and for data quality similar to that obtained with manual patch clamps,” while the platform’s modular design addresses demand for higher throughput.
With a dedicated pipette designated for gigasealing, separate from the cell-capture component, and its capacity for continuous perfusion, the CytoPatch device allows high gigasealing and cell stability, permitting readings even for ion channels that may be slow responding to various test compounds, such as the hERG ion channel; yet the CytoPatch is also capable of fast compound application as needed for fast-desensitizing ligand-gated channels.
The device is offered as a standalone product to pharmas—and to other CROs, illustrating an intra-CRO cooperation also on the rise in the contract research sphere.
Katya Tsaioun, Ph.D., CSO of Cyprotex, likens the pharmaceutical industry to the auto industry, given the unravelling of vertical integration and the movement toward specialized function each has seen.
For the most part, Dr. Tsaioun believes that niche CROs make the most sense “because no single organization, not even the largest pharmas, can now actually buy that much expertise. To get a compound from concept to market requires an enormous amount of very diverse expertise,” from basic biology and chemistry to pharmacology, formulation, animal toxicology, human toxicology, regulatory affairs, marketing, commercialization, and manufacturing. “The pharma industry is thus moving away from vertical integration and disaggregating its functions.”
The resulting demand for specialized expertise has pharmas turning to CROs, allowing pharmas’ research teams to focus on their core strengths. Dr. Tsaioun noted numerous other benefits of working with CROs, including expertise setting up the purpose-designed platforms and/or the assays that are outsourced, in turn saving on hiring and training time; assay validation; expertise to rescue failed or failing projects; and enough specialized knowledge to predict what assays might be needed downstream.
“A main scientific challenge is to combat the growing trend of failure in late stages of development or once in the market, either of which is hugely expensive,” Dr. Tsaioun said. “While failures due to pharmacokinetics have fallen dramatically over the last decade, failures due to adverse events in humans and to lack of efficacy are increasing.”
This highlights the need for better animal and human tissue models, along with better translation to human disease, as well new toxicity-assessment tools that can be applied early to reduce late attrition.
For example, Cyprotex has invested “massively into our highly automated ADME screening platform and into our CellCiphr™ high-content toxicology assays. At the scale and level of refinement that we have pursued, it wouldn’t make sense for even the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies to invest at this level. By aggregating the volumes of hundreds of pharmaceutical companies, as a CRO, we see economies of scale that not even the large pharmas can feasibly attain,” according to Dr. Tsaioun.
As for addressing pharma’s need for earlier predicted eventual clinical relevance, Dr. Tsaioun cited various dedicated Cyprotex screening panels expressly designed for preclinical animal toxicity (rat primary hepatocytes) versus human-responsiveness panels—since not all toxicity mechanisms translate between animal and human assays. This alone can save customer companies hundreds of thousands of dollars, she claimed, given that proper IND-enabling studies cost roughly $1 million per compound.
“For years, the CRO industry was scientifically dull; we just executed. Now we are deeply involved in process innovation, frequently acting as an extension of pharma companies’ R&D teams. In the future, there will be nimble, fast-on-their-feet drug discovery companies spun out from universities, led by entrepreneurial leaders.”
Big pharma will continue to apply its decades-long expertise in managing drug portfolios—identifying markets and patient populations, determining manufacturing economics, assessing development-capacity and marketability of drug candidates—but, according to Dr. Tsaioun, it will be the CROs that “will innovate on how to get drugs from idea to FDA-approval quickly and cost-effectively, with the lowest risk of late failure.”