Three partners, one target
October 2012
by Jeffrey Bouley  |  Email the author


DUBLIN, Calif.—Astex Pharmaceuticals Inc., a pharmaceutical company dedicated to the discovery and development of novel small-molecule therapeutics and based in a U.S. city with a name that evokes Ireland, has initiated a collaboration with two U.K.-based organizations, Cancer Research Technology Ltd. (CRT) and The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London.  
Under the terms of the deal, the trio will work together to discover and develop drug candidates targeting an undisclosed epigenetic target in a blood cancer with high unmet medical need.
As the collaborators note, dysregulated epigenetic mechanisms are now understood to underlie various types of cancer, and these mechanisms have been successfully targeted by the first generation of epigenetic anticancer drugs. In some cases, they says, specific epigenetic mutational events can be linked to disease etiology, providing an opportunity to develop highly targeted personalized medicines and associated companion diagnostics that will ultimately improve survival and reduce side effects.
The choice of Astex as a partner in this effort with CRT—the cancer-focused technology development and commercialization arm of Cancer Research UK—and ICR flows from that understanding, as Astex brings its respected fragment-based drug discovery platform and epigenetic drug development experience. At the same time, the collaboration enjoys ICR's expertise in blood cancer biology and proven success in drug discovery at the Cancer Research UK Cancer Therapeutics Unit at the ICR.
"This new partnership builds on the highly successful collaboration which Astex entered into with the ICR and CRT in 2003 on another cancer target, PKB/Akt," noted Dr. Harren Jhoti, president of Astex Pharmaceuticals, in the news release about the collaboration. "That collaboration led to the discovery of two clinical candidates, the first of which, AZD5363, was taken into Phase I by our partner AstraZeneca in early 2011 and the second of which, AT13148, is being prepared to be taken into Phase I under our development partnership with Cancer Research UK."  
Discussions on the current collaboration began about a year ago when Astex and ICR scientists began to discuss their interests and expertise in epigenetics and their respective drug discovery efforts focusing on a novel epigenetics target, according to Tom Heightman, director of medicinal chemistry at Astex and project leader for the collaboration.  
"Although this collaboration did not flow directly from Astex's past collaboration with ICR and CRT on PKB, given that our PKB collaboration (partly funded by Cancer Research UK) led to the discovery of two new drugs which are continuing to move forward in development, we still have very regular contact with scientists from ICR and Cancer Research UK," Heightman tells ddn. "Our frequent contact and our experiences of working together very successfully in the past were certainly factors in triggering our interest and discussions about this new collaboration."  
As Prof. Paul Workman, director of the Cancer Research UK Cancer Therapeutics Unit at ICR puts it, "ICR scientists are pioneers at unraveling blood cancer drug targets, which others have considered challenging to drug effectively. We have a very strong track record of designing drugs to attack challenging biological targets and bringing them into clinical trial, and given Astex's complementary expertise, we are very excited about the potential of this collaboration."  
Heightman says that Astex recognizes the strategic value of establishing alliances with leading academic institutes that can provide complementary expertise and capabilities, particularly in target identification and validation to support its drug discovery projects to identify novel targeted agents. 
"Epigenetics is an exciting new field in cancer therapy," he notes. "The timing of this specific effort is driven by two recent scientific advances—first, elucidation of the roles of a number of epigenetic regulatory proteins in specific groups of cancer patients, providing both a strong therapeutic rationale and clear diagnostic prediction of patient responses; and second, demonstration of the tractability of new epigenetic regulatory protein families for small-molecule discovery."  
The collaboration fits well with Astex's desire to build on its epigenetic franchise, with Heightman noting that Astex receives royalties from sales of Dacogen, which was developed by one of its founder companies Supergen—but it also fits well with ICR's goal to continue to develop cutting-edge personalized medicines for patients with inadequately treated cancers, he adds.  
"The deal will ensure that the research program benefits from the necessary investment to progress the research to its full potential while building on the validation and assay development work that has been carried out at the ICR and funded by Cancer Research UK and others," said Dr. Phil L'Huillier, director of business management at CRT, in the announcement about the deal.  
In addition to its California headquarters, Astex has a European corporate and research center in Cambridge, United Kingdom.
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