Plenge Lab
Date posted: October 5, 2016 | Author: | No Comments »

Categories: Drug Discovery Human Genetics

I have many fears, both professional and personal. When I decided to leave academics for a job in industry in 2013, my biggest fear about making the transition was scientific. In my mind, I had a model of how human genetics might transform drug discovery and development. There were anecdotes (e.g., PCSK9 inhibitors) and a few systematic studies in specific diseases (e.g., genetics of rheumatoid arthritis), but there were many holes to the model. Over the last couple of years, additional anecdotes and systematic analyses have emerged (e.g., Matt Nelson, et al. Nature Genetics), which helps to soothe my fears…but I still have concerns.

[Disclaimer: I am a Merck/MSD employee. The opinions I am expressing are my own and do not necessarily represent the position of my employer.]

As I have blogged about previously, I see two primary routes to go from human genetics to new drug discovery programs (see here, here). The first requires that there are genes with a series of disease-associated alleles with a range of biological effects, ideally from gain- to loss-of-function (allelic series model). The second requires disease-associated genes to aggregate within specific biological pathways, which can then be turned into assays for disease-relevant pathway-based screens such as phenotypic screens.…

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Date posted: October 9, 2015 | Author: | No Comments »

Categories: Drug Discovery

It is not uncommon that I am asked the following question during public talks: “Does innovation happen in large pharmaceutical companies?” Sometimes, the question is just a critical comment, disguised as a question: “Large pharma does not innovate, they just conduct clinical trials and drive up the cost of drugs. Right?” Other times the questions are more thoughtful: “As an academic, I don’t see what happens in industry. Can you describe examples of innovation driven out of large pharma?

[Disclaimer: I am a Merck/MSD employee. The opinions I am expressing are my own and do not necessarily represent the position of my employer.]

At the risk of sounding defensive, here are some answers to the “pharma innovation” question. I know there are many more, and I invite readers to share their examples. Admittedly, the examples are biased towards examples at Merck, but that is just because I know these examples better.

First, the past couple of weeks have been particularly good for industry scientists. These recent examples provide objective evidence to answer the pharma innovation question.

(a) 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Former Merck scientist Dr. William Campbell was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of an antiparasitic agent used to treat river blindness in places like Latin America, Africa and Yemen.…

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Date posted: August 21, 2015 | Author: | No Comments »

Categories: Drug Discovery Embedded Genomics Human Genetics

I say article of the week, but I have been lazy this summer (or maybe just consumed by other things).  My last “article of the week” was in May and my last Plengegen blog post was over a month ago!

By now everyone knows the PCSK9 story. Human genetics identified the target; functional work in mouse and human cells led to a mechanistic understanding of PCSK9’s role in LDL receptor recycling; therapeutic modulation was shown to lower LDL cholesterol in clinical trials; and the FDA approved drugs based on LDL lowering, with outcome trials underway to demonstrate (presumably) cardiovascular benefit. What the story highlights is that a mechanistic understanding of causal pathways in human disease is key to the success of translating targets into therapies. Further, the PCSK9 story underscores the importance of a simple biomarker (LDL cholesterol) to measure a complex causal pathway in a clinical trial.

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) provides insight into a putative causal pathway in obesity, and thus a potentially a new mechanism for therapeutic modulation. The accompanying Editorial also provides a nice perspective.

[Disclaimer: I am a Merck/MSD employee. The opinions I am expressing are my own and do not necessarily represent the position of my employer.

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Date posted: September 8, 2014 | Author: | No Comments »

Categories: Drug Discovery Human Genetics

So, you have a target and want to start a drug discovery program, do ya?  How would you do it?

When I was at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute, I presented an idea from an early GWAS of rheumatoid arthritis (RA, see here) to Ed Scolnick (former president of Merck Research Labs, now founding director of the Stanely Center at the Broad Institute, see here).  In this study, we found evidence that a non-coding variant at the CD40 gene locus increased risk of RA.  The first questions he asked: How does the genetic mutation alter CD40 function? Is it gain-of-function or loss-of-function?  What assay would you use for a high-throughput small molecule screen to recapitulate the genetic finding?

I was caught off-guard.  Sadly, I had never really thought about all of the details.  At the time, I knew enough as a clinician, biologist and a geneticist to appreciate that CD40 was an attractive drug target for RA.  However, I was quite naïve to the steps required to take a target into a drug screen.  That simple conversation led to several years worth of work, which ultimately led to a proof-of-concept phenotypic screen published in PLoS Genetics five years later (see here).…

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