ALS, MS fatigue, addictive behaviours and PTSD are all under the drug discovery lab’s microscope
By 2030, people aged 65 and up will account for nearly 20 percent of the world’s population. With the bulk of healthcare spending happening in old age, the potential for targeted medical interventions is huge. Dr Huw Jones and Dr Helen Kuhlman from Chronos Therapeutics discuss the lab’s current projects. Chronos has been working on a treatment for ALS – the devastating and fatal motor neurone disease. Following a recent acquisition, it has added MS fatigue, addictive behaviours and post-traumatic stress disorder to its portfolio of promising treatments. Dr Kuhlman explains the commercial potential for the different treatments, and Dr Jones discusses the various paths to market.
European CEO: By 2030, people aged 65 and up will account for nearly 20 percent of the world’s population. With the bulk of healthcare spending happening in old age, the potential for targeted medical interventions is huge. Joining me are Drs Huw Jones and Helen Kuhlman from Chronos Therapeutics.
Huw: you’re focused on diseases of ageing and related brain and nervous system disorders; what are the big targets for research?
Dr Huw Jones: Our own targets are ALS – the most common of the motor neurone diseases. It’s a devastating and fatal motor neurone disease where most people unfortunately are dead within three to five years of diagnosis. And we have an active programme of our own discovery in that terrible disease.
And as of this summer, we have another three programmes that we acquired, that target fatigue in multiple sclerosis, addictive behaviours, and potentially some of the post-traumatic stress behaviours.
So we define brain disease very broadly – both degenerative and behavioural.
European CEO: Helen, how do you identify promising molecules?
Dr Helen Kuhlman: So we have both an internal and an external approach to identifying compounds for development. The original technology, which was spun out of the University of Oxford, is based on a C. elegans model. So that’s a small worm. And we genetically manipulate that to express human proteins involved in disease processes. So we make sick worms, and then we screen libraries of compounds through these sick worms, to see if we can make them better or slow down the progression of disease.
Also we take an external strategy to find opportunities for acquisition that will complement our own development programmes.
European CEO: Indeed you did acquire three programmes earlier this year: what’s the strategy behind these acquisitions?
Dr Huw Jones: We took a decision as a board to diversify the portfolio by an acquisition programme. We had a screening lab in Oxford, which came out of the university, looking for new signals in brain disease. We had one lead programme coming out of that lab, in ALS. But we needed to diversify, because it’s a very high-risk, high-gain activity – because only one drug has ever made it to the market.
So we spent a year and a half searching. We did over 250 partnering meetings. Many, many confidential discussions; many, many deep dives into the data. And it ended up in one deal with a subsidiary of Shire, which gave us our first asset in MS fatigue. The second programme targets addictive behaviours through a relatively recently discovered mechanism, where we switch off the reward you get from risk-seeking behaviour. Of which addictive behaviour is one. And the addictive behaviours we’re looking at are binge eating disorder and alcohol use disorder. Both very large societal problems, really.
And we have a third, slightly more speculative target in the brain, to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.
European CEO: And along with these projects you have two new VPs joining the team.
Dr Helen Kuhlman: That’s correct. So as well as receiving physical assets from Shire – so, compounds involved with the programme, details of pre-clinical experiments conducted – we receive two individuals that were involved in driving those programmes forward within Shire. And that’s almost worth more than the physical assets themselves, because these individuals bring know-how that allows us to accelerate the programmes faster than we would have done without them.
European CEO: Run the maths for me: what’s the commercial potential if these treatments are successful?
Dr Helen Kuhlman: Let’s start with ALS. The understanding from market analysis is there would potentially be a £1bn revenue opportunity if a new drug got to market for that indication.
The other behavioural disorders also have very large market potentials. In fact if we were to get the product in MS fatigue all the way to market, it would be the first approved, labelled drug in MS fatigue; and that would command hundreds of millions, potentially, in revenue.
Binge eating disorder has a multi-billion dollar opportunity.
Our third programme, which is more speculative, in post-traumatic stress disorder. I think the market’s not as well understood. There is no drug commercially available. So we’d be breaking new ground, in terms of how wide that opportunity is. There is obviously opportunity there, both in military settings – but also in the domestic setting. So, women who have undergone situations involving domestic violence actually suffer highly with post-traumatic stress.
European CEO: That’s the potential, but of course the road to market is a long and arduous one. How much work needs to be done and how long is that going to take?
Dr Huw Jones: Each part of the portfolio has a different roadmap through to the market. Some are perhaps more difficult than others. So in ALS, the path is a little more speculative. It’s a more difficult path to market.
In the acquired programmes, we know that if we interfere positively with one part of the brain – and get the chemistry right, which we’re in the process of doing – we will get a viable drug at the end of it. So we have a more trodden path.
How long? Well for each of those it’s about seven to eight years from market, sitting here today.
European CEO: Huw, Helen: thank you.
Dr Huw Jones: A pleasure, Paul.
Dr Helen Kuhlman: Thank you.