On October 22, 2015, BBC News reported, “The world’s largest clinical trial to examine whether aspirin can prevent cancers returning has begun in the United Kingdom (UK).”
About 11,000 people, who have had early bowel, breast, prostate, stomach and esophageal cancer will be involved in this study with one tablet a day dosage for five years. This trial is being funded by ‘The Charity Cancer Research, UK’ and ‘The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).’
The scientists feel, if it works, this ‘repurposing’ of an older and much-known drug would be a “game-changing” one. It would then be able to provide a cheap and effective alternative to prevent recurrence of cancer to a large number of cancer survivals. Interestingly, no global pharma players are involved in this cancer prevention research, as yet.
Aspirin was developed by Bayer way back in 1897 for pain and inflammation. Thereafter, the scientists found a ‘repurpose’ in its use as an anti-platelet drug for treating and preventing heart attacks and strokes.
Similarly, the anti-inflammatory drug Ibuprofen, which was developed by Boots in the 1960s for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, is now showing promises that it can help protect against Parkinson’s disease.
Again, a number of studies claim that statins, a cholesterol-reducing drug, can help prevent Alzheimer’s Disease, resulting in low levels of beta-amyloid. Further research needs to be done in this area, as this finding has not been universally accepted, just yet.
All such commendable initiatives, throw open a relevant question for debate: ‘Can the existing drugs be re-examined in a systematic manner to discover their other possible radically new usages at a much lesser treatment costs to patients?’
In my view, available data emphatically prompts the answer ‘Yes’ and I shall deliberate on on that in this article.
‘Repurposing’ older drugs:
The Oxford Dictionary meaning of ‘repurpose’ is: ‘Adapt for use in a different purpose.’
Accordingly, the process of discovering new usages of older drugs is often called by many scientists as ‘repurposing’.
Currently, we come across various articles reporting a number of such new initiatives. This process is safer, much less expensive and takes much lesser time.
These laudable R&D initiatives needs encouragement from all stakeholders, especially from the Government. Given proper focus and attractive financial and other incentives, more and more players are expected to get attracted to a different genre of innovation. It is a whole new ball game of discovering new purposes of old and cheaper drugs with known and well-documented long term safety profile.
Some old drugs with ‘new purpose’:
The following table gives an example of some well known older drugs, for which fresh R&D initiatives discovered their new purpose of treatment, at a much cheaper cost:
|Drug||Old Indication||New purpose|
|Bromocriptine||Parkinson’s disease||Diabetes mellitus|
|Methotrexate||Cancer||Psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis|
(Source: Indian Journal of Applied Research, Volume: 4, Issue: 8, August 2014)
A clarion call to join this movement:
The well-known researcher, Dr. Francis S. Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in a TED talk (video) strongly argued in favor of ‘translational research’ to produce better drugs, faster. To make this process to work successfully Francis Collins hopes to encourage global pharmaceutical companies to open up their stashes of drugs that have already passed safety tests, but that failed to successfully treat their targeted disease.
He wants to study, how drugs approved for one disease could successfully treat another or more ailments and also gave examples of the following drugs, which I am quoting below, as such:
- Raloxifene: The FDA approved Raloxifene to reduce the risk of invasive breast cancer in postmenopausal women in 2007. It was initially developed to treat osteoporosis.
- Thalidomide: This drug started out as a sedative in the late fifties, and soon doctors were infamously prescribing it to prevent nausea in pregnant women. It later caused thousands of severe birth defects, most notably phocomelia, which results in malformed arms and legs. In 1998, thalidomide found a new use as a treatment for leprosy and in 2006 it was approved for multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer.
- Tamoxifen: This hormone therapy treats metastatic breast cancers, or those that have spread to other parts of the body, in both women and men, and it was originally approved in 1977. Thirty years later, researchers discovered that it also helps people with bipolar disorder by blocking the enzyme PKC, which goes into overdrive during the manic phase of the disorder.
- Rapamycin: This antibiotic, also called sirolimus, was first discovered in bacteria-laced soil from Easter Island in the seventies, and the FDA approved it in 1999 to prevent organ transplant rejection. Since then, researchers have found it effective in treating not one but two diseases: Autoimmune Lymphoproliferative Syndrome (ALPS), in which the body produces too many immune cells called lymphocytes, and lymphangioleiomyomatosis, a rare lung disease.
- Lomitapide: Intended to lower cholesterol and triglycerides, the FDA approved this drug to treat a rare genetic disorder that causes severe cholesterol problems called homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia last December.
- Pentostatin: This drug was created as a chemotherapy for specific types of leukemia. It was tested first in T-cell-related leukemias, which didn’t respond to the drug. But later NIH’s National Cancer Institute discovered that the drug was successful in treating a rare leukemia that is B-cell related, called Hairy Cell Leukemia.
- Sodium nitrite: This salt was first developed as an antidote to cyanide poisoning and, unrelated to medicine, it’s also used to cure meat. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute is currently recruiting participants for a sodium nitrite clinical trial, in which the drug will be tested as a treatment for the chronic leg ulcers associated with sickle cell and other blood disorders.
- Zidovudine (AZT): The first antiviral approved for HIV/AIDS in 1987.
- Farnesyltransferase inhibitor (FTI): This was used to successfully treat children with the rapid-aging disease Progeria in a 2012 clinical trial.
“None of these drugs could have been developed without collaborations between drug developers and researchers with new ideas about applications, based on molecular insights about disease,” Dr. Collins said.
The examples that I have given, so far, on ‘repurposing’ older drugs are not exhaustive, in any way, there are more such examples coming up almost regularly.
The key benefits:
The key benefits of ‘repurposing’ older drugs may be summarized as follows:
- Ready availability of the starting compound
- Previously generated relevant R&D data may be used for submission to drug regulators
- Makes clinical research more time-efficient and cost-effective
- Possibility of much quicker market launch
Slowly gaining steam:
On November 27, 2012, ‘The Guardian’ reported that a number of university-based spin-outs and small biotech companies are being set up in the United States to find new purpose for old drugs. They express interest especially, on those drugs, which were shelved as they did not match the desired efficacy requirements, though showed a good overall safety profile.
Such organizations, take advantage of the declining cost of screening, with some compound libraries, such as, the Johns Hopkins library, which includes 3,500 drugs, available for screening at a small charge, the report highlighted.
Quoting a specialist, the report stated, “Existing drugs have been shown to be safe in patients, so if these drugs could be found to work for other diseases, then this would drastically reduce drug development costs and risks. Of 30,000 drugs in the world, 25,000 are ex-patent – it’s a free-for-all.”
‘Repurposing’ may not attract many pharma players, Government should step in:
Notwithstanding the clarion call of Dr. Francis Collins to global pharma players for their active participation in such projects, I reckon, the positive response may not be too many, because of various reasons.
Although, ‘repurposed’ drugs offer similar or even greater value to patients than any comparable ‘me-too’ New Chemical/Molecular Entity (NCE/NME), there may not possibly be any scope here for ‘Obscene Pricing’, such as ‘Sovaldi’ and many others, as some experts feel. And that’s the reality.
Moreover, new usages of the same old molecule, in all probability, may not get any fresh Intellectual Property (IP) protection in India, either.
Hence, considering the health interest of patients, in general, the Government should assume the role of ‘prime mover’, primarily to set the ball of ‘repurposing of older drugs’ rolling in India. This has already started happening in some of the developed countries of the world, which I shall dwell upon here.
Funding clinical development for ‘repurposing’:
Let me give a couple of examples of funding such admirable initiatives in two different countries.
I have already mentioned above that the clinical development for ‘repurposing’ Aspirin in the prevention of cancer, is being funded by the charity Cancer Research UK and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).
In a similar initiative, National Institutes for Health (NIH) of the United States, launched the ‘National Center for Advancing Transnational Sciences (NCATS), in May 2012.
New Therapeutic Uses program of NCATS helps to identify new uses for drugs that have undergone significant research and development by the pharma industry, including safety testing in humans. NIH claims that ‘using drugs that already have cleared several key steps in the development process gives scientists nationwide a strong starting point to contribute their unique expertise and accelerate the pace of therapeutics development.’
By pairing researchers with a selection of specific drugs, NCATS program tests ideas for new therapeutic uses, ultimately identifying promising new treatments for patients. Funding for this purpose is done by NCATS through NIH. For example, In July 2015, NCATS planned a funding of around US$3 million to support four academic research groups to test a selection of drugs for new therapeutic uses, as follows:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Glioblastoma (one of the most aggressive brain tumors in adults)
- Acute myeloid leukemia (an aggressive blood cancer)
- Chagas disease (a neglected tropical disease that causes heart, digestive and neurological problems)
According to NIH, each award recipient will test a selected drug for its effectiveness against a previously unexplored disease or condition. The industry partners for these projects are AstraZeneca and Sanofi.
Can it be done in India?
Of course yes, provided the Government considers health care as one its priority focus areas with commensurate resource deployment of all kinds for the same.
As things stand today, India still remains beyond any visibility to give a tangible shape to this specific concept of ‘repurposing’ of older drugs. There does not seem to be any other valid reason why similar model of funding can’t be followed locally too, for this purpose.
The nodal agency to spearhead such initiatives, and to create appropriate groundswell to help gain a critical mass, may well be the ‘Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR)’ or any other body that the Government decides in consultation with domain experts, together with reasonable financial incentives for commercialization of new usages at an affordable cost.
As we all know, many people, across the world, are currently going through the pain of seeing their loved ones suffer, and even die, from serious ailments, the treatments of which either do not exist or when exist, the therapy costs may be out of reach of a vast majority of patients. In tandem, the R&D pipeline of the global pharma industry is gradually drying up.
In a situation like this, drug ‘repurposing’ that is directed towards meeting unmet medical needs of patients of all types irrespective of financial status, needs to be increasingly encouraged and pursued as a critical solution to this growing problem.
The good news is that some global pharma majors, though very few in number, have now expressed their intention to salvage their failed molecules and are open to help explore whether such drugs may work in other disease conditions.
India seems to be still miles away from this space, and a bit directionless too. That said, the country is scientifically quite capable of making up the lost ground in this area, provided the Government decides so, garnering requisite wherewithal.
Thus, in my view, the process of ‘repurposing’ older drugs has already started rolling in some major countries of the world, in a well structured manner with requisite funding in place. Tangible outcomes are already noticeable today, with some examples quoted in this article.
As Dr. Francis Collins said, collaborations between drug developers and researchers with new ideas about applications, based on molecular insights about disease are critical in the way forward to achieve this cherished goal in a sustainable manner.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.