Continuing on the theme of unexpected toxicity landmines, I wanted to take a look at a highly anticipated obesity drug from Sanofi. Rimonabant is a small molecule antagonist of the CB-1 receptor, and it's been getting a lot of press - both for its impressive efficacy and for its mechanism of action. The "CB" in the receptor name stands for "cannabinoid", and the drug blocks the same receptor whose stimulation causes the well-known food cravings brought on by marijuana.
Interestingly, blockade of this receptor not only seems to affect appetite, but also seems to help with cravings for nicotine. As you can imagine, the market potential for the drug could be immense (and as you can imagine, other drug companies are chasing the same biological target, too.)
But what else does an antagonist do? The receptor has, no doubt, several functions in the brain (all the CNS receptors do multiple duty), and it's scattered around in the nerves and other tissues as well. There have been a couple of reports that bear watching. A team of researchers (German/Italian/US) reported earlier this year that the CB-1 receptor seems to be involved in inflammation of the colon. Mice with the receptor knocked out show great susceptibility to chemical irritants in the gut, and (more disturbingly) the same effect was seen in normal mice treated with a CB-1 antagonist. The authors suggest that CB-1 may be involved in diseases like Crohn's and irritable bowel syndrome, but antagonists would, if anything, make the problem worse.
That's bad enough, but there's a potential disaster that just showed up last month. The authors report that a patient of theirs suddenly came down with multiple sclerosis after having been a subject in a rimonabant trial. Now, there's no way to prove causation, as they freely admit, but there's some evidence that CB-1 has a neuroprotective effect under normal conditions. So blocking its actions might conceivably expose neurons to damage, and when you combine that with the above potential role in inflammation, you have something that you should keep an eye on.
No one can say how this will play out. The most likely outcome is the best one - that the drug isn't associated with MS or Crohn's. After all, it's been through some extensive trials, and Sanofi still seems confident - which, believe me, they wouldn't be if a good fraction of the participants had come down with irritable bowel syndrome, much less multiple sclerosis. But there's another possibility, that the trouble will only show up in some patients under some conditions, and it might be rare enough that you won't see it until it gets out into the general population. There's just no way to run a clinical trial to nail down the statistics on, say, a one in 50,000 side effect. You'll never see it coming.
That MS report in particular must have the Sanofi people a bit worried, and I'm sure it has the attention of the other players in the area, who will be glad to let Sanofi go out and be the lightning rod in case anything bad happens. Odds are that it won't, but there are no sure things, not with this drug or any other. Honestly, it's years before you can relax in this business, if you ever do. Good luck, guys.