I don’t want to say that this is a trend, but I notice that GSK is saying that they’re going to leave Sirtris more or less alone as well (as Takeda has said they’ll do with Millennium). The researchers in both shops should feel good about that, and not only because they’ll be keeping their jobs. They’re getting a vote of confidence in the most meaningful way that a large company can give that to its employees: by paying you money and not messing with you.
Of course, these deals have two sides to them. I don’t know what it’s like in Takeda back in Japan – my contacts inside the Japanese pharmaceutical industry aren’t extensive. But I think that some of the people at GSK (where I do know a lot of people) are wondering just what motivated their company to spend $720 million on Sirtris rather than on them.
It’s a fair question, even though I don’t have a problem myself with the Sirtris deal (as I said yesterday). But the sirtuins themselves are targets that anyone can work on, and you’d assume that a big outfit like GlaxoSmithKline could, if they wanted to, make a big push into the area and find some interesting things. So why didn’t they? The most obvious reason would be Sirtris had already done a good deal of that work, and it was more economical for GSK to buy it than to redo it. Another possibility is that the chemical space for drug-like hits in that area may not be very spacious, and that Sirtris may have already carved out a good piece of that real estate.
There’s also a bit of Glaxo history to deal with. The company had already, about fifteen years ago, decided to make a great big push into a promising new research area: nuclear receptors. They set up a whole research institute and did a huge amount of good science trying to figure out how these things worked, what they were good for, and how to get drugs that affected them. I got interested in the field in the late 1990s, and it became clear to me very quickly that Glaxo’s effort was the most serious of the bunch (and that included some really substantial research going on at Merck, Lilly and some other outfits). The company had teams of people who seemed to do nothing else than study the structures of these things, generate reams of X-ray data, synthesize huge lists of ligand molecules of every kind you could want, and so on. Just run "Glaxo nuclear receptor" through PubMed to see what I mean.
And what did it get them? From what I can see, not much. Avandia (rosiglitazone) is a nuclear receptor ligand (for PPAR-gamma), but its activity had already been discovered, and it was in clinical trials without a known mechanism. Figuring out how it worked was one of the Glaxo team’s early triumphs. But Avandia has turned out to be famously troublesome, and no others have come to market, despite multiple tries in the clinic. The huge amount of time and money the company spent generated a lot of interesting science, but appears (at least to me) to have brought in not one dime of revenue. (No doubt someone from GSK will correct me if I’m wrong).
So you can see how the company might be wary of starting a big internal effort to explore a massive, complex, and risky new field of biology. Politically and psychologically, it’s probably easier for them to structure this in terms of an acquisition.