Schering-Plough has had its share of troubles over the years, but the company has also seen itself saved by some pretty unlikely compounds. Vytorin (ezetimibe) is the example I’ve spoken about here, and if the drug doesn’t seem like a savior at the moment, well, you have to keep in mind that it was the biggest thing for them since Claritin went off-patent ten years ago.
Now there’s another one potentially coming up. Expectations are building for a thrombin receptor antagonist compound, SCH 530348. And I have a history with this one, too: while the labs down one hallway from me were discovering ezetimibe, down the other hallway they were laying the foundation for this one. There’s a big difference, though, in the way I saw the two.
This thrombin antagonist is an unlikely drug for several reasons. For one thing, its structure is not the sort of thing most medicinal chemists would go out of their way to make. But there’s a good reason for that: to a first approximation, it wasn’t made with medicinal chemistry in mind. 530348 is based on a natural product called himbacine, whose fame, such as it is, rests on its properties as a semi-selective muscarinic antagonist. And that’s how Schering-Plough got interested in this class of compounds; thrombin had nothing to do with it.
At the time (early to mid 1990s) the company had a team working on Alzheimer’s disease, and I’ll go ahead and mention again that I was one of the people involved. (Five minutes on SciFinder would tell you that, anyway). We were quite interested in selective muscarinic antagonists, particularly for the m2 subtype, and himbacine was at the time one of the more selective compounds with that profile. So one of the group leaders at the company, Sam Chackalamannil, decided to synthesize it and do some SAR around the structure.
That was no small undertaking. Himbacine’s not one of the most complex natural products by any means, but it’s no stroll to the beach, either, especially when compared to the usual sorts of drug structures. It took a lot of time, a lot of ingenuity, and (most importantly) a lot of effort to do it. And I. . .well, I thought this was a terrible idea.
I really did. By the time himbacine itself got made, the project team had muscarinic compounds that were more selective and more potent (and a lot easier to make, to boot). I would listen to Chackalamannil’s people presenting their long, difficult routes during meetings, and I’d sit there imagining the company going slowly bankrupt if everyone adopted this approach, the revenue slowly sinking as the number of JACS communications rose. I couldn’t see the point, and although I don’t think I ever quite had the nerve to say so to Chackalamannil himself (hi, Sam!), I said it to plenty of other people.
So, is it time for me to eat crow? Well, one plateful, at least. Some of the himbacine analogs hit in the high-throughput screen for thrombin activity, to everyone’s surprise, and some further compounds (now shed of their muscarinic activity) were even better. The drug discovery effort culminated in 530548, which now might be about to benefit a huge number of people and make the company a ton of money, if everything goes well.
Of course, if these things hadn’t hit in the thrombin assay, I could have remained secure in my opinion. After all, they were never worth very much as muscarinics, as far as I know. (Of course, our muscarinic compounds, in the end, never were worth very much as Alzheimer’s drugs, which is something to keep in mind). So that’s the question: how likely is it for molecules like this to work? It’s very hard to answer that, but given this data point, I guess the answer is “at least a little more likely than I thought”. The very fact that they didn’t look like most other things in the screening deck was probably in their favor. I still think that these compounds were a long shot, but this is a business that lives on long shots. This one came through, and congratulations to everyone involved.