Today we take up the extremely interesting story of Rember, hailed in this week’s press as a potential wonder drug for Alzheimer’s. There are a lot of unusual features to this one.
To take the most obvious first, the Phase II data seem to have been impressive. It’s hard to show decent efficacy in an Alzheimer’s trial – you can ask Wyeth and Elan about that, although it’s a sore subject with them. But Rember, according to reports (this is the best I've seen), was significantly more effective than the current standard of care (Aricept/donezepil, a cholinesterase inhibitor). In light of some of the more breathless news stories, though, it’s worth keeping in mind that this was efficacy in slowing the rate of decline – not stopping it, and certainly not reversing it. Especially in the later stages of the disease, it’s extremely hard to imagine reversing the sort of damage that Alzheimer’s does to the brain (and yes, I know about the TNF-alpha reports – that subject is coming in a post next week). If Rember is twice as effective as Aricept, that's great - except Aricept's efficacy has never been all that impressive.
But that's still something, considering how the drug is supposed to work. Its target is different than the usual Alzheimer’s therapy. Accumulation of amyloid protein has long been suspected as the cause of the disease, but there have always been partisans for another pathology, the neurofibrillary tangles associated with tau protein. Arguments have been going on for years – decades – about which of these has more to do with the underlying cause(s) of Alzheimer’s. Rember is the first clinical shot (that I’m aware of) at targeting tau. If the first attempt manages to show such interesting results, it’s a strong argument that tau must be important. (Other people are working in this area, too, of course, but my impression is that it's nowhere near as many as work on amyloid).
That’s food for thought, considering the amount of time and effort that’s been expending on amyloid. It may be that both pathologies are worth targeting, or it may even be that these results with Rember are a fluke. But it’s also possible that tau is really the place to be, in which case the amyloid hypothesis will take its place in the medical histories as a gigantic dead end. I’m not quite ready to bet that way myself, but it’s definitely not something that can be ruled out. I wouldn’t put all my money on amyloid either, at this point. (Boy, am I glad I'm not still working in Alzheimer's: this sort of stuff is wonderful to watch from the outside, but from the inside it's hard to deal with).
Now, what about the drug itself? It’s coming from a small company called TauRx, whose unimpressive web site just went up recently. The underlying science (and the clinical data) all come from Dr. Claude Wischik of the University of Aberdeen, who has so far not published anything on the drug. The presentation this week has, by far, been the most that anyone’s seen of it (papers are said to be in the works).
And Rember itself is. . .well, it’s methylene blue. Now there’s an interesting development. Methylene blue has been around forever, used for urinary tract infections, malaria, and all sorts of things, up to treating protozoal infections in fish tanks. (For that matter, it’s turned up over the years as a surreptitious additive to blueberry pies and the like, turning the unsuspecting consumer’s urine greenish/blue, generally to their great alarm: a storied med school prank from the old days). What on earth is it doing for tau protein?
According to TauRx, the problem is that the aggregation of tau protein is autocatalytic: once it gets going, it's a cascade. They believe that methylene blue disrupts the aggregation, and even helps to dissociate existing aggregates. Once they're out in their monomeric forms, the helical tau fragments are degraded normally again, and the whole tau backup starts to clear out.
Now for another issue: there's been some commentary to the effect that Rember can't possibly make anyone any money, because it's a known compound. Au contraire. While we evil pharmaceutical folks would much rather have proprietary chemical matter, there are plenty of other inventive steps worth a patent. For one thing, I suspect that formulation will be a challenge here (and that Medpage story seems to bear this out). I doubt if methylene blue crosses the blood-brain barrier so wonderfully, and I also believe that it's cleared pretty well (thus that green urine). So TauRx had to dose three times a day, and their highest dose didn't seem to work, probably because of absorption issues. (That's also going to lead to gastrointestinal trouble). So formulating this ancient stuff so it'll actually work well could be a real challenge: t.i.d with diarrhea is not the ideal dosing profile for an Alzheimer's therapy, to put it mildly.
And for another, there's always mechanism of action. I deeply dislike patent claims that try to grab hold of an entire area, but there's so much prior art in tau that no one could try it. But use of a specific compound (or group of compounds) for a specific therapy: oh, yes indeed. It's a complicated area, and the law varies between Europe and the US, but it definitely can be done. The people who say that this can't be patented should check out the issued patents US7335505 or US6953794. Or patent applications US20070191352, WO2007110627, WO2007110629, and WO2007110630. There you go; that wasn't hard. Mind you, there might be some prior art for using such compounds as cognition-improving agents: I'd start here if I were in the business of looking into that sort of thing.
Finally, is methylene blue (or some derivative thereof) actually going to be a reasonable drug? There's that dosing problem, for one thing, but the long history in humans is encouraging (and is a key part of TauRx's hopes not to spend so much money on toxicity testing in the clinic - talks with the FDA should be starting soon). There have been contradictory reports (plus, minus) on the effects of the compound on the brain in general, though, so they may have to do more work than they're planning on. All in all, a fascinating story.