Celgene, CRT strike mRNA translation cancer R&D pact

Celgene is paying an upfront fee of undisclosed size to enter into the alliance.

Celgene has teamed up with Cancer Research Technology (CRT) to secure a source of oncology assets. The five-year pact puts CRT in charge of discovering drugs that affect protein assembly and taking them through phase 1.

Summit, New Jersey-based Celgene is paying an upfront fee of undisclosed size to enter into the alliance. Further down the line, the big biotech has the option to pay additional fees to pick up the U.S. or global rights to drugs discovered in the collaboration. Celgene can activate the global right option once a candidate has completed phase 1.

The drug discovery drive is focused on mRNA translation, the process through which messenger macromolecules are decoded to drive the creation of proteins. 

Multiple oncogenes and tumor suppressors, including RAS and TP53, act on translation machinery, and dysregulation of protein synthesis is a common feature of cancer cells. Targeting the process could therefore disrupt the spread of cancer.

Notably, the aberrant translation seen in cancer cells is divorced from the genetic composition of the tumor. That raises the possibility that going after mRNA translation will be effective regardless of the genetics of the tumor, thus sidestepping the problems created by intratumor heterogeneity. 

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CRT has yet to provide details of how it plans to target the translation machinery. But its parent organization, nonprofit Cancer Research UK, has funded studies into the eIF4F complex, one of the most widely researched targets in the field. 

Eli Lilly put an eIF4FE-targeting antisense drug through early clinical tests around seven years ago but saw no tumor response. That drug came from Ionis Pharmaceuticals, which later embarked on its own eIF4FE-targeting antisense trial. Ionis’ program ground to a halt, too. 

CRT will be looking to improve on these early efforts. But whatever the ultimate outcome, it thinks the fact that Celgene turned to it for help targeting mRNA translation is significant.

“This is our largest drug discovery collaboration to date and represents a major endorsement of the reputation and scale of our capacity and expertise in both drug discovery and clinical development by a leading industry partner,” CRT CEO Iain Foulkes, Ph.D., said in a statement.