Novartis, UC Berkeley join forces for ‘undruggable’ targets

The pair hopes to see drug candidates within three years.

Novartis and UC Berkeley have formed a new pact aimed at unlocking difficult drug targets and boosting development of new meds in infectious diseases and cancer.

The deal, financial details of which were not published, sees the pair create a new unit: the Novartis-Berkeley Center for Proteomics and Chemistry Technologies, which will be based in existing labs at Berkeley and includes support for joint research projects between Novartis and Berkeley scientists.

Its raison d'etre is to create a new series of meds that have thus far eluded traditional small-molecule compounds, and are thus considered “undruggable.”

“Novartis pioneers new therapeutic paradigms, creating definitive medicines for life-threatening diseases,” said Jay Bradner, president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, in a statement. “Our Berkeley alliance powerfully extends our ability to advance discovery of molecules aimed at the historically inaccessible drug targets.”

Speaking to Reuters, Bradner said: “I expect within three years we will have identified suitable candidates for definitive drug development.”

The new project will, according to a joint statement, work on covalent chemoproteomics tech that aims to swiftly map locations on protein targets, including previously undruggable areas.

“Never before have we been able to explore what we call the proteome, the totality of over 20,000 proteins in the body, with such breadth, depth and speed,” said covalent chemoproteomics expert Daniel Nomura, director of the center and associate professor of chemistry, of molecular and cell biology, and of nutritional sciences and toxicology at UC Berkeley.

“Combining technology advances in proteomics and chemistry allows us to imagine creating compounds to bind every known protein in the body, especially those underlying serious diseases such as cancer.”

It will hope to replicate the sort of success it has seen with its former academic tie-ups, including its work with the University of Pennsylvania, which saw them create the first-of-its-kind approval for CAR-T med Kymriah last month.

The alliance will also explore the potential of emerging therapeutics known as degraders; the now-joint forces of Novartis and UC Berkeley are planning to test whether the covalent chemoproteomics tech could help in speeding up the time needed to create potential degraders from years to months.

Cambridge, MA-based C4 Therapeutics, a 2016 Fierce 15 winner backed by Novartis, is also working on a similar area, focusing on tackling protein degradation using small-molecule binders—dubbed degronimids—that can target, destroy and clear proteins through the ubiquitin/proteasome system.

The biotech was in fact founded by a group of distinguished scientists and doctors from Dana-Farber in Boston, and from the seminal work coming out of Bradner’s research.

In May last year, Bradner published his work on degronimids, illustrating how enzymes that attach ubiquitin to them could tag target proteins and then drag them to a proteasome for disposal and recycling.

The approach was successfully used on cancer cells, and the big hope is that these will be the key for the removal of previously undruggable proteins, including those that are known to develop resistance to inhibitors.