Central Nervous System Drug Discovery For Dummies

The Pfizer neuroscience group have published several papers over the recent years which have tried to simplify the complexities involved with successful design of CNS-penetrating drugs.  The CNS MPO papers – ‘Moving beyond Rules: The Development of a Central Nervous System Multiparameter Optimization (CNS MPO) Approach To Enable Alignment of Druglike Properties’ and ‘Defining Desirable Central Nervous System Drug Space through the Alignment of Molecular Properties, in Vitro ADME, and Safety Attributes’ whilst being additions to the battery of rules/guidelines with which to beat medicinal chemists have also provided some practical tools for assessing the ‘CNS drug-likeness’ across a range of potential chemical series and structures in early project phases.

A recent perspective in J Med Chem ‘Demystifying Brain Penetration in Central Nervous System Drug Discovery’ continues this theme, but unlike the papers above, does not provide any significant analysis of data, but instead is a slightly strange article to find in this journal, as it essentially provides a glossary of terms for CNS PK and a reiteration of the basic concepts of CNS drug discovery.  However, that being said, this compilation of terms covering compartments, transporters, assays and general principles should provide a useful recap for anyone working in the field.

The concepts described cover unbound drug concentrations, unbound & total brain-to-plasma ratios, fraction unbound, BBB passive permeability and efflux ratios:

And then explores these parameters across a retrospective analysis of 32 Pfizer CNS clinical drug candidates according to the flow scheme in Figure 2 within the paper.  These compounds partitioned into 14 each in Groups I and II and 4 in Group III.  The flow analysis and subsequent conclusions that Group I are best to progress are not exactly surprising, although it would be interesting to know what confidence building measures enabled the progression of the molecules in Group III…?  The motivation for highlighting this paper, however, lies in the section ‘Clarification of Misconceptions about the BBB’ which is essentially the debunking of 8 CNS drug discovery urban myths which are claimed to be regularly encountered.  This does provide helpful material to combat the continuing obsession with brain/plasma ratios, and reiterates the need to focus instead on the ratio of unbound brain/plasma concentrations as the meaningful parameter against which to optimise.

Additionally, the clarification of the use of CSF is helpful, for which the authors state that the CSF drug concentration can sometimes be a surrogate for unbound drug concentrations in the brain, but these data can be misleading, particularly for drugs which are actively transported (P-gp at blood-CSF barrier pumps into CSF in contrast to P-gp in blood-brain barrier).  Finally, the data from across the Pfizer compound set was used to make the valuable observation that CNS PK in higher species did not increase the confidence of achieving good CNS penetration in man and that the rodent PK alone was sufficient for pre-clinical evaluation.

Cancer Drug Targets: The March of the Lemmings

Whilst at a joint meeting with the ICR Computational Biology and Chemogenomics Team, and the Blundell Bioinformatics Group at Cambridge, this article in Forbes by Bruce Booth was brought to my attention.

This article discussed the current oncology portfolios being developed by major Pharma.  Their analysis illustrates that over 20% of current clinical oncology projects are focused on just 8 targets, each of which has at least 24 projects in clinical development, and further projects in pre-clinical development.

Bruce points out several advantages to this approach, for instance that by developing smarter follow-on molecules, some of the liabilities of the earlier molecules may be diminished possibly improving patient outcomes.  Also drugs based on different chemotypes may lead to differential responses and exhibit different toxicity profiles.  However, he concludes that this focus on a limited range of targets is a waste of resources. Although pursuing established targets may reduce the biological and chemical risk during the early stages of drug development,  “ the differentiation risks skyrocket” – at later stages of development. In particular he highlights that the downstream drugs may fail at a later, more costly stage.

Whilst agreeing that theses are all excellent targets, he suggests that resource should be more focused on the preclinical stages of drug discovery, identifying and validating new cancer targets, rather than chasing incremental improvements in drugs against existing ones.