[Updated 2:25 pm ET, 3/13/13] GlaxoSmithKline is closing down Cambridge, MA-based Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, almost five years after it paid $720 million to acquire the hot biotech with a plan to fight diseases of aging.
London-based Glaxo (NYSE: GSK) is shutting the Cambridge, MA Sirtris facility, and plans to offer transfers to the Philadelphia area for some of the 60 remaining Sirtris employees, according to news first reported today by FierceBiotech. Glaxo plans to review staff in coming weeks and decide who will get the opportunity to transfer, GlaxoSmithKline spokeswoman Melinda Stubbee says. Aside from the Sirtris operation, GSK still has staff in Waltham, MA and a few others in Cambridge, Stubbee tells Xconomy.
Glaxo paid $720 million to acquire Sirtris in April 2008, to get ahold of technology that generated lots of breathless media coverage as a modern-day fountain of youth. The company sought to make drugs that act on sirtuins, a class of proteins that scientists believe play a role in aging, programmed cell death, and other key cell processes.
Even though the company is closing the Sirtris site, Stubbee says Glaxo remains confident in the drug candidates it got from that acquisition.
“We decided to do this because the research at Sirtris exploring the biology of sirtuins has been highly successful and now requires the resource and expertise available from our broader drug discovery organization,” Stubbee says. “We’re excited about taking sirtuins to the next phase of drug development. Our next steps will be to examine our research against a variety of therapeutic conditions, with the aim of moving potential assets into the clinic within the next three to four years.”
Sirtuins are known to be active when the body is in a calorie-restricted state, which scientists have shown contributes to longer lifespan. The idea at Sirtris was to make small-molecule chemical compounds that activated sirtuins as a way of fighting diseases that develop as people age—including Type 2 diabetes and cancer. As co-founder and former CEO Christoph Westphal said many times, Sirtris didn’t intend to make an anti-aging pill, partly because the clinical trials to test such an idea would take too long, and cost too much money.
The research into the biological role of sirtuins, from Sirtris co-founder David Sinclair, has attracted its share of skeptics. Just last week, Sinclair, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, sought to buttress his early work with a new article in Science that says resveratrol and related compounds can activate sirtuins. One critic, quoted by the Boston Globe last week, said the role of one sirtuin called SIRT1 in aging, “is still as clear as mud.”
Rather than jump ahead into clinical trials to see how such sirtuin-based drugs peform in people, GlaxoSmithKline has been proceeding cautiously careful to make sure that its drugs are safe and hitting the intended target, SIRT1.
As Stubbee says in an e-mailed statement: “Sirtris has focused on establishing the tools that will allow for the efficient clinical development of small molecule activators of the sirtuin SIRT1 (STACs). The development of these tools is required to establish that SIRT1 is directly being modulated by [sirtuin-activating compounds] which will guide dosing and the evaluation of clinical efficacy. For this reason, no new clinical programs have been initiated.”
A first-generation sirtuin-activating compound, SRT2104, has made it through initial safety studies in healthy volunteers, while “several other Phase 2 studies in inflammatory disease and Type 2 diabetes are currently under review or about to be submitted for publication,” Stubbee says. Another study of SRT2104 is ongoing in patients with mild-to-moderate ulcerative colitis. While the drug has been well-tolerated in studies so far, GlaxoSmithKline’s studies can’t yet say with confidence whether this first-generation drug is effective for any of the diseases it has been tested against.
“All of the studies to date with SRT2104 have been designed to evaluate the biology of SIRT1 activation in different diseases settings; thus, a discussion of efficacy and the potential of this compound as a medicine are premature due to the small number of patients studied,” Stubbee says.
Westphal stayed on with GlaxoSmithKline to lead Sirtris for a couple of years, and stayed on as head of GSK’s SR One venture investment unit until April 2011. He has since moved on to be co-founder and CEO of Cambridge, MA-based Verastem (NASDAQ: VSTM).
[Update with comment from Westphal.] “Research at Sirtris exploring the biology of sirtuins has been highly successful and now requires the resource and expertise available from GSK’s broader drug discovery organization,” Westphal says via e-mail. “To provide better access to GSK’s existing chemistry, biology and pharmacology teams, [GSK] will be fully integrating Sirtris into their R&D organization and moving it from Cambridge, Massachusetts to our Upper Providence site in Pennsylvania.”
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