As part of my work as a cure and salvage treatment activist, I am constantly searching for treatment options that could serve two purposes: existing medications that could help patients with multidrug resistance and at the same time be used as an approach to cure HIV. Since my non profit (Program for Wellness Restoration) has a very small budget for me to attend conferences, I rely on summaries that Jules Levin and his group (NATAP.org) publishes after he attends conferences. I am glad Jules can serve as eyes and ears for those of us unable to attend so may important scientific meetings.
Rarely I come across information about a drug that is already available and which can treat HIV and hopefully also help decrease its reservoirs. While reading one of NATAP's great summaries about the recently held International Workshop on HIV and Hepatitis in Sitges (June 5-9) I came across a completely new approach that could meet the two goals.
One of the abstracts presented by Dr Raymond F Schinazi and colleagues was on the topic of a novel series of inhibitors of HIV replication called Jak inhibitors. The Jak-STAT pathway is routinely stimulated in HIV-infected cells and can therefore be perceived as a logical target for drug development. Dr Schinazi's proof of concept study showed that two compounds termed Tofacitinib (to be approved soon by the FDA for myeleofibrosis) and Jakafi (already approved by the FDA for rheumatoid arthritis) demonstrated excellent inhibition of HIV replication at very low concentrations in vitro as well as against replication of a SHIV in rhesus macaques. Moreover, these compounds were not toxic at the very low doses required for virus control. The data also suggest that these compounds might interfere with the ability of HIV to achieve latency in a variety of target cell types and that they were active against all of a variety of forms of drug-resistant HIV that were tested. In addition, these compounds seem to re-activate latent virus hidden in reservoirs, which may help with the "flush-and-kill" approach being studied as part of HIV cure research.
I contacted Dr Schinazi and he was happy to speak about his findings.
Raymond F. Schinazi, PhD, DSc is the Frances Winship Walters Professor of Pediatrics and Director of the Laboratory of Biochemical Pharmacology at Emory University. Dr. Schinazi is the founder of several biotechnology companies focusing on antiviral drug discovery and development, including Pharmasset, Triangle Pharmaceuticals, Idenix Pharmaceuticals, and RFS Pharma. He has published over 400 peer-reviewed papers and 7 books, and holds more than 100 U.S. patents. He is best known for his innovative and pioneering work on FTC (emtriva), 3TC (lamivudine), d4T (stavudine), LdT (telbivudine), and DAPD (amdoxovir), drugs that are now approved by the FDA or are at various stages of clinical development. His inventions now sell more than US$2.0 billion per year and more than 94% of the HIV-infected individuals take at least one of the drugs he invented. Dr. Schinazi has served on the Presidential Commission on AIDS and currently serves on the Board of Trustees of AMFAR. Due to his many business accruements and notable academic accomplishments, Dr. Schinazi is internationally recognized as one of the most influential persons in the life science sector.
Nelson Vergel: Dr Schinazi, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us at TheBody.com. When I did a search on the Internet about your work I was blown away. I’m just blown away by all the work, all the patents, published papers and the books. So thank you because I know you must be a busy person.
Dr. Raymond Schinazi: It’s no problem, I’m well known actually in the scientific world, not in the public. I try to keep a low profile, usually, which is hard because when you search my name on the Internet, you probably find so much, but not everything there is true.
Nelson Vergel: Well, I have to say I’ve been positive for 27 years and that your work has definitely made a difference in my life now that I know what you’ve done.
Dr. Raymond Schinazi: Well, if you’re HIV infected, it’s very likely you’re taking one of my drugs. So I am happy to have been of assistance to you personally.
Nelson Vergel: Yes, of course, you definitely have.
Dr. Raymond Schinazi: I’m also the founder of Pharmasset, which is the company that has one of the best phase 3 HCV drug which was sold in January 2012 for 11.4 billion dollars to Gilead. I believe this drug will also save a lot of lives and cure a lot of people from this devastating infection that affects 3% of Americans.
Now we’re working on curing HIV, so that’s why I think what we’re doing here with this JAK inhibitor is really important.
Nelson Vergel: it’s amazing what you’ve done.
Could you please tell us about the abstract that you presented at the recent International Workshop on HIV and Hepatitis in Sitges about JAK inhibitors ?
Dr. Raymond Schinazi: There’s this pathway basically called the JAK-STAT pathway, which is very important for HIV because it is activated upon HIV infection, so anything you can do to suppress it is a good thing, very simply. Basically, inhibition of the JAK-STAT pathway in addition could provide a mechanism to do several things; one, and something we didn’t expect, inhibit HIV application in HIV infected cells and actually that was something we discovered for the first time demonstrating this JAK inhibitor, had intrinsic anti-HIV activity. In addition the JAK inhibitor renders bystander cells less susceptible to HIV infections by down regulation the activation stage. In activation stage, basically the normal cells that are surrounding the infected cells becomes less susceptible to HIV, which is a good thing because it prevents the virus from spreading to these cells. It also prevents the recruitment of uninfected cells to the site of infection. A really major mechanism of the JAK inhibitors is they reduce inflammation also. There are a whole bunch of pro-inflammatory cytokines that thrive when HIV infects the cells and JAK inhibitors can ablate these effects.
This is not something new; we have known for some time the mechanism of these JAK inhibitors. They are used primarily for rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune psoriasis. They are used for various cancers and one of them is actually approved for myelofibrosis. All these facts put together make these compounds ameanable for testing to help suppress HIV and also reduce inflammation. I think inflammation is a very important factor in HIV infection, not only at the site of infection, wherever active virus is but also for cardiology and do you know there has been a strong relationship between the heart and HIV, people even have sudden death. In a recently published paper that came out, people die of HIV from heart attacks or cardio disturbances because they’re HIV infected. So, it is a good thing that these compounds could reduce the inflammation in addition to preventing the virus from replicating, preventing the virus from spreading and also suppressing virus replication at the cellular level unlike normal antiviral agents, which basically interfere with the virus machinery and ability to replicate themselves. Basically after working on the virus, these JAK inhibitors also act on cellular mechanism associated with inflamation..
There are lot people involved in trying to cure HIV. They are actually activating the latently infected cells and trying to destroy them since they now become visible to the immune system, trying to destroy the cells and the virus contained in these cells. Despite activating the virus from these cells, the cells are not totally destroyed so all these approaches, in my personal opinion, will probably not work. So, I am concerned about this and I’m sure you’ve written about this before or you’ve spoken to other people. So, I’m thinking differently and during the Sitges meeting I was the only person talking about suppressing HIV rather than activating this virus. You know, we have in our body maybe 50 to 100 viruses right now and most of them are suppressed. They don’t bother us and that’s why we can live a normal life. When our immune system is debilitated, the viruses come out. For example, chicken pox infection is common when you’re a kid; but the same virus becomes varicella-zoster when you’re older. We have viruses all over our body, like we have bacteria too all over our body, so nothing’s new there. My philosophy is to suppress, and end up with a “functional cure”. That’s what I’m interested in, functional cure, rather than an eradication cure. This is going to be very hard to do. Even with a Berlin patient, as you well know, it’s been extremely hard to prove a negative, i.e., that the patient is really cured and that there is no trace of virus in his body.
Nelson Vergel: Yes
Dr. Raymond Schinazi: There is residual RNA or DNA present in the body of the Berlin patient that we don’t quite understand. I’ll call his cure a “functional cure,” not actually a complete cure, despite what people may say. However, there is hope that you can actually do it and we would like to try to use the best JAK inhibitors, as I said, one of them is approved: Jakafi is approved by the FDA, which is used for myelofibrosis. Eventually this drug will also be approved for rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune psoriasis and also various other kinds of conditions. There other drugs that are being developed in the same class for rheumatoid arthritis that will basically replace injectable anti-TNF alpha therapy, which as you know can reduce inflammation, but with a number of side effects. So again, these are new modern drugs, which are coming out that have this utility that we’re trying to apply for HIV.
Nelson Vergel: I was reading about a JAK inhibitor called Tofacitinib, a drug made by Pfizer that got reviewed last month for a rheumatoid arthritis indication. I guess this drug will probably be approved by the FDA soon.
Dr. Raymond Schinazi: We will know in August 2012.
Nelson Vergel: Yeah, it looks pretty good; low side effect profile and BID dosing. I was looking at the in-vitro data here you presented at the conference. The dose you used ranged from 0.02 to 0.3 micro-molars. How does that dose translate if used in humans? Also, are you proceeding with studies in humans?
Dr. Raymond Schinazi: These drugs are given a dose of 20 mg per day, very small pills, because at a higher dose they’d probably have some side effects. We will plan on using initially the smallest doses and they come in different sizes. I foresee using different inhibitors of different JAK pathways inhibitors for patients who are infected with HIV. What we do now is that the JAK inhibitors could be dosed to provide blood levels in the nano-molar range. As mentioned, one is already approved for chronic long term use in humans, which is important and interestingly. Some of these compounds, but not all of them, are CYP3A4 inhibitors, meaning they can actually boost protease inhibitors, for example. It’s like ritonavir boosting. That’s actually very interesting as well.
Nelson Vergel: I guess you’re thinking about proceeding with human pilot studies, too, and how is that going to happen?
Dr. Raymond Schinazi: I’ve already spoken officials at NIH as well and to physicians who specialize in viral eradication. They’re trying everything and the kitchen sink. The fact that this drug is already approved and under controlled conditions, we’re planning to do a carefully designed clinical study. We want to do this in monkeys first as a proof-of concept, but I think there’s enough interest among some of the physicians I’ve talked to perhaps do a small pilot study and see whether indeed this works the way it’s supposed to. This is all very new stuff. So we’re gearing up towards that and we hope that we will get our protocol approved so we can actually try it in humans. It’s also a question of getting some funding for that study, but it’s a small number of patients because it’s a high risk, high return and I don’t think the drug on its own is going to be enough. We need to basically find patients who are already virus suppressed on HAART and add on this molecule for a few months and eventually take off the other medication and see what happens; see if the virus gets reactivated or reactivation is delayed. You have to select very carefully the population of patients that you’re going to use for the study; they shouldn’t be very sick and we have to be careful because resistance could be an issue especially in patients who’ve had HIV for a long time. So you don’t want to withdraw treatment unnecessarily. The patients have to be monitored very carefully. We also have to develop better methods for detecting virus at very low levels. It’s something that we can do now with the technology available for that purpose. That’s why I wanted to do this in monkeys first, but as I said some of my colleagues indeed would like to go straight into humans.
Nelson Vergel: Will the funding will come from the NIH or from any of the companies like Pfizer? Are they interested in this kind of indication?
Dr. Raymond Schinazi: I cannot talk because I’m a CDA with the company. I cannot discuss which company. All I can tell you is I’m working with a company at this stage, trying to look at better drugs that would have lower toxicity and be safer to use specifically for this purpose. I don’t know whether they have funds for this study.. We have other resources and for a pilot study it will not be costly.
Nelson Vergel: Yeah. Let me give you a little background onmy work in HIV. I’m research advocate, as I told you I’m an HIV positive patient myself and do a lot writings and educational programs and work with different committee advisory boards for pharma and FDA and all that. As part of that work I’m part of what we call an HIV cure working group. There’s maybe eight or nine of us around the country meeting with researchers. We actually just organized a really good meeting to review different cure related approaches. I have a summary I can actually email to you and we’re planning to do another one of those review meetings maybe at the end of the year or so. Also, actually I’m probably the number one advocate when it comes to multi-drug resistance and salvage access because I myself have multi-drug resistance. So that’s why I just jumped on when I read this paragraph in the summary, I jumped for my own case because some of us even though there are lots of treatments out there are on our last basic combination therapy and some of us may or may not suppress the virus for many years. I’m in a research study using a monoclonal antibody and maraviroc, which is research drug. We’re still alive and doing well and hopefully praying that our viral load doesn’t go up and we run out of options because the pipeline is looking a lot drier nowadays. That’s why my work in the cure research and also salvage therapy made me very interested in your work with JAK inhibitors, so if you ever need any community advocacy, meaning letters of support for your approach for the NIH, we do that. If you ever need, for instance you’re doing a pilot study and have a very specific target of patients that you want to enroll, we also spread the word really fast in the community for – Actually I just finished a survey that I’m going to publish in JAIDS on the risk tolerance of patients when it comes to cure related studies because nobody really knows whether some patients are going to altruistic enough to like you say, stop their meds after being suppressed and what we have found is that 80% of patients, over 3,000 patients answered the survey, are altruistic. They really want the cure and are willing to take certain risks even though most of them are doing well. There is a lot of, and I’m glad we’re bridging right now, there is a lot of community support behind approaches like the one you’re taking and I want you to be aware of that so if you ever come across to a brick wall and there is a lot of that sometimes in this.
Dr. Raymond Schinazi: Let me tell you I didn’t get to where I am by accident, Nelson, I’ve had many brick walls; I’ve smashed them to get to where I am today. I’m originally Italian; I think you’re Italian, at least you sound Italian.
Nelson Vergel: I’m Venezuelan.
Nelson Vergel: That would be great! Thanks again for taking the time to give us an update on your very exciting work. I will reach out to you in the future to check any progress in non-human primate and human studies.