A growing body of research on galectins is demonstrating the important role that this family of carbohydrate-binding proteins plays in T-cell survival, fibrosis of organs, allergies, deadly diseases like cancer, regulation of many immune responses and much more. Only defined about two decades ago, 15 different mammalian galectins have now been identified, with overexpression of specific galectins implicated in a variety of diseases. The potential of this emerging science is tremendous, to say the least, to help bridge gaps in a broad range of deadly or debilitating disorders with great unmet medical need.
Galectin Therapeutics Inc. (NASDAQ:GALT), a pioneer in research and development of galectin-inhibiting compounds, scored a big win for their company and the industry in January by forging a new alliance with SBH Sciences. The companies established Galectin Sciences, LLC, a joint venture that will initially focus on developing small organic molecule inhibitors of galectin-3 for oral administration.
The two companies are an ideal strategic fit. Galectin Therapeutics has a promising pipeline of drug candidates, with GR-MD-02 in a phase 1 clinical trial for treatment of nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) with advanced fibrosis. GR-MD-02 was also was recently approved by the FDA to proceed with a phase 1b clinical trial in combination with Bristol-Myers Squibb’s (NYSE:BMY) Yervoy to treat metastatic melanoma patients.
As a Contract Research Organization, SBH Sciences is primarily a services company, providing products and services to more than 120 clients worldwide, mostly in the areas of oncology and inflammation. Using its expertise in computer molecular modeling and in vitro screening, SBH is becoming more involved with its own drug development programs, rather than just shepherding other companies into clinical trials. According to the press release
announcing the partnership, SBH has already identified several small molecules that act to inhibit galectin-3 that are worthy of more extensive research.
Forming Galectin Sciences, rather than SBH contracting Galectin Therapeutics or vice-versa, is a succinct move that incentivizes both companies because now they each have skin in the game. Galectin Therapeutics gains access to promising new drug candidates while mitigating R&D expenses and SBH gets Galectin Therapeutics’ decades of experience and knowledge in galectin proteins.
Galectin Sciences was assembled to focus its resources on the development of new oral drugs targeting galectins, which will serve a great complement to the drugs already in clinical trials by GALT. GR-MD-02 and GM-CT-01 are designed for intravenous administration and work very well for fatal diseases like liver fibrosis and cancer that can be treated with a weekly dosing regimen. Every disease has a target product profile and while IV administration will provide the best results in some indications, oral delivery can be more appropriate for others, such as chronic diseases and conditions. These diseases where a pill is best served will be the initial targets for the new JV. With diversified delivery systems, GALT is well positioned to develop a broad range of galectin inhibitors that match target product profiles.
Pills are generally the drug delivery method of choice by patients and physicians regarding chronic conditions simply because of convenience, which often improves quality of life and compliance. From a payer perspective, oral medications are often favorable because they are less expensive. Consider why Gilead Sciences (NYSE:GILD) was willing to dish-out $11 billion to acquire Pharmasset in 2011. The main driver was Pharmasset’s PSI-7977, an all-oral hepatitis C therapy that was pegged by many as the replacement for injections of interferon, the standard of care for the disease.
We reached out to Dr. Peter Traber, president, CEO and CMO at Galectin Therapeutics, who explained that the sights are set for Galectin Sciences to explore new target indications where oral therapies are the most viable and favorable. This includes chronic conditions such as allergies, eczema, arthritis and atherosclerosis. “Blockbuster drugs like Pfizer’s (NYSE:PFE) Lipitor likely would never have achieved the incredible success that they have if they didn’t come in pill form,” Traber said in a phone conversation. In addition to the promising compounds already identified, Traber believes that SBH Sciences’ proficiency in assays and compound-screening technologies will play a key role in new drug discoveries in the future.
It is evident that this bolt-on drug discovery machine that Traber describes could allow Galectin Therapeutics to maintain its leadership position in the galectin space for years to come. It is also arguable that the new portfolio company will make Galectin Therapeutics more attractive as a partner or acquisition target in the future. The clinical advancements of GR-MD-02 and GM-CT-01 in the past year have resulted in significant share appreciation for GALT. Rightfully so, these flagship programs are clearly the backdrop of the company and measuring stick for its market valuation. Going forward, though, Wall Street should start to factor-in the new Galectin Sciences asset as it builds and discloses the products in its pipeline, which could add significant value if comparable to the drugs candidates that Galectin Therapeutics has already taken into the clinic.