EASL 2015: Nucleic Acid Polymer REP 2139-Ca Shows Promise Against Hepatitis B and Delta Viruses

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The nucleic acid-based polymer REP 2139-Ca lowered hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) levels and significantly reduced hepatitis B and hepatitis delta viral loads when combined with immunotherapy, according to presentations at the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL) 50th International Liver Congress last month in Vienna.

Over years or decades, chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection can lead to advanced liver disease including cirrhosis and liver cancer. Disease progression is more rapid and complications are more common in people coinfected with hepatitis delta virus (HDV), a small virus that can only replicate in the presence of HBV.

Antiviral therapy using nucleoside/nucleotide analogs such as entecavir (Baraclude) or tenofovir (Viread) is the mainstay of chronic hepatitis B treatment. While these drugs can effectively suppress HBV replication during therapy, they usually do not lead to a cure, as indicated by HBsAg loss and development of anti-HBs antibodies (seroconversion). There is no standard treatment for hepatitis D, although interferon can stimulate the body's immune response against both HBV and HDV.

Researchers are working on another treatment approach using nucleic acid polymers (NAPs), oligonucleotides with broad-spectrum antiviral activity. Montreal-based Replicor is developing NAPs for the treatment of both hepatitis B and hepatitis delta. According to the company, NAPs have a safety advantage because their activityis not sequence-dependent, so they can be engineered to retain antiviral activity without undesirable side effects.

Preclinical research showed that NAPs target both entry and post-entry steps of the viral lifecycle. They block HBV and HDV entry into hepatocytes (liver cells) and also interfere with assembly and release of HBV subviral particles, thereby lowering HBsAg levels in the blood. Because HBsAg is required for HDV assembly, reducing HBsAg also suppresses HDV. NAPs do not directly target replication of HBV virions (complete viral particles) like existing antiviral agents.

Early studies found that REP 2139 and other NAPs lowered HBsAg levels and HBV and HDV blood viral load, as well as HBV covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA) in the liver -- an intermediate form that persists in the cell nucleus and presents a barrier to a cure.

Replicor chief scientific officer Andrew Vaillant presented late-breaking finding from a Phase 2 study (REP 301; NCT02233075) evaluating the safety and efficacy of REP 2139-Ca in Caucasian patients with chronic HBV/HDV coinfection. A previous study (REP 102) tested REP 2139-Ca in Asian patients with HBV monoinfection.

Vaillant's study included 12 Caucasian HBV/HDV coinfected patients in Moldova. At the start of treatment they had serum HBsAg >1000 U/mL, were hepatitis B "e" antigen (HBeAg) negative and had mild to moderate liver fibrosis (no cirrhosis).

REP 2139-Ca was administered first as monotherapy using 500 mg once-weekly intravenous infusions for 15 weeks. This was followed by REP 2139-Ca at a dose of 250 mg once-weekly for another 15 weeks in combination with pegylated interferon alfa-2a (180 mcg/week), which was continued for 48 weeks.

Virus levels (HBV DNA, HDV RNA, HBsAg, and anti-HBs antibodies) were measured every 2 weeks. Vaillant reported results obtained between week 20 and 25, while participants were still taking both REP 2139-Ca and interferon; monitoring will continue through 24 weeks post-treatment.

Results

"REP 2139-Ca is able to simultaneously reduce HBsAg and HDV RNA in patients with chronic HBV/HDV coinfection," the researchers summarized. "[The] pharmacologic effect on serum HBsAg observed in Asian patients is replicated in Caucasian patients." Combing REP 2139-Ca with pegylated interferon "may provide additional productive antiviral response," they added.

"NAP-based antiviral therapy may become an important new treatment option for patients with HBV/HDV coinfection," they concluded.

At an earlier session Louis Jansen from Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam presented findings from the aforementioned Phase 2 study of Asian chronic hepatitis B patients treated with REP 2139-Ca plus immunotherapy. This study included 12 HBV monoinfected participants who were HBeAg positive and had detectable HBV DNA (mean 6.7 logs) at study entry, were previously untreated for hepatitis B, and did not have cirrhosis.

Participants were initially treated with 500 mg once-weekly REP 2139-Ca monotherapy for 20-24 weeks. People who were good HBsAg responders then added either pegylated interferon or thymosin alfa-1 (Zadaxin) for 13-26 weeks, while non-responders started entecavir.

A majority of patients saw declines in HBsAg, HBV DNA, and HBV RNA levels after starting REP 2139-Ca monotherapy. 9 participants were considered responders, having at least a 2-log decline in HBV RNA and large declines in HBsAg levels; 8 of these patients had undetectable HBV RNA at week 20-24. Of the 9 responders, 4 experienced HBsAg loss and anti-HBs antibody seroconversion during post-treatment follow-up -- far higher than the response rates seen in people treated with antivirals alone or antivirals plus pegylated interferon.

In contrast, the 3 patients without substantial declines in HBV RNA at week 20-24 showed no notable reduction in HBsAg or HBV DNA levels. Their HBV DNA levels declined significantly after they started entecavir, but the antiviral "didn't do much for [HBV] RNA levels," Jansen said.

"Treatment of chronic hepatitis B patients with REP 2139-Ca resulted in a pronounced decline of serum HBV RNA in 9 of 12 patients," the researchers concluded. "In 3 of 12 patients (non-responders), HBV RNA levels were unaffected, both before and after treatment with entecavir."

A retrospective analysis from the same study (abstract P0659) looked at changes in cytokines, or immune cell chemical messengers, and found evidence that REP 2139-Ca may help restore immune responses against HBV.

Vaillant indicated that studies of REP 2139-Ca are ongoing. He noted that the drug has poor oral bioavailability, but Replicor expects it can be given by once-weekly subcutaneous injection rather than the 2-hour infusions used in these trials. The company is also testing another NAP candidate, REP 2165.

5/11/15

References

M Bazinet, V Pantea, V Cebotarescu, et al. Significant reduction of HBsAg and HDV RNA by the nucleic acid polymer REP 2139 in Caucasian patients with chronic HBV/HDV co-infection. 2015 International Liver Congress: 50th Annual Meeting of the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL). Vienna, April 22-26, 2015. Abstract LO2.

L Jansen, A Vaillant, F Stelma, et al. Serum HBV-RNA levels decline significantly in chronic hepatitis B patients dosed with the nucleic-acid polymer REP 2139-Ca. 2015 International Liver Congress: 50th Annual Meeting of the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL). Vienna, April 22-26, 2015. Abstract O114.

D Poutay, M Sabra, G Abou Jaoude, et al. Nucleic acid polymers are efficient in blocking hepatitis delta virus entry in vitro. 2015 International Liver Congress: 50th Annual Meeting of the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL). Vienna, April 22-26, 2015. Abstract LP26.

C Brikh, C Jamard, J Quinet, et al. Therapeutic effect against hepatitis B of various nucleic acid polymers in the chronic DHBV infection model. 2015 International Liver Congress: 50th Annual Meeting of the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL). Vienna, April 22-26, 2015. Abstract P0542.

C Guillot, O Hantz, A Vaillant, et al. Antiviral effects of nucleic acid polymers on hepatitis B virus infection. 2015 International Liver Congress: 50th Annual Meeting of the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL). Vienna, April 22-26, 2015. Abstract P0556.

F Stelma, A Vaillant, L Jansen, et al. 
Cytokine responses in chronic hepatitis B patients dosed with the nucleic-acid polymer REP 2139-Ca. 2015 International Liver Congress: 50th Annual Meeting of the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL). Vienna, April 22-26, 2015. Abstract P0659.

Other Source

Replicor, Inc. Replicor to Make Six Presentations at EASL 2015. Press release. April 8, 2015.