New Liver Drug Gets Fast Tracked by the FDA

Liver scarring (fibrosis) and cirrhosis (deposition and build up of fatty deposits in the liver) are life-threatening events. We normally associate cirrhosis in our thinking with chronic alcoholism, but there are many other conditions that can cause liver fibrosis and cirrhosis. For example, chronic systemic lupus erythematosis, which is normally just known s lupus, can wreak havoc upon the patient’s liver. Likewise Crohn’s disease, chronic hepatitis infections, or even certain genetic can cause liver disease. Once a patient’s liver scars over to a certain point. The last stop for them is either a liver transplant, or Hospice.

Until now? A biotechnology company called Galectin Therapeutics has announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted their new drug, GR-MD-O2 (galactoarabino-rhamnogalacturonate – say that five times fast) so-called “Fast Track designation” as an experimental treatment for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) with hepatic fibrosis, which is also commonly known as fatty liver disease with advanced fibrosis.

GR-MD-02 is an experimental name for a complex carbohydrate drug that targets galectin-3. Galectin-3 is a cell surface protein found on liver cells and it plays a critical protein in the pathogenesis of fatty liver disease and fibrosis. Galectin proteins are central players in those diseases that involve scaring of organs such as cancer, and inflammatory and fibrotic disorders. The drug binds to galectin proteins and disrupts their function. Preclinical data have shown that GR-MD-02 can reverse fibrosis and cirrhosis in kidney, lung, and liver.


What is “fast track” designation? Here how this works: Fast Track is a process designed by the FDA to speed up the development and review of drugs to treat serious conditions and fill an unmet medical need. The goal is to get important new drugs to the patient earlier. Determining whether a condition is serious is a matter of judgment, but generally is based on whether the drug will have an impact on such factors as survival, day-to-day functioning, or the likelihood that the condition, if left untreated, will progress from a less severe condition to a more serious one. The kinds of conditions that have qualified for fast tracking in the past include AIDS, Alzheimer’s, heart failure and cancer. .

To qualify for fast tracking, the drug must either treat or prevent a condition with no currently available, or if there are available therapies, a fast track drug must show some advantage over available therapy. These advantages would come in the following forms:

1. Show superior effectiveness (outcomes or improved effect on serious outcomes);
2. Avoid serious side effects of an available therapy;
3. Improve the diagnosis of a serious condition (in those cases where early diagnosis results in an improved outcome);
4. Decreases clinically significant toxicity of an available therapy
5. Ability to address emerging or anticipated public health need

If a drug is fast tracked, then is will receive more frequent meetings with FDA, more frequent written correspondence from FDA, or eligibility for Accelerated Approval and Priority Review, or some combination of these.

Galectin Therapeutics is currently conducting a phase 1 clinical trial to evaluate the safety, tolerability and efficacy for single and multiple doses of GR-MD-02 over four weekly doses of GR-MD-02 treatment in patients with fatty liver disease with advanced fibrosis. In this study, Galectin will enroll eight patients in each dose escalation cohort and there will be at least three cohorts and potentially up to five cohorts, with a maximum of 40 patients at six clinical sites in the US, which each have extensive experience in clinical trials in liver disease.

“Our preclinical data has shown that GR-MD-02 has robust treatment effects in reversing fibrosis and cirrhosis. Fast Track designation enables us to expedite the compound’s development and review process, with the ultimate goal of bringing a first-in-class treatment to the millions of Americans suffering from fatty liver disease with advanced fibrosis,” said Dr. Peter Traber, president, chief executive officer and chief medical officer of Galectin Therapeutics Inc. “We are very pleased that the FDA sees the clinical value of GR-MD-02 and seriousness of fatty liver disease, and we look forward to working closely with the FDA throughout this process.”

FDA Negotiates with Geron to End Hold

Geron Corporation has negotiated with the Food and Drug Administration to continue their Phase I trial with their embryonic stem cell-derived cell line GRNOPC[1].  To refresh your memories, As announced previously, in one preclinical study, in a preclinical study, Geron scientists saw a higher frequency of cysts in animals treated with GRNOPC[1] cells.  These cysts formed in the injury site, do not grow (are non-proliferative), are confined to the injury site, are smaller than the injury cavity, and do not seem to cause any adverse effects in the animals.  The FDA placed a hold on Geron’s Investigational New Drug Application in response to these data.

Geron apparently made a deal with the FDA to continue preclinical studies with some “new markers and assays” as agreed upon in discussions with the FDA.  Geron also said in their news release that as a “part of the ongoing plan to advance clinical development to cervical patients, Geron had already initiated this preclinical study in an animal model of cervical injury.”  They also say that Geron hopes that the study will be re-initiated in the third quarter of 2010.

Geron hopes to use their cell line to treat spinal cord injury to the cervical (upper) portion of the spinal cord as well as the thoracic (middle) portion of the spinal cord.

I hope that Geron gets this off the ground.  They have worked very hard and if their cell line helps people with spinal cord injury, then that’s great.  However what I hope we do not see are more embryos killed so that others can experiment with their cells.  In the case of Geron’s cell line, the embryos were killed long ago.  Whining about it seems to be completely counterproductive.  However if these cells can help people, then great.

We should not be surprised that there are concerns with these treatments.  It is after all, the first of its kind.  There are bound to be glitches.


Geron Corporation has made a cell line called GRNOPC1 from embryonic stem cells. GRNOPC1 is an “oligodendrocyte precursor cell” or OPC line. Before you blow a gasket at the sight of such a long-winded description, just remember that nerves are like wires and wires need insulation.  OPCs are the cells that make the insulation.  During spinal cord injury, the insulation dies off and it causes nerves to malfunction.

In collaboration with Hans Keirstead at UC Irvine, Geron developed a protocol for the administration of GRNOPC1 cells to animals with acute spinal cord injuries. His protocol showed that the OPCs were safe (no tumors were seen, even after one year) and somewhat effective. Some scientists were skeptical, since the mice had somewhat less severe spinal cord injuries.  Nevertheless, Geron was granted an Investigational New Drug Application from the FDA to conduct a Phase I trial with their OPC cell line.

They apparently, however, have bit a bit of a snag. Here is a press release from Geron Corporation.

Geron Corporation today announced that its IND (Investigational New Drug application) for GRNOPC1, a cell therapy for neurologically complete, subacute spinal cord injury, has been placed on clinical hold by the FDA pending the agency’s review of new nonclinical animal study data submitted by the company. A clinical hold is an order that the FDA issues to a sponsor to delay a proposed trial or to suspend an ongoing trial.

Since filing the IND, Geron has been undertaking studies to enable dose escalation of its spinal cord injury product, and has been investigating application of the product to other neurodegenerative diseases. The company has also been performing additional product characterization and conducting further animal studies. Data from this work has been submitted to the FDA. Geron will work closely with the FDA to facilitate their review of the new data and to release the clinical hold. No patients have yet been treated in this study.

From the sound of it, this hold is merely an administrative procedure that the FDA routinely undergoes when presented with new data.  However, if the new data is completely consonant with previous findings, why would there be a hold? We simply do not know at this time.  It is entirely possible that nothing is amiss, and this is merely FDA policy.  However, it is also possible that Geron’s new product does not behave exactly as they thought.

The development of the first cholesterol-lowering drug (lovastatin) experienced a slow-down when a related product being developed in Japan caused cancer in dogs. Roy Vagelos, president of Merck at the time, contacted the FDA and suspended all clinical trials. Further testing by Merck showed that this was an anomaly, and extensive clinical use has vindicated this finding. Maybe this is a similar situation for Geron’s OPC line?  Only time will tell.