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GlaxoSmithKline's (NYSE:GSK) $720 Million Investment

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted March 14, 2013

GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) has decided to shut down the Cambridge headquarters of its subsidiary, Sirtris Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Glaxo had acquired Sirtris back in 2008 for $720 million. Now, that company’s operations and research will be absorbed into Glaxo’s R&D portfolio based in Philadelphia.

The Boston Globe quotes Melinda Stubbee, Glaxo spokeswoman:

“The research they’ve done has been highly successful,” Stubbee said. “Because of that, the company has a real need for the expertise and resources we have to have to offer from GSK as a whole.”

Sirtris’s research focuses on a group of enzymes called sirtuins, which can combat the aging of cells by intervening in DNA repair and programmed cell death. Just recently, the company’s co-founder, David Sinclair, hit the news for a report that indicated that resveratrol, a common chemical found in red wine, has anti-aging properties and can activate sirtuins.

However, Glaxo has stated that this is not to be a major point of focus in the near future. The company is more interested in sirtuins than wine.

Although the Cambridge office has about 60 employees, only a core few are to be reassigned to the Philadelphia operations. Jim Ellis, Sirtris’s VP of preclinical research, will now lead in Philadelphia, while Chief Executive George Vlasuk is also expected to take on a leading role.

Fierce Biotech reports that Sinclair’s recent report set off a flurry in the scientific research community over the implications of his findings. Recently, Sirtris had apparently been testing out numerous compounds in clinical trials, but none of them went far enough to become viable candidates for diabetes or other hopeful treatments.

Since about a week ago, Sirtris/GSK had one Phase Ib study underway, recruiting patients to test SRT2104, a compound that may help act against inflammation in ulcerative colitis.

Two other Sirtris candidates were in early test mode, but they were discontinued after a few tests. Sirtris’s focus has been on refining and developing its understanding of the anti-aging mechanisms of the body with a goal toward creating more powerful compounds that can activate SIRT-1, the enzyme that kickstarted all this. Once that can be achieved, things can move into the clinical trial phase.

Although Glaxo has said it plans to continue and extend Sirtris’s research into sirtuins, it’s possible that the larger company had higher hopes back in 2008 when it blew nearly $800 million on the deal.

It’s not exactly that Sirtris has been a complete failure. But back in 2008 the company had made waves for its revolutionary discoveries about the resveratrol compound in red wine.

Since then, however, Sirtris had to deal with several problems, including one instance where a clinical trial had to be shut down due to emerging safety concerns, reports the Wall Street Journal. And later, Sirtris’s CEO Christoph Westphal left the company.

The WSJ quotes part of Glaxo’s statement on the current development:

“To provide better access to our existing chemistry, biology and pharmacology teams, GSK will be fully integrating Sirtris into our R&D organization and moving it from Cambridge, Mass., to our Upper Providence site in Pennsylvania.”

SIRT501 is presently one of Sirtris’s major offerings. It’s a drug that is basically a reformulated version of the red wine compound resveratrol. Glaxo and Sirtris have tested it against numerous diseases, including hot-button targets like diabetes and cancer. That’s where things ran foul back in 2010, when the cancer trials had to be shut down due to increasing safety concerns.

And, recently, resveratrol has come under attack in academic journals. While Sirtris’s view, and the original scientific view, was that this compound does in fact intervene in various cellular processes across the body, potentially staving off cellular death, recent research has contested these early readings.

The idea originally was that SIRT-1 would need to be activated, perhaps by encouraging the body to produce the enzyme in greater quantities, and thus, basically, act against aging. Newer research questions the viability and in fact the point of stimulating SIRT-1 production, claiming that its effects may well have been significantly overstated.

Currently, Glaxo intends to continue its focus on SIRT2014, which as stated earlier works against ulcerative colitis. However, it has also been trying to get the compound to work against other diseases like diabetes and a host of inflammatory ailments.


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