SENESCENCE MODULATION

Atropos creates senescence-modulating therapeutics that may be used to treat aging-related diseases (with “senosuppressors”) and cancers (with “senostimulators”). We begin with our proprietary FATES discovery platform (short for First ATRX-based Therapeutics to Elucidate Senescence) to identify compounds that critically regulate the rate at which senescent cells form.

Our pipeline includes potential solutions for inherited genetic aging, acquired senescence, and other aging syndromes that involve heightened senescence and cancers that may be resistant to cytostatic drugs because they suppress the senescence pathway.


Atropos is currently doing phenotypic screening and preclinical studies toward lead compound identification, with the support of a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Atropos is the only company with potential products that will target the rate of production of senescent cells, compared with other companies taking a “senolytics” approach to kill senescent cells. We accomplish this by using a new molecular understanding of the senescence differentiation process.

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SELECTED LITERATURE

CDK4 inhibitors (CDK4i) earned Breakthrough Therapy Designation from the FDA last year and are entering phase III clinical trials in several cancers. However, not all tumors respond favorably to these drugs. CDK4 activity is critical for progression through G1 phase and into the mitotic cell cycle. Inhibiting this kinase induces Rbpositive cells to exit the cell cycle into either a quiescent or senescent state. In this report, using well-differentiated and dedifferentiated liposarcoma (WD/DDLS) cell lines, we show that the proteolytic turnover of MDM2 is required for CDK4i-induced senescence. Failure to reduce MDM2 does not prevent CDK4i-induced withdrawal from the cell cycle but the cells remain in a reversible quiescent state. Reducing MDM2 in these cells drives them into the more stable senescent state. CDK4i-induced senescence associated with loss of MDM2 is also observed in some breast cancer, lung cancer and glioma cell lines indicating that this is not limited to WD/DDLS cells in which MDM2 is overexpressed or in cells that contain wild type p53. MDM2 turnover depends on its E3 ligase activity and expression of ATRX. Interestingly, in seven patients the changes in MDM2 expression were correlated with outcome. These insights identify MDM2 and ATRX as new regulators controlling geroconversion, the process by which quiescent cells become senescent, and this insight may be exploited to improve the activity of CDK4i in cancer therapy.

Senescence is a state of stable cell cycle exit with important implications for development and disease. Here, we demonstrate that the chromatin remodeling enzyme ATRX is required for therapy-induced senescence. ATRX accumulates in nuclear foci and is required for therapy-induced senescence in multiple types of transformed cells exposed to either DNA damaging agents or CDK4 inhibitors. Mobilization into foci depends on the ability of ATRX to interact with H3K9me3 histone and HP1. Foci form soon after cells exit the cell cycle, before other hallmarks of senescence appear. Eliminating ATRX in senescent cells destabilizes the senescence-associated heterochromatic foci. Additionally, ATRX binds to and suppresses expression from the HRAS locus; repression of HRAS is sufficient to promote the transition of quiescent cells into senescence and preventing repression blocks progression into senescence. Thus ATRX is a critical regulator of therapy-induced senescence and acts in multiple ways to drive cells into this state.

Senescence is an irreversible form of growth arrest and is generally considered a favorable outcome of cancer therapies, yet little is known about the molecular events that distinguish this state from readily reversible growth arrest (i.e. quiescence). Recently, we discovered that during therapy induced senescence the chromatin remodeling protein a-thalassemia, mental retardation, X-linked (ATRX) represses Harvey rat sarcoma viral oncogene homolog (HRAS), and repression of HRAS is necessary to establish senescence, suggesting how new clinical combinations might be used to achieve durable senescence.

CDK4/6 inhibitors are being used to treat a variety of human malignancies. In well-differentiated and dedifferentiated liposarcoma their clinical promise is associated with their ability to downregulate the MDM2 protein. The downregulation of MDM2 following treatment with CDK4/6 inhibitors also induces many cultured tumor cell lines derived from different types of malignancies to progress from quiescence into senescence. Here we used cultured human cell lines and defined a role for PDLIM7 and CDH18, regulating MDM2 protein in CDK4/6 inhibitor-treated cells. Materials from our previous phase II trials with palbociclib were then used to demonstrate that expression of CDH18 protein was associated with response, measured as both progression-free survival and overall survival. This supports the hypothesis that the biologic transition from quiescence to senescence has clinical relevance for this class of drugs.

CDK4/6 INHIBITORS: THE MECHANISM OF ACTION MAY NOT BE AS SIMPLE AS ONCE THOUGHT  CANCER CELL (2018)

CDK4/6 inhibitors are among a new generation of therapeutics. Building upon the striking success of the combination of CDK4/6 inhibitors and the hormone receptor antagonist letrozole in breast cancer, many other combinations have recently entered clinical trials in multiple diseases. To achieve maximal benefit with CDK4/6 inhibitors it will be critical to understand the cellular mechanisms by which they act. Here we highlight the mechanisms by which CDK4/6 inhibitors can exert their anti-tumor activities beyond simply enforcing cytostatic growth arrest, and discuss how this knowledge may inform new combinations, improve outcomes, and modify dosing schedules in the future.

CLEARANCE OF P16INK4A-POSITIVE SENESCENT CELLS DELAYS AGEING-ASSOCIATED DISORDERS NATURE (2011)

Advanced age is the main risk factor for most chronic diseases and functional deficits in humans, but the fundamental mechanisms that drive ageing remain largely unknown, impeding the development of interventions that might delay or prevent age-related disorders and maximize healthy lifespan. Cellular senescence, which halts the proliferation of damaged or dysfunctional cells, is an important mechanism to constrain the malignant progression of tumour cells1,2 . Senescent cells accumulate in various tissues and organs with ageing3 and have been hypothesized to disrupt tissue structure and function because of the components they secrete4,5. However, whether senescent cells are causally implicated in age-related dysfunction and whether their removal is beneficial has remained unknown. To address these fundamental questions, we made use of a biomarker for senescence, p16Ink4a, to design a novel transgene, INK-ATTAC, for inducible elimination of p16Ink4a-positive senescent cells upon administration of a drug. Here we show that in the BubR1 progeroid mouse background, INK-ATTAC removes p16Ink4a-positive senescent cells upon drug treatment. In tissues—such as adipose tissue, skeletal muscle and eye— in which p16Ink4a contributes to the acquisition of age-related pathologies, life-long removal of p16Ink4a-expressing cells delayed onset of these phenotypes. Furthermore, late-life clearance attenuated progression of already established age-related disorders. These data indicate that cellular senescence is causally implicated in generating age-related phenotypes and that removal of senescent cells can prevent or delay tissue dysfunction and extend healthspan.

NATURALLY OCCURRING P16INK4A-POSITIVE CELLS SHORTEN HEALTHY LIFESPAN NATURE (2016)

Cellular senescence, a stress-induced irreversible growth arrest often characterized by p16Ink4a expression and a distinctive secretory phenotype, prevents the proliferation of preneoplastic cells and has beneficial roles in tissue remodelling during embryogenesis and wound healing. Senescent cells accumulate in various tissues and organs over time and have been speculated to play a role in aging. To explore the physiological relevance and consequences of naturally occurring senescent cells, we used a previously established transgene, INK-ATTAC, to induce apoptosis in p16Ink4a-expressing cells of wild-type mice by injection of AP20187 twice a week starting at one year of age. Here we show that compared to vehicle alone, AP20187 treatment extended median lifespan in both male and female mice of two distinct genetic backgrounds. Clearance of p16Ink4a-positive cells delayed tumorigenesis and attenuated age-related deterioration of several organs without apparent side effects, including kidney, heart and fat, where clearance preserved the functionality of glomeruli, cardio-protective KATP channels, and adipocytes, respectively. Thus, p16Ink4a-positive cells that accumulate during adulthood negatively influence lifespan and promote age-dependent changes in multiple organs, and their therapeutic removal may be an attractive approach to extend healthy lifespan.

 

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