Microcystins – leads for anticancer drugs

In one of my first blog posts I have shortly discussed that the hepatotoxic microcystins, cyclic peptides from cyanobacteria, are currently studied for their potential as leads for anticancer drugs. I also mentioned a poster we presented at the ICNPR 2012 in New York.

Recently, the paper covering our work in this field has been published in PLOS ONE. It describes the cytotoxic potency and the OATP1B1/1B3 transporter selectivity of 23 naturally occurring microcystin congeners. Microcystin variants with cytotoxic OATP1B1/OATP1B3 IC50 ratios that ranged between 0.2 and 32 were found, representing a 150-fold range in transporter selectivity. We found that microcystin structure has a significant impact on transporter selectivity, and thus it should potentially be possible to develop analogs with even more pronounced OATP1B3 selectivity and thus enable their development as anticancer drugs (some cancer types express OATP1B3 and could thus be targeted; for more information see the paper…).

For the figure depicting the chemical structure of microcystins / nodularins I have compiled a list of all congeners described in the literature to date. The data are available at figshare. If you are interested in microcystins you should definitely take a look at this list.

Interestingly, some weeks ago I met a synthetic chemist at a conference who works on a microcystin synthesis, and we started talking about a collaboration. This will be a great opportunity to further explore the chemical space around the microcystins, hopefully leading to derivatives with higher selectivity, potency and better pharmacokinetic properties…

Natural Products and Bioprospecting – publishing natural product research fully open access

Some time ago I have mused where to submit my next manuscript. Yesterday I have decided in favor of the journal Natural Products and Bioprospecting (and luckily my co-authors did not oppose).

I have been a bit skeptical at first (also after reading the Instructions for Authors at that time, but that is another story – let bygones be bygone…). Because of my doubts I have contacted several members of the Editorial Board that I know. All of them have spoken highly of the Editor-in-Chief, Prof. Jikai Liu, as well as the project in general. I also contacted Prof. Liu himself, and he was able to ease my mind.

I think it is great that this journal offers an OA and CC-BY publication model to the natural product research community free-of-charge. I really do appreciate this initiative and think that the Editor-in-Chief has done a great work in realizing this idea.

Now the Natural Product Research community has to be made aware of this journal, so that it gets more widely known!

How “open” are natural product scientists? Part II – Journals

I am currently preparing a manuscript on some isolation and structure elucidation work. It is nothing too thrilling, not even bioactivity will be reported. That is the drawback of working in industry – the really interesting projects must be kept secret. But I love to publish, and so I take the opportunity when I can. Even if the paper will only be of interest to a few fans of cyanobacterial metabolites…

When I got aware of „Open“, I promised myself to publish my coming papers Open Access only. So where should I publish this manuscript? My first thought was PLoS ONE. But as I said, the work is of rather narrow interest, so I think it is not worthy to be published in PLoS ONE, although I have spotted some natural product papers there. Perhaps next time, when I have more to say. For today, let us have a look at my list of natural product research related journals and see if some of these journal might fit.

What are my criteria? First of all, Open Access. Second, the journal should be indexed at least at Chemical Abstracts and PubMed Central – I do not fancy „Google Scholar only indexing“. These two criteria already narrow the choice down to nine journals that would be suitable for classical analytical natural product work:

Journal Publisher Costs
Fitoterapia Elsevier 3000 USD
Journal of Asian Natural Products Research Taylor&Francis 2950 USD
marine drugs MDPI 1800 CHF
molecules MDPI 1800 CHF
Natural Product Research Taylor&Francis 2950 USD
Natural Products and Bioprospecting Springer free
Phytochemistry Elsevier 3000 USD
Journal  of Natural Products ACS 1000-3000 USD
Toxicon Elsevier 3000 USD

Wow. Why does it cost 2000-3000 USD to publish a manuscript OA?! I cannot believe that my manuscript and the surrounding supportive work cause almost a whole month’ work. None of the publishers in this list – in contrast to PLoS ONE – offers a fee waiver on their website, except the ACS, where some discounts for ACS member and subscribing institutions are available.

This might be OK for big industry or well-funded academic groups. But I am doing 95% of the research I publish in my free time. The CEO of the company I work at really supports my scientific work, which I do highly appreciate. But convincing him to spend 3000 USD for a single publication just because I am an OA freak? No way! And I do not have these funds, either. Four hungry kids to feed – 3000 USD for a publication?! My wife would not be too happy… 😉

Well, there is one journal that is publishing OA free of charge. The journal „Natural Products and Bioprospecting“. What about this one?


  • The journal is very young and not that many papers have been published to date.
  • They seem to publish very rapidly (Is it possible to do a full peer review process within 2 weeks? Most of the papers seem to be at about 4-8 weeks, though, which is still rapid but OK…).
  • It is not yet indexed by PubMed Central (but they assured me that they work on this).
  • Most of the members of the editorial board have not published in the journal, yet.


  • It is OA free-of-charge (fully sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Science).
  • It is published by a recognized publisher (Springer).
  • It is good to support young journals with a good concept (in this case Natural Products + Open Access)
  • I know some of the editorial board members personally and do not think they would give themselves away for a dump journal.

Taken everything together, I am not sure yet whether the pros or the cons weight heavier. I will surely have a closer look at the journal and perhaps I will decide to submit my next manuscript there…


Natural product drug discovery from microalgae

Together with Mark Brönstrup from sanofi-aventis I have written a chapter on “Natural product drug discovery from microalgae” for the book “Microalgal Biotechnology: Integration and Economy“, edited by C. Posten and C. Walter, published by de Gruyter.

I know that this is behind the pay wall – I have signed the author contract before I became Aware of Open… If you want to have a copy of the chapter, just drop me a line. I would be happy about comments on the chapter from anyone interested in this topic.

Edit: What I have learned – Insist on imprimatur. Complicated story why, but the legend of figure 10.8 is wrong and should only read “Mechanism of toxin release from antibody-drug conjugates.”. I have written an email to the publisher and hope that this can be corrected at least in the pdf version of the chapter. After all, it is their mistake that the legend is flawed…

Edit 2: They will correct the figure caption for the pdf file. Thank you, de Gruyter.

How “open” are natural product scientists? Part I – Conference Talks

Four months ago I visited a fantastic conference, the International Conference on Natural Product Research 2012, ICNPR 2012, in New York. It was one of the best conferences I ever visited. I presented two posters there which I later uploaded to figshare (can be downloaded here and here).

Many of the talks were really interesting, and after the conference I contacted 12 speakers if they would share their presentation so that I could have another look at the slides and recapitulate what I had learned.

2 of the scientists answered that they are not willing to share their slides, because some of the material has not been published, yet. Hugh?! How can someone make a publication out of some PowerPoint slides?! And who would be stupid enough to try? And what about those guys in the audience that took pictures of every single slide of every single talk?

Well, at least these two were more polite than the 5 scientists who did not answer at all, even when after a few weeks I kindly remembered them that I had interest to have a second look at their presentations…

This leaves 5 scientists who sent their talks, 3 of them after friendly reminders. Good luck for me that these were the most interesting talks! Funnily enough, 4 of these 5 are professors at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. It might be that American scientists are more willing to share than others; but not all professors from the States I asked did share, though…

Of course this has not been a systematic study of the willingness to share among natural product scientists, but it made me wonder why it is not common standard that all talks are made available to conference attendants after conferences. This would make the experiences of visiting a conference even more pleasant and would enhance the learning effects dramatically.

After making this experience, I decided to share all talks I give, whether people want it or not. 🙂 And I chose figshare as a platform for this. Of course a slide set is less informative than listening to the talks themselves (especially because sometimes I prefer to show only large pictures and spend some time talking around them…), but anyways…

To put my money where my mouth is: Some weeks ago I talked about „Cyanobacteria in Anticancer Natural Product Research” at the annual meeting of the German Pharmaceutical Society 2012 in Greifswald, Germany. Anyone interested can now have a look at the slides at figshare. If you have any questions on the slides or on cyanobacteria in general, don’t hesitate to comment this blog post or directly the slides at figshare.

List of natural product research related journals, bloggers and tweeters – reloaded

For the original Natural Product Forum I had compiled a list of journals, bloggers and tweeters covering natural product research. This list can now be found here.

If you find some journal / blogger / tweeter is missing but should be on the must-read-list of any natural product scientist, please comment – I will then add your suggestion to the list, keeping it up to date.

The story of the halichondrins

After describing the story of the dolastatins, I thought that also the halichondrins would deserve a post. But I have soon realized that Quintus has already done this very nicely, so that there is no need for me to go into more detail here…

For me it just remains to say that the development of Eribulin from Halichondrin B was a real game changer in the Natural-Product-To-Drug arena.

One of the strongest argument against natural products in drug discovery has always been “It might be a nice hit/lead, but it will never be possible to synthesise such complex compounds economically”. Eribulin simply proves that this is not true. Despite being still rather complex and still having about 20 stereocenters, it is economically feasible to manufacture the compound.

Every decision maker in the natural product sceptic pharmaceutical industry should realise that natural product leads are not that ridiculous after all…

The story of the dolastatins

Two posts ago I have mentioned that the story of the dolastatins deserves an own post. I think it has some nice twists that show how far the way from a bioactivity observed for a biomass extract to an approved drug can be. The following story is part of a book chapter I have recently written. The book is in press, so if you are interested in the complete set of references you will have to be patient until it is published… 😉

(Edit 22.12.2012: The chapter has now been published…)

In 1972, it was discovered that extracts of the sea hare Dolabella auricularia showed pronounced antineoplastic activity. Due to the vanishingly small amounts of active substances in the slug, it was not until 1987 that the structure of the most potent compound in this extract, dolastatin 10, could be elucidated: 1 ton of mollusk biomass was collected from the wild to isolate just 29 mg of dolastatin 10 (structure below)! But honor to whom honor is due – it has later been found that the dolastatins are in fact produced by the cyanobacteria Symploca hydnoides and Lyngbya majuscula, which are part of the sea hare’s diet.

At the time of their discovery, the dolastatins were the most potent antineoplastic substances known, with an ED50 in the picomolar range against a number of cancer cell lines. The dolastatins have been found to bind to tubulin close to the vinca binding site, thus disrupting microtubule function. As the chemical structure of dolastatin 10 is comparatively simple, the development of the compound luckily did not depend on the natural source. The first total synthesis was already described in 1989.

Although the natural dolastatins show remarkable activity in vitro, their in vivo activity as a single agent is not sufficient for direct application as drug substances at dosages where toxic side effects are still tolerable. Numerous synthetic derivatives have been generated, and extensive structure–activity relationships have been established. By 2008, two derivatives, namely tasidotin and soblidotin, had been advanced into phase II clinical trials, but although these compounds were much better tolerated, they still failed concerning their efficacy against the tested cancer types. However, as tasidotin is well tolerated, metabolically stable, water-soluble and orally bioavailable, it is still followed up in other cancer types and in combination therapy.

Monomethylauristatin E (MMAE) is a synthetic dolastatin 10 derivative with pronounced activity and toxicity. Researchers at Seattle Genetics developed a technology to couple MMAE analogs to monoclonal antibodies. The antibodies can be targeted against various cancer cell-specific surface antigens such as e.g. CD30, found on several lymphoma types, Nectin-4, expressed by multiple cancers such as bladder, breast, lung and pancreatic cancer, or glycoprotein NMB, found on breast and melanoma cancer cells. These antibody–drug conjugates (ADCs) are stable in extracellular fluids and relatively non-toxic, because the toxic effector MMAE is covalently bound to the antibody and not liberated. After binding of the antibody to its cancer cell surface antigen, the ADC is internalized into the cell. Inside the lysosomes, the protease-sensitive unit that links antibody and MMAE is cleaved by cathepsin, releasing the toxic agent only in cancer cells expressing the targeted surface antigen, as shown in the following figure.

An ADC successfully exploiting this mechanism is Brentuximab vedotin (Adcetris®), developed by Takeda in collaboration with Seattle Genetics. Brentuximab vedotin targets CD30 and has been approved by the FDA in August 2011 for the treatment of patients with Hodgkin’s lymphoma or systemic anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL). It is the first approved drug that is based on a cyanobacterial metabolite – although the dolastatins have long not been recognized as such…

It took nearly 40 years from the initial bioactive extract to the approved drug. And the way of the bioactive from the cyanobacterium into the slug, from there into the lab and on to total synthesis, and finally to a synthetic derivative coupled to a delivering monoclonal antibody, has not been a very direct one… What a tremendous amount of work this has been!

But what a nice story with a happy end – this is one of the reasons why I love natural product research… 🙂

Yes, huge – but why should it not be effective?

Some time ago, Derek Lowe has blogged about a “Huge But Effective” compound in his fantastic blog “In the Pipeline”. I tried to comment on his post, but somehow my comment has been eaten up during submission. So here I go again (in a little more depth…), this time using my own newly established blog…

Being a natural product scientist, what wondered me most were the comments that followed on Dereks post. In my eyes this compound is not a “big ugly brute” – it is just wonderful! And this is not because natural product scientists in general are crazy, but because I believe in the value of larger compounds, especially if they are peptide-like. There are so many examples of even larger (mostly natural product derived) compounds that are invaluable drugs used in the clinic. “Large” compounds, and even more large and cyclic ones, are a largely unexplored chemical space. For anyone interested in the matter I recommend reading this paper in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, which very nicely covers the topic and discusses several important “large” compounds in detail (although it sadly is behind the pay wall…).

But from my experience I know that there are still many people who need to be convinced of the fact that “large” does not mean “uninteresting” from a drug development point of view. I work with cyanobacteria, and these microorganisms tend to synthesize large compounds. These compounds are often derived from a polyketide synthase / non-ribosomal peptide synthetase biosynthetic pathway, and the “average cyanobacterial compound” has a molecular weight of about 650 Da. So you can imagine that there are many compounds that are even larger than this. However, we often find stunning bioactivities for these compounds. More on this later.

Most people’s fears revolve around pharmacokinetics. For example, Derek in his post is somewhat surprised that this compound is actually passing cell membranes and doubts that a compound like this would be orally available. Furthermore, he expects short half-lives for this type of compounds. And this is exactly what I hear when it comes to large peptidic compounds from cyanobacteria: “Peptides are not suitable as drugs because they are not stable in the GIT, they are rapidly degraded by proteases / peptidases, they cannot cross cell membranes and are thus not suitable for intracellular targets.” However, all of these (and more) prejudices are dealt with in the Nature Rev Drug Disc paper mentioned above.

When I talk to people about cyanobacterial natural products, I am often confronted with the standpoint that compounds violating the “do not go beyond 500 Da” rule are not suitable as drug substances / leads. I then usually tell three stories about cyanobacterial compounds that clearly show that you can use these compounds in drug discovery and development anyways.

  1. Microcystins are known as hepatotoxins produced e.g. by the cyanobacterial genera Microcystis, Oscillatoria, Planktothrix, Nostoc, and Anabaena. They po­tently inhibit the eukaryotic protein phosphatase families PP1 and PP2A1, disrupting intracellular signaling pathways as well as cytoskeleton maintenance. Over 90 natural variants are known, and the average weight of the microcystins is about 1010 Da. The structure of one of the most common microcystins, microcystin LR, is shown below. The WHO has established a limit for microcystins in drinking water (1 µg/L) – now why would the WHO do this if microcystins were not orally available, and stable enough to be toxic after absorption? However, it is true that microcystins – as one could expect – have a poor membrane permeability. Indeed, they need to be actively uptaken by cells to exert toxicity. Three human proteins are able to mediate this uptake, the organic anion transporting polypeptides (OATP) 1B1, 1B3, and 1A2. This “selective” uptake, however, is not a disadvantage. In fact, it can be exploited, and microcystins are currently studied for their potential as leads for anticancer drugs. For more details just have a look at a poster we recently presented at the ICNPR 2012 in New York.
  2. Cryptophycins are cyclic depsipeptides found in Nostoc sp.. The structure of cryptophycin-1, 668 Da, is shown below. These compounds show remarkable cytotoxic activity in low picomolar (!) concentrations, and represent the most potent suppressors of microtubule dynamics yet described. They block the cell cycle at the G2/M phase with a 100- to 1000-fold higher activity than paclitaxel and vinblastine, leading to cell death. In addition, they are not effective substrates of the P-glycoprotein, and thus remain active against multidrug-resistant cancer cells. It is not known how they enter the cells, but enter them they do – otherwise they would not find any tubulin to bind to… Eli Lilly and sanofi-aventis both had closer looks at these compounds.
  3. Dolastatins are linear pentapeptides (750-850 Da; dolastatin 15 shown below) from cyanobacteria. Like the cryptophycins, they bind to tubulin, and display ED50 values in the picomolar range against a number of cancer cell lines. They are highly toxic in vivo (proving that they also find their target in vivo), but this did not hinder scientists to pursue this class of compounds. In fact, brentuximab vedotin is the first approved drug based on a cyanobacterial metabolite. So even linear peptides in this molecular weight range can do it – but that is a longer and somewhat twisted story for another day…