New partnership with Evotec: Joint fight against a multi-faced disease

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Millions of women around the world suffer from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Despite severe symptoms, the condition is underdiagnosed and undertreated. Bayer and Evotec are joining forces to develop new treatment options. An interview with Beate Rohde, Head of Experimental Medicine Gynecological Therapies (GT), Oliver Martin Fischer, Principal Scientist and pharmacology expert in GT Research, and Christoph Huwe, Director Strategic Alliance Management in R&D Open Innovation. They will significantly support the implementation of the partnership in the coming months and years.

What exactly is PCOS, and what does it mean for women to be affected?

Beate Rohde: Women with PCOS show a combination of signs and symptoms related to an excess of male hormones – so called androgens – and a disturbed function of the ovaries. Typically, the ultrasound examination of the ovaries shows much more than usual egg follicles (also called “cysts”) which is the background for the name of this disease.


Oliver Martin Fischer: The hormone imbalance causes irregular menstruation and is associated with signs of a “masculinization” of the female body such as strong hair growth on the face and body or - alternatively - hair loss, and acne. What’s more, PCOS can also change the metabolism. 80 percent of patients suffer from obesity and more than half are afflicted with insulin resistance, which results in high blood glucose levels. This can contribute to long-term health problems such as diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure, fatty liver disease and arteriosclerosis.


Beate Rohde: The disturbed ovary function also leads to difficulties with regards to family planning. In fact, PCOS is thought to potentially cause more than 80 percent of patients` infertility or pregnancy complications. The fact that patients have difficulties conceiving as well as their changing appearance presents a severe psychological burden for those affected and significantly affects their quality of life.


How is PCOS currently treated, and why are new options needed?

Oliver Martin Fischer: Polycystic ovary syndrome is a common condition, affecting up to one in ten women of reproductive age worldwide. Despite this, it is widely underdiagnosed as the symptoms can differ from one patient to the other. More research is required to fully understand the causes of PCOS, and there is currently no treatment that allows for overall control of the different signs and symptoms. The current treatment options are very limited and generally aim at relieving some of the patient’s individual symptoms. For instance, available treatments are trying to address the secondary metabolic diseases such as diabetes, to regulate the menstrual cycle by oral contraceptives, to improve acne or to reduce excessive hair growth. Our vision is to change that, together with our strategic partner Evotec. 


What will the partnership focus on?

Christoph Huwe: Over the course of our five-year collaboration, both companies will contribute drug targets, lead structures and a comprehensive set of high-quality technology platforms to jointly develop innovative treatment options. Both partners bring in complementary expertise in the areas of reproductive health and metabolism, respectively. This strategic alliance will also have access to targets from the recently formed partnership between Celmatix Inc. and Evotec. Celmatix is the world leader in big data driven target discovery focused on fertility and women’s health. These combined assets lay a promising foundation for our research activities.


Oliver Martin Fischer: We will focus on metabolic, inflammatory and endocrine – meaning concerning the hormone balance – pathways and their intricate interplay. To achieve this, we are taking advantage of a broad interdisciplinary approach involving a wide range of functions within both companies. In addition to addressing PCOS, we will also be able to broaden our understanding in reproductive health including fertility, the hormonal regulation of obesity in women beyond PCOS as well as the causes for liver diseases associated with the syndrome.


What are the potential benefits for patients? 

Beate Rohde: Our goal is to offer women with PCOS novel treatment options to address the disease more holistically instead of targeting individual symptoms. This includes addressing secondary diseases and complications that are associated with and caused by PCOS, such as diabetes or fatty liver disease. This would also improve patients` overall quality of life. 


What shape will the collaboration take?

Beate Rohde: Bayer and Evotec will share responsibilities for the discovery and preclinical development of potential clinical candidates. Our company will be responsible for any subsequent clinical development, and commercialization. 


Christoph Huwe: Evotec is already an established and valued partner for us. In 2012, we entered our first alliance, which resulted in four clinical drug candidates currently advancing through development for the treatment of endometriosis. In 2016, we initiated a second research alliance to find multiple clinical candidates for the treatment of kidney diseases. Both partnerships have been very successful. We look forward to continuing the relationship to develop novel drug candidates for the benefit of patients.