Brachyury: an Achilles’ heel of chordoma
Brachyury is a protein encoded by the TBXT gene — a gene that everyone has in every cell of their body. The brachyury protein is vitally important during embryonic development, and is normally switched off after birth. However, it gets turned back on in a variety of tumors including chordoma. In certain tumors such as breast, lung, colon, and prostate cancers, it contributes to metastasis, resistance to therapy, and poor outcomes. In chordomas, brachyury doesn’t only contribute to bad behavior; it is the key driver of the disease. Laboratory research has shown that shutting off brachyury in chordoma cells renders them incapable of proliferating and prone to death.
Creating drugs that strike at brachyury
A large body of research points to brachyury as the key driver of chordoma, its most critical vulnerability, and its most promising drug target. Moreover, because brachyury is not present in normal human tissue, therapies targeting brachyury could, in principle, control chordoma without causing harm to patients. Yet, brachyury belongs to a class of proteins called transcription factors which have historically been considered difficult drug targets — often described as “undruggable.” Thankfully, a confluence of emerging technologies have the potential to overcome the barriers to drugging this important class of targets, and to put drugs against brachyury within reach.
The goal of our Brachyury Drug Discovery Initiative is to bring every plausible technology to bear to make brachyury targeting therapies available to patients with chordoma and other cancers as quickly as possible.
We are working to bring about the first therapies targeting brachyury by strategically initiating and investing in a portfolio of drug discovery projects pursuing a variety of therapeutic modalities. Initially, we are prioritizing development of targeted protein degraders and small molecule inhibitors, and at the same time exploring the feasibility of additional modalities such as RNA targeted small molecules, antisense oligonucleotides, DARPins, and others. In parallel, we are investing in research to develop critical understanding of brachyury’s function, and to develop essential R&D enabling resources, including the tools needed to identify new drug candidates and test their effects on brachyury.
Help make brachyury drugs a reality
If there's one lucky thing about chordoma, it's that research has revealed it to have a key vulnerability – an Achilles’ heel – that it's utterly dependent on for survival. And this vulnerability, called brachyury, isn't present in most normal cells, which means that drugs against it could stop chordoma without harming the patient. Recent scientific breakthroughs have cleared the way for brachyury drugs to be developed. Further philanthropic investment is now needed to advance these compounds as quickly as possible to the point where they can be licensed by companies that will bring them into clinical trials.