Treating Diabetic Retinopathy by Restoring Activation of the Tie2 Pathway With AKB-9778

New treatments aim to reduce vision loss and treatment burden.

In the future, the number of patients with diabetes mellitus will dramatically increase, and approximately one-third of them will have DR.1 Although improved blood glucose control can reduce the incidence of DR progression, maintaining such control for extended periods of time is difficult for most diabetics. Additionally, many patients develop clinically significant loss of VA due to proliferative DR (PDR) or DME despite tight control of glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c).2-4 This is very relevant as many diabetic patients fear visual loss and consider it the worst complication of diabetes regardless of whether they have personally experienced it.5,6

Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in working-age patients. Prevention of the sight-threatening sequelae of DR would have a significant global impact on day-to-day functioning of individuals with diabetes as well as on the societal and economic burden of diabetes.


Treatment of diabetic eye disease is generally restricted to eyes demonstrating DME or PDR. For center-involved (CI)DME, intravitreal therapy (IVT) with anti-VEGF therapies or corticosteroids has replaced laser therapy as the standard of care. Although these therapies usually provide clinically significant improvement in BCVA, many patients continue to experience residual visual loss, with approximately 40% of patients not achieving BCVA of 20/40 or better.7 Frequent injections also result in a significant treatment burden, and IVT can result in rare but potentially vision threatening adverse events such as endophthalmitis, RD, and vitreous hemorrhage.8

Although the standard treatment for PDR, panretinal photocoagulation (PRP), effectively manages progression of vision loss, VA is stabilized rather than improved, and side effects such as reduced peripheral vision, dark adaptation, and color vision can occur.9 The recently completed Protocol S, a randomized controlled study comparing PRP to anti-VEGF therapy for PDR, found that the 2 therapies were similar, without significant increase in BCVA after 2 years of therapy with either treatment.10

There is clearly a need for treatment options that prevent the progression of DR, which is directly associated with increased risk of vision loss due to PDR11,12 or DME,13 as well as a decreased quality of life.14,15 Regression of DR severity should result in decreased incidence of visual loss. In pivotal phase 3 clinical trials of anti-VEGF agents (ranibizumab [Lucentis]; Genentech/Roche and aflibercept [Eylea]; Regeneron) for the treatment of DME, treatment showed beneficial effects on DR severity.16,17 Based on these data, Lucentis and Eylea have been approved for the treatment of DR in patients with DME. Lucentis also recently received FDA approval for treatment of DR based on the results of the RISE/RIDE clinical trials as well as Protocol S in patients with PDR.18 Two trials are currently under way to test the efficacy of Eylea in patients with moderately severe to severe DR without DME (the PANORAMA study, NCT02718326, sponsored by Regeneron; and Protocol W, NCT02634333, sponsored by ). However, to date, there are no clinical trial data on the efficacy of anti-VEGF therapy in the treatment of nonproliferative DR (NPDR) in patients prior to the development of DME or PDR.


There has been a great deal of activity to identify targets other than VEGF to treat diabetic eye disease. The Tie2 pathway has generated a great deal of attention in the treatment of various vasculopathies, including DR.19,20 Over the last decade, this pathway has been identified as a key modulator of endothelial function and vascular stability.21,22

Tie2 is a transmembrane receptor expressed principally in vascular endothelial cells and serves as the receptor for the angiopoietin family of secreted polypeptides. The members of the angiopoietin family that are ligands for Tie2 are angiopoietin-1 (Ang1), which is a Tie2 receptor agonist, and angiopoietin-2 (Ang2), which functions as a context-dependent Tie2 receptor antagonist.23,24 In addition to these ligands, vascular endothelial protein tyrosine phosphatase (VE-PTP), a membrane-bound phosphatase found exclusively in endothelial cells, is a downstream intracellular inhibitor of Tie2 activity which can override the effects of the angiopoietins on Tie2. The bulk of evidence indicates that Ang1 signaling promotes normal vascular integrity. Conversely, in settings where VE-PTP and Ang2 are upregulated, Tie2 signaling is blunted and the vasculature is destabilized, thereby promoting vascular leak and enabling pathologic angiogenesis (Figure 1). Reduction of Tie2 activity has been implicated in vascular destabilization that precedes ischemia in diabetic eye disease.25-27

Figure 1. The Tie2 receptor in normal (phosphorylated, stable) and pathologic (dephosphorylated, destabilized) vasculature. In normal vessels (left), Ang1, originating largely from periendothelial cells (pericytes and smooth muscle cells), maintains Tie2 activation and vascular stability. In diseased vessels (right), as in the diabetic retina, Ang2 and VE-PTP are increased, leading to Tie2 inactivation and destabilized vasculature predisposed to vascular leakage and pathologic angiogenesis.


Restoration of Tie2 activity (Figure 2) could directly address the pathophysiology of DR by enhancing endothelial survival and function and improving vascular stability.28

Figure 2. Three months of subcutaneous AKB-9778 treatment associated with ≥2-step improvement in DRSS in both study eye and fellow eye. RBZ = ranibizumab (Lucentis; Genentech/Roche).

Tie2 Activation Via VE-PTP Inhibition

AKB-9778 (Aerpio Therapeutics) is a small molecule that inhibits the intracellular catalytic domain of VE-PTP (Figure 2). It is being developed as a novel subcutaneous therapy for the treatment of DR. This approach is based on the discovery that inhibition of VE-PTP enhances Tie2 activation and signaling.29-31 AKB-9778 has shown beneficial effects in multiple preclinical models of retinopathy.30

In phase 1b and 2a clinical studies of AKB-9778 administered subcutaneously at 15 mg BID for up to 3 months, the drug has been well tolerated, and there were no serious adverse events attributable to the drug.32,33 In the 3-month, phase 2a proof-of-concept study, TIME-2, the effect of AKB-9778 on DR was assessed in a prospective prespecified analysis in patients who had NPDR at baseline.33 Eligible eyes for the analysis had 7-field fundus photographs at baseline and end of treatment, and were not rescued during the treatment period. Eligibility criteria were met for 118/144 study eyes and 94/144 fellow eyes. The results provided evidence that 15 mg AKB-9778 dosed subcutaneously BID may reduce the severity of NPDR (Figure 3). When eyes were treated with AKB-9778 as monotherapy or in combination with Lucentis, the percentage of patients with ≥2-step improvement in diabetic retinopathy severity scale (DRSS) in the study eye was similar to that for study eyes treated with Lucentis alone. In fellow eyes treated with AKB-9778 as monotherapy, the percentage of patients with a ≥2-step improvement in DRSS was greater than that obtained in untreated fellow eyes of patients treated with Lucentis in the study eye.

Figure 3. Restoration of Tie2 activity by inhibition of VE-PTP with AKB-9778 or an antibody against Ang2.

These results are noteworthy given that current treatment of DR is largely limited to patients who have already developed sight-threatening conditions. The invasive nature of repeated IVT in one or often both eyes, as well as the associated complications and treatment burden, has led to suboptimal compliance and fewer injections in the real-world treatment of DME.34,35 These considerations make it unlikely that repeated IVT would be a sustainable treatment option in moderate/severe NPDR patients who generally have well-preserved VA and frequently have bilateral disease. Subcutaneous administration of AKB-9778 may afford the opportunity to address DR in both eyes without the need for an intravitreal injection and may be less of a treatment burden.

Tie2 Activation Via Ang2 Inhibition

Neutralization of Ang2 may also activate Tie2 by removing competition for Ang1 binding. There are currently 2 anti-Ang2 antibodies in clinical trials that are assessing the effect of combined suppression of VEGF and Ang2 vs suppression of VEGF alone in patients with DME. The BOULEVARD trial ( ID NCT02699450) is examining the efficacy of IVT injections every 4 weeks of 1.5 mg or 6 mg of RO6867461 (Genentech/Roche), a bispecific antibody that blocks VEGF-A and Ang2, compared to 0.3 mg Lucentis every 4 weeks. In the RUBY study ( ID NCT02712008), patients with DME are being randomized to receive 3 mg REGN910-3 (Regeneron), an anti-Ang2 antibody, combined with 2 mg Eylea, 6 mg REGN910-3 and 2 mg Eylea, or 2 mg Eylea. These studies will provide critical information about whether combined suppression of Ang2 and VEGF provides added benefits relative to suppression of VEGF alone in patients with DME.

VE-PTP Inhibition More Efficient Than Ang2 Neutralization in Activating Tie2

Current preclinical evidence suggests that VE-PTP inhibition might be a more efficient approach than Ang2 neutralization to restore Tie2 activation and vascular stability in the diabetic retina. AKB-9778 inhibition of VE-PTP is intracellular and its effects on Tie2 are downstream of the effects of Ang1 and Ang2 ligands. VE-PTP is upregulated under hypoxic conditions30 and acts as a final brake on Tie2 activation. This upregulation of VE-PTP provides resistance to activation of Tie2 by Ang1. Thus, an effective anti-Ang2 antibody may not restore normal Tie2 activity in the context of active VE-PTP (Figure 4). AKB-9778, by inhibiting VE-PTP, may restore normal Tie2 activity independent of the presence of Ang1 or Ang2 (Figure 4).30 Furthermore, VE-PTP inhibition enhances both Ang1-mediated Tie2 activation and the Tie2 agonist properties of Ang2.30,36

Figure 4. Inhibiting Ang2 theoretically allows for more efficient activation of Tie2 by Ang1 (A). Inhibiting Ang2 does not affect VE-PTP, the most downstream deactivator of Tie2; preclinical experiments have shown that this may leave the system in an Ang1-resistant state (B). Shen et al report that inhibiting VE-PTP with AKB-9778 overcomes this Ang1 resistance (C).30 Robust activation of Tie2 only occurs with AKB-9778 therapy and is irrespective of Ang1 or Ang2 levels (D).


The next breakthrough in the treatment of diabetic eye disease is likely to involve the prevention of DR progression, thereby reducing or eliminating the vision loss caused by DME and PDR. There is ample preclinical evidence that restoring Tie2 activation plays an important role in preventing vascular pathology in diabetic retinas prior to, as well as following, the onset of retinal ischemia. Clinical trials with anti-Ang2 antibodies in combination with VEGF inhibition in patients with DME are currently ongoing. Treatment with anti-Ang2 antibodies may prove to be sufficient to restore Tie2 activity and provide benefit in patients with DME. Unfortunately, like anti-VEGF monotherapy, their intravitreal mode of delivery is less suitable for the treatment of patients with NPDR without DME especially in the setting of good visual function and bilateral disease. The inhibition of VE-PTP by subcutaneous AKB-9778 may prove to be a more effective activator of Tie2, leading to improvement in DR. The subcutaneous route of administration treats both eyes and allows for patient self-administration at home, resulting in decreased treatment burden and a potentially more viable strategy for the treatment of NPDR. RP


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