Systems Therapeutics: Diagram, Definitions and Illustrative Examples

Executive Summary

Systems therapeutics defines where pharmacologic processes and pathophysiologic processes interact to produce a clinical therapeutic response. A systems therapeutics diagram has been constructed, consisting of two rows of four parallel systems components for pharmacologic and pathophysiologic processes, representing the four different biologic levels of interactions between these two processes, i.e., at the molecular level, the cellular level, the tissue/organ levels, and finally the clinical level. These different levels of interactions then determine four different systems therapeutics categories. Illustrative examples of these four different systems therapeutics categories are provided, as well as a glossary of the systems components. The systems therapeutics diagram further suggests that the wide interpatient variability in therapeutic response characteristics to approved drugs is contributed to by variabilities in both of these two processes. It is hoped that the systems therapeutics framework advanced here will promote discussions regarding the need for better understanding of the determinants of therapeutic response characteristics of modern therapeutics. 

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Systems Therapeutics Diagram
  • Systems Therapeutics Categories
  • Systems Therapeutics Illustrative Examples
  • Discussion
  • References
  • Glossary

Introduction

While a large number of new drugs have been approved by regulatory agencies over the past several decades, and we have witnessed significant scientific advances in molecular understanding of pharmacologic mechanisms and disease processes, there have only been sporadic efforts towards the construction of frameworks for understanding how pharmacologic and pathophysiologic processes interact to produce therapeutic effects. One noteworthy effort was presented by Grahame-Smith & Aronson in the Oxford Textbook of Clinical Pharmacology and Drug Therapy, which describes the chain of events linking the pharmacologic effects of drugs to their clinical effects, including several examples (1). An earlier effort by this author on classification of drug action based on therapeutic effects  was published in 1996 (2). More recent efforts have included a comprehensive white paper on quantitative and systems pharmacology by Sorger et al. of the QSP Workshop Group, including recommendations (3).

The purpose of this paper is to provide an updated summary of a systems therapeutics framework, depicting pharmacologic and pathophysiologic processes separately, thus enabling the presentation of the different biologic levels of interactions between these two processes. This paper summarizes and updates five previous iterations on the systems therapeutics framework posted on the Therapeutics Research Institute’s website, TRI-institute.org, between April 2015 and February 2018 (4,5,6,7,8). During this period, this has included an evolving construction of a systems therapeutics diagram, four systems therapeutics categories, relevant definitions, and illustrative examples of the different categories, as well as a discussion of variabilities in pharmacologic and pathophysiologic processes.

Systems Therapeutics Diagram

Systems therapeutics defines where pharmacologic processes and pathophysiologic processes interact to produce a clinical therapeutic response (see diagram below; click for a larger diagram).

The organizing principle underlying the systems therapeutics diagram presented above involves two rows of four parallel systems components for pharmacologic and pathophysiologic processes, representing the four different biologic levels of interactions between these two processes, i.e., at the molecular level, the cellular level, the tissue/organ levels, and finally the clinical level. The systems components for pharmacologic processes start with a pharmacologic response element, followed by a pharmacologic mechanism, a pharmacologic response, and a clinical effect, whereas the systems components for pathophysiologic processes start with an etiologic causative factor, followed by a pathogenic pathway, a pathophysiologic process, and a disease manifestation. The four different biologic levels of interactions between these two processes then determine the four systems therapeutics categories, i.e., Category I (at the molecular level), Category II (at the cellular level), Category III (at the tissue/organ level), and Category IV (at the clinical level), as previously outlined (4). Brief descriptions of the individual systems therapeutics components are provided in the glossary below, including examples for each component.

Both of these two processes are initiated by their own sets of initiators or drivers, i.e., a pharmacologic agent and an intrinsic operator, for the pharmacologic and pathophysiologic processes, respectively. On the pharmacologic process side, a pharmacologic agent, interacting with a pharmacologic response element, and its concentration or exposure, is the fundamental driver of pharmacologic processes. On the pathophysiologic process side, a hypothetical intrinsic operator is proposed as an integral systems component interacting with and influencing an etiologic causative factor, and serving as a driver of pathophysiologic processes. This hypothetical intrinsic operator is intended to cover different biologic entities being identified using advanced bioinformatics and network-based approached, as previously discussed (5,6).

The culminating result of the interaction between these two processes, independent of the biologic level of interaction, involves a clinical therapeutic response. While it is well recognized that there is a wide variability in the clinical therapeutic response of individual patients to a given approved drug (9,10), it is less well recognized that both of these two processes, pharmacologic and pathophysiologic, have their inherent variabilities. This systems therapeutics construct thus further suggests that interpatient variabilities in both of these active processes contribute to and thus are co-determinants of the ultimate patient therapeutic response characteristics, including range and extent of response, response variability, and responder rate. Presently, however, the relative contributions of each of these process variabilities to the ultimate therapeutic response are typically unclear, most significantly due to limited availability of data and methods, and are likely to vary from one therapeutic class to another. A general commentary (5) discussed variabilities in pharmacologic processes (pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics) and pathophysiologic processes (disease initiation and disease progression).

Systems Therapeutics Categories

The systems therapeutics diagram presented here lends itself to determine four systems therapeutics categories, corresponding to the four different biologic levels of interactions between pharmacologic processes and pathophysiologic processes, as follows:

  • Category I – Molecular Level: Elements/Factors
  • Category II – Cellular Level: Mechanisms/Pathways
  • Category III – Tissue/Organ Level: Responses/Processes
  • Category IV – Clinical level: Effects/Manifestations

A further description of each of these systems therapeutics categories is provided below, including definitions and examples of pharmacologic classes and approved drugs for each.

Category I – Molecular Level: Elements/Factors

Definition – The pivotal interaction between pharmacologic processes and pathophysiologic processes involves the primary corresponding molecular entities, the pharmacologic response element and the etiologic causative factor, respectively.

Examples of Molecular-based Therapy – These can involve replacement therapies (hormones, enzymes, proteins, genes) or genome-based therapies (interference with altered gene products):

  • Enzyme replacement therapy, e.g., Elaprase (idursulfase) for Hunter Syndrome
  • Protein replacement therapy, e.g., Recombinate (recombinant Factor VIII) for Hemophilia A
  • Potentiation of defective protein, e.g., Kalydeco (ivacaftor) for Cystic Fibrosis
  • Inhibition of abnormal enzyme, e.g., Gleevec (imatinib) for Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML)

Category II – Cellular Level: Mechanisms/Pathways

Definition – The pivotal interaction between pharmacologic processes and pathophysiologic processes involves a fundamental biochemical mechanism, related to the disease evolution, although not necessarily an etiologic pathway.

Examples of Metabolism-based Therapy – These can involve metabolism-based therapies (interference with a biochemical mechanism or a disease network-linked pathway):

  • HMG-CoA Reductase Inhibitors (statins), e.g., Lipitor (atorvastatin) for Hypercholesterolemia
  • TNF-a Inhibitors, e.g., Humira (adalimumab) for Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Proton Pump Inhibitors, e.g., Nexium (esomeprazole) for Gastric Reflux & Ulcer Disease

Category III – Tissue/Organ Level: Responses/Processes

Definition – The pivotal interaction between pharmacologic processes and pathophysiologic processes involves a modulation of a (normal) physiologic function, linked to the disease evolution, although not necessarily an etiologic pathway.

Examples of Function-based Therapy – These can involve function-based therapies (modulation of a (normal) physiologic function or activity):

  • Angiotensin II Blockers, e.g., Avapro (irbesartan) for Hypertension
  • PDE-5 Inhibitors, e.g., Cialis (tadalafil) for Male Erectile Dysfunction
  • Factor Xa Inhibitors, e.g., Eliquis (apixaban) for Thrombosis

Category IV – Clinical Level: Effects/Manifestations

Definition – The pivotal interaction between pharmacologic processes and pathophysiologic processes involves an effect directed at clinical symptom(s) of a disease, but not directly its cause or etiology.

Examples of Symptom-based Therapy – These can involve symptom-based therapies (various symptomatic or palliative treatments):

  • Antipyretics, e.g., Tylenol (acetaminophen) for lowering high body temperature
  • Analgesics, e.g., Advil (ibuprofen) for Osteoarthritis 
  • Antitussives, e.g., Delsym (dextromethorphan) for cough suppression

Systems Therapeutics Illustrative Examples

Below are illustrative examples for each of the four systems therapeutics categories. The charts follows the design of the systems therapeutics diagram discussed above. The pivotal connection between pharmacologic and pathophysiologic processes represents the fundamental or primary interaction between these processes (represented by a fat arrow), thus determining the systems therapeutics category; these are followed by dependent or secondary connections to the right (represented by thin arrows). The descriptions for the individual systems components were generated from generally available textbooks of pharmacology, pathophysiology and medicine, and other sources, but with an emphasis on a separation of pharmacologic and pathophysiologic concepts and processes, culminating in a therapeutic response.

Illustrative Example for Category I:

Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator (CFTR) Modulator for Cystic Fibrosis.
See diagram below; click for a larger diagram.

Illustrative Example for Category II:

Proton Pump Inhibitors for Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) and Peptic Ulcer Disease (PUD)
See diagram below; click for a larger diagram.

Illustrative Example for Category III:

Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme (ACE) Inhibitors for Hypertension
See diagram below; click for a larger diagram.

Illustrative Example for Category IV:

Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Agents (NSAIDs) for Osteoarthritis
See diagram below; click for a larger diagram.

Discussion

The systems therapeutics diagram has been constructed with the goal of serving to facilitate better understanding and discussion of the different types of successful therapies involving approved drugs. Importantly, this framework shows the pharmacologic processes and the pathophysiologic processes separately, rather than exhibiting a singular pharmacotherapeutic process, and thus illustrating at what biologic level the pharmacologic and pathophysiologic processes interact to result in a therapeutic response. The illustrative examples presented for the four different systems therapeutics categories offer descriptions of the two progressing processes in a storyboard-like fashion, highlighting at what biology level the pivotal interaction occurs between these two processes. 

In addition to the systems components for pharmacologic processes and pathophysiologic processes are the two initiators or drivers of these two processes, one actual (pharmacologic agent), the other hypothetical (intrinsic operator). The former driver is well recognized, including its concentration or exposure, while the rationale for the latter is based on recent bioinformatics and network-based approaches indicating that disease initiation can involve interactions between genetic and non-genetic components, although major research efforts are needed to elucidate the nature of these interactions (5,11). Also, one can speculate that the wide range in the age of disease onset for different diseases, from first year of life to late in life, does suggest unrecognized driving factors acting on an etiologic causative factor. At the present time, however, we are not aware of any current pharmacologic agent/mechanism interacting with such a hypothetical intrinsic operator (which when identified could be represented as systems therapeutics Category Zero). 

It is our hope that the systems therapeutics framework advanced here will help stimulate research towards better understanding of the relationships between the biologic levels of interactions between pharmacologic and pathophysiologic processes on one hand and the therapeutic response characteristics of modern therapeutics on the other. It has previously been noted that although this systems-based framework does not explicitly address interpatient variability in therapeutic response, this framework clearly suggests that variabilities in pharmacologic processes and pathophysiologic processes both contribute to the overall variability in therapeutic response. We further hope that this framework will stimulate research towards better qualitative and quantitative descriptions of the pharmacologic and pathophysiologic processes, including ways of defining the relative contributions of these two processes towards determining the overall therapeutic response characteristics.

References

  1. Grahame-Smith DG, Aronson JK (1992). Oxford Textbook of Clinical Pharmacology and Drug Therapy, Oxford University Press, Oxford (Chapter 5. The Therapeutic Process, pp. 55-66).
  2. Bjornsson TD (1996). A classification of drug action based on therapeutic effects. J. Clin. Pharmacol., 36:669-673.
  3. Sorger PK, Allerheiligen SRB, Abernethy DR, et al. (2011). Quantitative and systems pharmacology in the post-genomic era: New approaches to discovering drugs and understanding therapeutic mechanisms. An NIH white paper by the QSP workshop group. Bethesda: NIH (pp. 1-47).
  4. Therapeutics Research Institute. Systems Therapeutics: A Diagram and Four Categories, April 2015. http://tri-institute.org/niDFW
  5. Therapeutics Research Institute. Systems Therapeutics: Variabilities, May 2016. http://tri-institute.org/TyQij
  6. Therapeutics Research Institute. Systems Therapeutics: Updated Diagram, October 2016. http://tri-institute.org/S2j9D
  7. Therapeutics Research Institute. Systems Therapeutics: Where Pharmacologic and Pathophysiologic Processes Interact, February 2017. http://tri-institute.org/9sPlA
  8. Therapeutics Research Institute. Systems Therapeutics: Representative Illustrative Example for Category II. March 2018. http://tri-institute.org/nehUV
  9. Rowland M, Tozer TN (2011). Clinical Pharmacokinetics and Pharmacodynamics: Concepts and Applications, Fourth edition, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia (Chapter 12, Variability, pp. 333-356).
  10. Eichler HG, Abadie E, Breckenridge A, Flamion B, Gustafsson LL, Leufkens H, Rowland M, Schneider CK, Bloechl-Daum B (2011). Bridging the efficacy-effectiveness gap: a regulator’s perspective on addressing variability of drug response. Nat. Rev. Drug Disc., 10:495-506.
  11. Barabasi AL, Gulbahce N, Loscalzo J (2011). Network medicine: a network-based approach to human disease. Nat. Rev. Genetics, 12:56-68

Glossary

Below is a glossary of the individual systems components for the pharmacologic and pathophysiologic processes represented in the systems therapeutics diagram presented above. Examples for each systems component are from among approved treatments and diseases that have previously been addressed in individual posts on the Therapeutics Research Institute’s website, TRI-institute.org.  

Pharmacologic Processes

Pharmacologic Agent 
A compound, could be a small molecule or a large bio-pharmaceutical, that initiates the pharmacologic process by interacting with a pharmacologic response element.

Examples:
   Nexium (esomeprazole), and
   Viagra (sildenafil)

Pharmacologic Response Element
A native biologic element, could be a receptor or an enzyme, with which a pharmacologic agent interacts (pharmacologic interaction). Commonly referred to as a pharmacologic target.

Examples:
   H+/K+ ATPase (proton pump); and
   cGMP-specific phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5).

Pharmacologic Mechanism
Molecular mechanism of action, typically involving a molecular pathway resulting in a biochemical reaction (signal transduction).

Examples:
   Inhibition of proton pump (for Acid Reflux and Ulcer Disease); and
   Inhibition of PDE5 (for Male Erectile Dysfunction).

Pharmacologic Response
Pharmacologic effect at the tissue/organ level mediated through a pharmacologic mechanism (pharmacodynamics).

Examples:
   Decreased gastric acid secretion resulting in decreased acidity (by proton pump inhibitor); and
   Smooth muscle relaxation in corpus cavernosum leading to increased blood flow (by PDE5 inhibitor).

Clinical Effect
A pharmacologic effect at the clinical level, which represents the pharmacologic basis for a therapeutic response (translation).

Examples:
   Decreased symptoms from gastric acidity (by proton pump inhibitor); and
   Increased erection (by PDE5 inhibitor).

Pathophysiologic Processes

Intrinsic Operator
A hypothetical entity interacting with and influencing an etiologic causative factor, serving as a driver of a pathophysiologic process. Could be genetic or non-genetic.

Examples:
   Currently typically not known 

Etiologic Causative Factor
A genetic or non-genetic factor, upon interaction with an intrinsic operator (disease preindication), determines a disease specific progression.

Examples:
   Dihydrotestosterone (DHT)-induced growth factors and their receptors (in Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia); and
   Post-menopausal and age-related osteoporosis is initiated by a developing imbalance between net bone formation and resorption (in Osteoporosis).

Pathogenic Pathway
Molecular pathogenic pathway mediating ongoing disease progression (disease initiation).

Examples:
   DHT-induced growth factors stimulate proliferation of stromal cells (in Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia); and
   The normally regulated bone remodeling process is modulated by numerous systemic factors (in Osteoporosis)

Pathophysiologic Process
Ongoing pathophysiologic process (pathogenesis).

Examples:
   Formation of  discrete hyperplastic nodules in periurethral region (in Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia); and
   Gradual and continuing loss of bone mineral density, decreased bone quality, with increased risk of fracture (in Osteoporosis)

Disease Manifestation
Development of characteristic clinical signs and symptoms associated with a given disease (progression), typically independent of a specific etiologic causative factor.

Examples:
   Lower urinary tract symptoms (in Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia); and
   Loss of bone mineral density and risk of bone fracture (in Osteoporosis).

Therapeutic Response
Therapeutic benefit of a drug on which approval is based, showing a beneficial change in specific objective and/or subjective measures of a disease.

Examples:
   Symptom relief and mucosal healing (e.g., after proton pump nhibitors in Acid Reflux and Ulcer Disease)
   Improved erection (e.g., after PDE5 inhibitors in Male Erectile Dysfunction)
   Decreased urinary frequency (e.g., after 5-alpha reductase inhibitors in Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia)
   Decreased bone fractures (e.g., after bisphosphonates in Osteoporosis)