Rare diseases aren’t so rare. Collectively, up to 30 million Americans, many of them children, are born with one of the approximately 7,000 known rare diseases. Most of these millions of people also share a common genetic feature: their diseases are caused by an alteration in a single gene.
Many of these alterations could theoretically be targeted with therapies designed to correct or replace the faulty gene. But there have been significant obstacles in realizing this dream. The science of gene therapy has been making real progress, but pursuing promising approaches all the way to clinical trials and gaining approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still very difficult. Another challenge is economic: for the rarest of these conditions (which is most of them), the market is so small that most companies have no financial incentive to pursue them.
To overcome these obstacles and provide hope for those with rare diseases, we need a new way of doing things. One way to do things differently—and more efficiently—is the recently launched Bespoke Gene Therapy Consortium (BGTC). It is a bold partnership of NIH, the FDA, 10 pharmaceutical companies, several non-profit organizations, and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health . Its aim: optimize the gene therapy development process and help fill the significant unmet medical needs of people with rare diseases.
The BGTC, which is also part of NIH’s Accelerating Medicines Partnership® (AMP®), will enable the easier, faster, and cheaper pursuit of “bespoke” gene therapies, meaning made for a particular customer or user. The goal of the Consortium is to reduce the cost of gene therapy protocols and increase the likelihood of success, making it more attractive for companies to invest in rare diseases and bring treatments to patients who desperately need them.
Fortunately, there is already some precedent. The BGTC effort builds on a pilot project led by NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) known as Platform Vector Gene Therapy (PaVe-GT). This pilot project has helped to develop adeno-associated viruses (AAVs), which are small benign viruses engineered in the lab to carry a therapeutic gene. They are commonly used in gene therapy-related clinical trials of rare diseases.
Since the launch of PaVe-GT two years ago, the project has helped to introduce greater efficiency to gene therapy trials for rare disease. It’s also offered a way to get around the standard one-disease-at-a-time approach to therapeutic development that has stymied progress in treating rare conditions.
The BGTC will now continue to advance in-depth understanding of basic AAV biology and develop better gene therapies for rare and also common diseases. The consortium aims to develop a standard set of analytic tests to improve the production and functional assessment of AAVs and therapeutic genes. Such tests will be broadly applicable and will bring the needed manufacturing efficiency required for developing gene therapies for very rare conditions.
The BGTC also will work toward bringing therapies sooner to individuals in need. To start, BGTC-funded research will support four to six clinical trials, each focused on a distinct rare disease. While the details haven’t yet been decided, these diseases are expected to be rare, single-gene diseases that lack gene therapies or commercial programs in development, despite having substantial groundwork in place to enable the rapid initiation of preclinical and clinical studies.
Through these trials, the BGTC will chart a path from studies in animal models of disease to human clinical trials that cuts years off the development process. This will include exploring methods to streamline regulatory requirements and processes for FDA approval of safe and effective gene therapies, including developing standardized approaches to preclinical testing.
This work promises to be a significant investment in helping people with rare diseases. The NIH and private partners will contribute approximately $76 million over five years to support BGTC-funded projects. This includes about $39.5 million from the participating NIH institutes and centers, pending availability of funds. The NCATS, which is NIH’s lead for BGTC, is expected to contribute approximately $8 million over five years.
Today, only two rare inherited conditions have FDA-approved gene therapies. The hope is this investment will raise that number and ultimately reduce the many significant challenges, including health care costs, faced by families that have a loved one with a rare disease. In fact, a recent study found that health care costs for people with a rare disease are three to five times greater than those for people without a rare disease . These families need help, and BGTC offers an encouraging new way forward for them.
NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; National Eye Institute; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research; National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders; and NIH’s BRAIN Initiative.
Amid all the progress toward ending the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worth remembering that researchers here and around the world continue to make important advances in tackling many other serious health conditions. As an inspiring NIH-supported example, I’d like to share an advance on the use of gene therapy for treating genetic diseases that progressively degenerate muscle, such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD).
As published recently in the journal Cell, researchers have developed a promising approach to deliver therapeutic genes and gene editing tools to muscle more efficiently, thus requiring lower doses . In animal studies, the new approach has targeted muscle far more effectively than existing strategies. It offers an exciting way forward to reduce unwanted side effects from off-target delivery, which has hampered the development of gene therapy for many conditions.
In boys born with DMD (it’s an X-linked disease and therefore affects males), skeletal and heart muscles progressively weaken due to mutations in a gene encoding a critical muscle protein called dystrophin. By age 10, most boys require a wheelchair. Sadly, their life expectancy remains less than 30 years.
The hope is gene therapies will one day treat or even cure DMD and allow people with the disease to live longer, high-quality lives. Unfortunately, the benign adeno-associated viruses (AAVs) traditionally used to deliver the healthy intact dystrophin gene into cells mostly end up in the liver—not in muscles. It’s also the case for gene therapy of many other muscle-wasting genetic diseases.
The heavy dose of viral vector to the liver is not without concern. Recently and tragically, there have been deaths in a high-dose AAV gene therapy trial for X-linked myotubular myopathy (XLMTM), a different disorder of skeletal muscle in which there may already be underlying liver disease, potentially increasing susceptibility to toxicity.
To correct this concerning routing error, researchers led by Mohammadsharif Tabebordbar in the lab of Pardis Sabeti, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, have now assembled an optimized collection of AAVs. They have been refined to be about 10 times better at reaching muscle fibers than those now used in laboratory studies and clinical trials. In fact, researchers call them myotube AAVs, or MyoAAVs.
MyoAAVs can deliver therapeutic genes to muscle at much lower doses—up to 250 times lower than what’s needed with traditional AAVs. While this approach hasn’t yet been tried in people, animal studies show that MyoAAVs also largely avoid the liver, raising the prospect for more effective gene therapies without the risk of liver damage and other serious side effects.
In the Cell paper, the researchers demonstrate how they generated MyoAAVs, starting out with the commonly used AAV9. Their goal was to modify the outer protein shell, or capsid, to create an AAV that would be much better at specifically targeting muscle. To do so, they turned to their capsid engineering platform known as, appropriately enough, DELIVER. It’s short for Directed Evolution of AAV capsids Leveraging In VivoExpression of transgene RNA.
Here’s how DELIVER works. The researchers generate millions of different AAV capsids by adding random strings of amino acids to the portion of the AAV9 capsid that binds to cells. They inject those modified AAVs into mice and then sequence the RNA from cells in muscle tissue throughout the body. The researchers want to identify AAVs that not only enter muscle cells but that also successfully deliver therapeutic genes into the nucleus to compensate for the damaged version of the gene.
This search delivered not just one AAV—it produced several related ones, all bearing a unique surface structure that enabled them specifically to target muscle cells. Then, in collaboration with Amy Wagers, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, the team tested their MyoAAV toolset in animal studies.
The first cargo, however, wasn’t a gene. It was the gene-editing system CRISPR-Cas9. The team found the MyoAAVs correctly delivered the gene-editing system to muscle cells and also repaired dysfunctional copies of the dystrophin gene better than the CRISPR cargo carried by conventional AAVs. Importantly, the muscles of MyoAAV-treated animals also showed greater strength and function.
Next, the researchers teamed up with Alan Beggs, Boston Children’s Hospital, and found that MyoAAV was effective in treating mouse models of XLMTM. This is the very condition mentioned above, in which very high dose gene therapy with a current AAV vector has led to tragic outcomes. XLMTM mice normally die in 10 weeks. But, after receiving MyoAAV carrying a corrective gene, all six mice had a normal lifespan. By comparison, mice treated in the same way with traditional AAV lived only up to 21 weeks of age. What’s more, the researchers used MyoAAV at a dose 100 times lower than that currently used in clinical trials.
While further study is needed before this approach can be tested in people, MyoAAV was also used to successfully introduce therapeutic genes into human cells in the lab. This suggests that the early success in animals might hold up in people. The approach also has promise for developing AAVs with potential for targeting other organs, thereby possibly providing treatment for a wide range of genetic conditions.
The new findings are the result of a decade of work from Tabebordbar, the study’s first author. His tireless work is also personal. His father has a rare genetic muscle disease that has put him in a wheelchair. With this latest advance, the hope is that the next generation of promising gene therapies might soon make its way to the clinic to help Tabebordbar’s father and so many other people.