Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Recently, CBS’s “60 Minutes” highlighted the story of Jennelle Stephenson, a brave young woman with sickle cell disease (SCD). Jennelle now appears potentially cured of this devastating condition, thanks to an experimental gene therapy being tested at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD. As groundbreaking as this research may be, it’s among a variety of innovative strategies now being tried to cure SCD and other genetic diseases that have long seemed out of reach.
One particularly exciting approach involves using gene editing to increase levels of fetal hemoglobin (HbF) in the red blood cells of people with SCD. Shortly after birth, babies usually stop producing HbF, and switch over to the adult form of hemoglobin. But rare individuals continue to make high levels of HbF throughout their lives. This is referred to as hereditary persistence of fetal hemoglobin (HPFH). (My own postdoctoral research in the early 1980s discovered some of the naturally occurring DNA mutations that lead to this condition.)
Individuals with HPFH are entirely healthy. Strikingly, rare individuals with SCD who also have HPFH have an extremely mild version of sickle cell disease—essentially the presence of significant quantities of HbF provides protection against sickling. So, researchers have been exploring ways to boost HbF in everyone with SCD—and gene editing may provide an effective, long-lasting way to do this.
Clinical trials of this approach are already underway. And new findings reported in Nature Medicine show it may be possible to make the desired edits even more efficiently, raising the possibility that a single infusion of gene-edited cells might be able to cure SCD .
Sickle cell disease is caused by a specific point mutation in a gene that codes for the beta chain of hemoglobin. People with just one copy of this mutation have sickle cell trait and are generally healthy. But those who inherit two mutant copies of this gene suffer lifelong consequences of the presence of this abnormal protein. Their red blood cells—normally flexible and donut-shaped—assume the sickled shape that gives SCD its name. The sickled cells clump together and stick in small blood vessels, resulting in severe pain, anemia, stroke, pulmonary hypertension, organ failure, and far too often, early death.
Eleven years ago, a team led by Vijay Sankaran and Stuart Orkin at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute discovered that a protein called BCL11A seemed to determine HbF levels . Subsequent work showed the protein actually works as a master mediator of the switch from fetal to adult hemoglobin, which normally occurs shortly after birth.
Five years ago, Orkin and Daniel Bauer identified a specific enhancer of BCL11A expression that could be an attractive target for gene editing . They could knock out the enhancer in the bone marrow, and BCL11A would not be produced, allowing HbF to stay switched on.
Because the BCL11A protein is required to turn off production of HbF in red cells. the researchers had another idea. They thought it might be possible to keep HbF on permanently by disrupting BCL11A in blood-forming hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs). The hope was that such a treatment might offer people with SCD a permanent supply of healthy red blood cells.
Fast-forward to the present, and researchers are now testing the ability of gene editing tools to cure the disease. A favorite editing system is CRISPR, which I’ve highlighted on my blog.
CRISPR is a highly precise gene-editing tool that relies on guide RNA molecules to direct a scissor-like Cas9 enzyme to just the right spot in the genome to correct the misspelling. The gene-editing treatment involves removing bone marrow from a patient, modifying the HSCs outside the body using CRISPR gene-editing tools, and then returning them back to the patient. Preclinical studies had shown that CRISPR can be effective in editing BCL11A to boost HbF production.
But questions lingered about the editing efficiency in HSCs versus more common, shorter-lived progenitor cells found in bone marrow samples. The efficiency greatly influences how long the edited cells might benefit patients. Bauer’s team saw room for improvement and, as the new study shows, they were right.
To produce lasting HbF production, it’s important to edit as many HSCs as possible. But it turns out that HSCs are more resistant to editing than other types of cells in bone marrow. With a series of adjustments to the gene-editing protocol, including use of an optimized version of the Cas9 protein, the researchers showed they could push the number of edited genes from about 80 percent to about 95 percent.
Their studies show that the most frequent Cas9 edits in HSCs are tiny insertions of a single DNA “letter.” With that slight edit to the BCL11A gene, HSCs reprogram themselves in a way that ensures long-term HbF production.
As a first test of their CRISPR-edited human HSCs, the researchers carried out the editing on HSCs derived from patients with SCD. Then they transferred the editing cells into immune-compromised mice. Four months later, the mice continued to produce red blood cells that produced high levels of HbF and resisted sickling. Bauer says they’re already taking steps to begin testing cells edited with their optimized protocol in a clinical trial.
What’s truly exciting is that the first U.S. human clinical trials of such a gene-editing approach for SCD are already underway, led by CRISPR Therapeutics/Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Sangamo Therapeutics/Sanofi. In January, CRISPR Therapeutics/Vertex Pharmaceuticals announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had granted Fast Track Designation for their CRISPR-based treatment called CTX001 .
In that recent “60 Minutes” segment, I dared to suggest that we now have what looks like a cure for SCD. As shown by this new work and the clinical trials underway, we in fact may soon have multiple different strategies to provide cures for this devastating disease. And if this can work for sickle cell, a similar strategy might work for other genetic conditions that currently lack any effective treatment.
 Highly efficient therapeutic gene editing of human hematopoietic stem cells. Wu Y, Zeng J, Roscoe BP, Liu P, Yao Q, Lazzarotto CR, Clement K, Cole MA, Luk K, Baricordi C, Shen AH, Ren C, Esrick EB, Manis JP, Dorfman DM, Williams DA, Biffi A, Brugnara C, Biasco L, Brendel C, Pinello L, Tsai SQ, Wolfe SA, Bauer DE. Nat Med. 2019 Mar 25.
 Human fetal hemoglobin expression is regulated by the developmental stage-specific repressor BCL11A. Sankaran VG, Menne TF, Xu J, Akie TE, Lettre G, Van Handel B, Mikkola HK, Hirschhorn JN, Cantor AB, Orkin SH.Science. 2008 Dec 19;322(5909):1839-1842.
 An erythroid enhancer of BCL11A subject to genetic variation determines fetal hemoglobin level. Bauer DE, Kamran SC, Lessard S, Xu J, Fujiwara Y, Lin C, Shao Z, Canver MC, Smith EC, Pinello L, Sabo PJ, Vierstra J, Voit RA, Yuan GC, Porteus MH, Stamatoyannopoulos JA, Lettre G, Orkin SH. Science. 2013 Oct 11;342(6155):253-257.
 CRISPR Therapeutics and Vertex Announce FDA Fast Track Designation for CTX001 for the Treatment of Sickle Cell Disease, CRISPR Therapeutics News Release, Jan. 4, 2019.
Sickle Cell Disease (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)
Cure Sickle Cell Initiative (NHLBI)
What are Genome Editing and CRISPR-Cas9? (National Library of Medicine/NIH)
Could Gene Therapy Cure Sickle Cell Anemia? (CBS News)
Daniel Bauer (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston)
Somatic Cell Genome Editing Program (Common Fund/NIH)
NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Researchers are making tremendous strides toward developing better ways to reduce our risk of getting the flu. And one of the latest ideas for foiling the flu—a “gene mist” that could be sprayed into the nose—comes from a most surprising source: llamas.
Like humans and many other creatures, these fuzzy South American relatives of the camel produce immune molecules, called antibodies, in their blood when exposed to viruses and other foreign substances. Researchers speculated that because the llama’s antibodies are so much smaller than human antibodies, they might be easier to use therapeutically in fending off a wide range of flu viruses. This idea is now being leveraged to design a new type of gene therapy that may someday provide humans with broader protection against the flu .
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year! Hope your 2018 is off to a great start.
Over the holidays, the journal Science published its annual, end-of-the-year list of research breakthroughs, from anthropology to zoology. I always look forward to seeing the list and reflecting on some of the stunning advances reported in the past 12 months. Last year was no exception. Science’s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year, as chosen by its editors, was in the field of astrophysics. Scientists were able to witness the effects of the collision of two neutron stars—large stars with collapsed inner cores—smacking into each other 130 million light years away. How cool is that!
Numbered prominently among the nine other breakthroughs were five from biomedicine: gene therapy, gene editing, cancer immunotherapy, cryo-EM, and biology preprints. All involved varying degrees of NIH support, and all drew great interest from readers. In fact, three of the top four vote-getters in the “People’s Choice” category came from biomedicine. That includes the People’s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year: gene therapy success. And so, in what has become a Director’s Blog tradition, I’ll kick off our new year of posts by taking a closer look at these biomedical breakthroughs—starting with the little girl in the collage above, and moving clockwise around the images:
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
More than a decade ago, the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) launched a special project to accelerate the translation of basic scientific discoveries into new treatments for a rare and often fatal disease. Five-year-old Faith Fortenberry whom you see above is among the kids who may benefit from the success of this pioneering endeavor.
Faith was born with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a hereditary neurodegenerative disease that can affect movement, breathing, and swallowing. When the NIH project began, there was no treatment for SMA, but researchers had discovered that mutations in the SMN1 gene were responsible for the disorder. Such mutations cause a deficiency of SMN protein, leading to degeneration of neurons in the brain and spinal cord, and progressive muscle weakness throughout the body. The NIH effort supported research to discover ways of raising SMN levels in cells grown in lab dishes, and then worked closely with patient advocates and pharmaceutical companies to move the most promising leads into drug development and clinical testing.
Given the desperate need for SMA treatments and all of the scientific energy that’s been devoted to pursuing them, I’ve been following this field closely. So, I was very encouraged to learn recently about the promising results of human tests of not just one—but two—new treatments for SMA [1, 2].
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Tremendous progress continues to be made against the Emperor of All Maladies, cancer. One of the most exciting areas of progress involves immunotherapy, a treatment strategy that harnesses the natural ability of the body’s own immune cells to attack and kill tumor cells. A lot of extremely hard work has gone into this research, so I was thrilled to learn that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just announced today its first approval of a promising type of immunotherapy called CAR-T cell therapy for kids and young adults with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)—the most common childhood cancer in the U.S.
ALL is a cancer of white blood cells called lymphocytes. Its treatment with chemotherapy drugs, developed with NIH support, has transformed ALL’s prognosis in kids from often fatal to largely treatable: about 90 percent of young patients now recover. But for those for whom the treatment fails, the prognosis is grim.
In the spring of 2012, Emily Whitehead of Philipsburg, PA was one such patient. The little girl was deathly ill, and her parents were worried they’d run out of options. That’s when doctors at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia gave Emily and her parents new hope. Carl June and his team had successfully treated three adults with their version of CAR-T cell therapy, which is grounded in initial basic research supported by NIH [1,2]. Moving forward with additional clinical tests, they treated Emily—their first pediatric patient—that April. For a while, it was touch and go, and Emily almost died. But by May 2012, her cancer was in remission. Today, five years later, 12-year-old Emily remains cancer free and is thriving. And I’ve had the great privilege of getting to know Emily and her parents over the last few years.