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One Little Girl’s Story Highlights the Promise of Precision Medicine

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Photo of Dr. Yu taking a selfie with Mila and her mom
Caption: Mila with researcher Timothy Yu and her mother Julia Vitarello. Mila’s head is covered in gauze because she’s undergoing EEG monitoring to determine if her seizures are responding to treatment. Credit: Boston Children’s Hospital

Starting about the age of 3, Mila Makovec’s parents noticed that their young daughter was having a little trouble with words and one of her feet started turning inward. Much more alarmingly, she then began to lose vision and have frequent seizures. Doctors in Colorado diagnosed Mila with a form of Batten disease, a group of rare, rapidly progressive neurological disorders that are often fatal in childhood or the teenage years. Further testing in Boston revealed that Mila’s disease was caused by a genetic mutation that appears to be unique to her.

No treatment existed for Mila’s condition. So, in an effort to meet that urgent need, Timothy Yu and his colleagues at Boston Children’s Hospital set forth on a bold and unprecedented course of action. In less than a year, they designed a drug that targeted Mila’s unique mutation, started testing the tailor-made drug for efficacy and safety on cells derived from her skin, and then began giving Mila the drug in her own personal clinical trial.

The experimental drug, which has produced no adverse side effects to date, hasn’t proved to be a cure for Mila’s disease [1]. But it’s helped to reduce Mila’s seizures and also help her stand and walk with assistance, though she still has difficulty communicating. Still, the implications of this story extend far beyond one little girl: this work demonstrates the promise of precision medicine research for addressing the unique medical challenges faced by individuals with extremely rare diseases.

Mila’s form of Batten disease usually occurs when a child inherits a faulty copy of a gene called CLN7 from each parent. What surprised doctors is Mila seemed to have inherited just one bad copy of CLN7. Her mother reached out online in search of a lab willing to look deeper into her genome, and Yu’s lab answered the call.

Yu suspected Mila’s second mutation might lie buried in a noncoding portion of her DNA. The lab’s careful analysis determined that was indeed the case. The second mutation occurred in a stretch of the gene that normally doesn’t code for the CLN7 protein at all. Even more unusual, it consisted of a rogue snippet of DNA that had inserted itself into an intron (a spacer segment) of Mila’s CLN7 gene. As a result, her cells couldn’t properly process an RNA transcript that would produce the essential CLN7 protein.

What might have been the end of the story a few years ago was now just the beginning. In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a novel drug called nusinersen for a hereditary neurodegenerative disease called spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), caused by another faulty protein. As I’ve highlighted before, nusinersen isn’t a typical drug. It’s made up of a small, single-stranded snippet of synthetic RNA, also called an oligonucleotide. This drug is designed to bind to faulty RNA transcripts in just the right spot, “tricking” cells into producing a working version of the protein that’s missing in kids with SMA.

Yu’s team thought the same strategy might work to correct the error in Mila’s cells. They reasoned that an appropriately designed oligonucleotide could block the effect of the rogue snippet in her CLN7 gene, allowing her cells to restore production of working protein.

The team produced candidate oligonucleotides and tested them on Mila’s cells growing in a lab dish. They found three candidates that worked. The best, which they named milasen after Mila, was just 22-nucleotides long. They designed it to have some of the same structural attributes as nusinersen, given its established safety and efficacy in kids with SMA.

Further study suggested that milasen corrected abnormalities in Mila’s cells in a lab dish. The researchers then tested the drug in rats and found that it appeared to be safe.

A month later, with FDA approval, they delivered the drug to Mila, administered through a spinal tap (just like nusinersen). That’s because the blood-brain barrier would otherwise prevent the drug from reaching Mila’s brain. Beginning in January 2018, she received gradually escalating doses of milasen every two weeks for about three months. After that, she received a dose every two to three months to maintain the drug in her system.

When Mila received the first dose, her condition was rapidly deteriorating. But it has since stabilized. The number of seizures she suffers each day has declined from about 30 to 10 or less. Their duration has also declined from 1 or 2 minutes to just seconds.

Milasen remains an investigational drug. Because it was designed specifically for Mila’s unique mutation, it’s not a candidate for use in others with Batten disease. But the findings do show that it’s now possible to design, test, and deploy a novel therapeutic agent for an individual patient with an exceedingly rare condition on the basis of a thorough understanding of the underlying genetic cause. This is a sufficiently significant moment for the development of “n = 1 therapeutics” that senior leaders of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published an editorial to appear along with the clinical report [2].

Yu’s team suspects that a similar strategy might work in other cases of people with rare conditions. That tantalizing possibility raises many questions about how such individualized therapies should be developed, evaluated, and tested in the months and years ahead.

My own lab is engaged in testing a similar treatment strategy for kids with the very rare form of premature aging called Hutchinson-Gilford progeria, and we were heartened by this report. As we grapple with those challenges, we can all find hope and inspiration in Mila’s smile, her remarkable story, and what it portends for the future of precision medicine.

References:

[1] Patient-customized oligonucleotide therapy for a rare genetic disease. Kim J, Hu C, Moufawad El Achkar C, Black LE, Douville J, Larson A, Pendergast MK, Goldkind SF, Lee EA, Kuniholm A, Soucy A, Vaze J, Belur NR, Fredriksen K, Stojkovska I, Tsytsykova A, Armant M, DiDonato RL, Choi J, Cornelissen L, Pereira LM, Augustine EF, Genetti CA, Dies K, Barton B, Williams L, Goodlett BD, Riley BL, Pasternak A, Berry ER, Pflock KA, Chu S, Reed C, Tyndall K, Agrawal PB, Beggs AH, Grant PE, Urion DK, Snyder RO, Waisbren SE, Poduri A, Park PJ, Patterson A, Biffi A, Mazzulli JR, Bodamer O, Berde CB, Yu TW. N Engl J Med. 2019 Oct 9 [Epub ahead of print]

[2] Drug regulation in the era of individualized therapies. Woodcock J, Marks P. N Engl J Med. 2019 Oct 9 {Epub ahead of print]

Links:

Batten Disease Fact Sheet (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Mila’s Miracle Foundation (Boulder, CO)

Timothy Yu (Boston Children’s Hospital, MA)

NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences


Whole-Genome Sequencing Plus AI Yields Same-Day Genetic Diagnoses

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Sebastiana
Caption: Rapid whole-genome sequencing helped doctors diagnose Sebastiana Manuel with Ohtahara syndrome, a neurological condition that causes seizures. Her data are now being used as part of an effort to speed the diagnosis of other children born with unexplained illnesses. Credits: Getty Images (left); Jenny Siegwart (right).



Back in April 2003, when the international Human Genome Project successfully completed the first reference sequence of the human DNA blueprint, we were thrilled to have achieved that feat in just 13 years. Sure, the U.S. contribution to that first human reference sequence cost an estimated $400 million, but we knew (or at least we hoped) that the costs would come down quickly, and the speed would accelerate. How far we’ve come since then! A new study shows that whole genome sequencing—combined with artificial intelligence (AI)—can now be used to diagnose genetic diseases in seriously ill babies in less than 24 hours.

Take a moment to absorb this. I would submit that there is no other technology in the history of planet Earth that has experienced this degree of progress in speed and affordability. And, at the same time, DNA sequence technology has achieved spectacularly high levels of accuracy. The time-honored adage that you can only get two out of three for “faster, better, and cheaper” has been broken—all three have been dramatically enhanced by the advances of the last 16 years.

Rapid diagnosis is critical for infants born with mysterious conditions because it enables them to receive potentially life-saving interventions as soon as possible after birth. In a study in Science Translational Medicine, NIH-funded researchers describe development of a highly automated, genome-sequencing pipeline that’s capable of routinely delivering a diagnosis to anxious parents and health-care professionals dramatically earlier than typically has been possible [1].

While the cost of rapid DNA sequencing continues to fall, challenges remain in utilizing this valuable tool to make quick diagnostic decisions. In most clinical settings, the wait for whole-genome sequencing results still runs more than two weeks. Attempts to obtain faster results also have been labor intensive, requiring dedicated teams of experts to sift through the data, one sample at a time.

In the new study, a research team led by Stephen Kingsmore, Rady Children’s Institute for Genomic Medicine, San Diego, CA, describes a streamlined approach that accelerates every step in the process, making it possible to obtain whole-genome test results in a median time of about 20 hours and with much less manual labor. They propose that the system could deliver answers for 30 patients per week using a single genome sequencing instrument.

Here’s how it works: Instead of manually preparing blood samples, his team used special microbeads to isolate DNA much more rapidly with very little labor. The approach reduced the time for sample preparation from 10 hours to less than three. Then, using a state-of-the-art DNA sequencer, they sequence those samples to obtain good quality whole genome data in just 15.5 hours.

The next potentially time-consuming challenge is making sense of all that data. To speed up the analysis, Kingsmore’s team took advantage of a machine-learning system called MOON. The automated platform sifts through all the data using artificial intelligence to search for potentially disease-causing variants.

The researchers paired MOON with a clinical language processing system, which allowed them to extract relevant information from the child’s electronic health records within seconds. Teaming that patient-specific information with data on more than 13,000 known genetic diseases in the scientific literature, the machine-learning system could pick out a likely disease-causing mutation out of 4.5 million potential variants in an impressive 5 minutes or less!

To put the system to the test, the researchers first evaluated its ability to reach a correct diagnosis in a sample of 101 children with 105 previously diagnosed genetic diseases. In nearly every case, the automated diagnosis matched the opinions reached previously via the more lengthy and laborious manual interpretation of experts.

Next, the researchers tested the automated system in assisting diagnosis of seven seriously ill infants in the intensive care unit, and three previously diagnosed infants. They showed that their automated system could reach a diagnosis in less than 20 hours. That’s compared to the fastest manual approach, which typically took about 48 hours. The automated system also required about 90 percent less manpower.

The system nailed a rapid diagnosis for 3 of 7 infants without returning any false-positive results. Those diagnoses were made with an average time savings of more than 22 hours. In each case, the early diagnosis immediately influenced the treatment those children received. That’s key given that, for young children suffering from serious and unexplained symptoms such as seizures, metabolic abnormalities, or immunodeficiencies, time is of the essence.

Of course, artificial intelligence may never replace doctors and other healthcare providers. Kingsmore notes that 106 years after the invention of the autopilot, two pilots are still required to fly a commercial aircraft. Likewise, health care decisions based on genome interpretation also will continue to require the expertise of skilled physicians.

Still, such a rapid automated system will prove incredibly useful. For instance, this system can provide immediate provisional diagnosis, allowing the experts to focus their attention on more difficult unsolved cases or other needs. It may also prove useful in re-evaluating the evidence in the many cases in which manual interpretation by experts fails to provide an answer.

The automated system may also be useful for periodically reanalyzing data in the many cases that remain unsolved. Keeping up with such reanalysis is a particular challenge considering that researchers continue to discover hundreds of disease-associated genes and thousands of variants each and every year. The hope is that in the years ahead, the combination of whole genome sequencing, artificial intelligence, and expert care will make all the difference in the lives of many more seriously ill babies and their families.

Reference:

[1] Diagnosis of genetic diseases in seriously ill children by rapid whole-genome sequencing and automated phenotyping and interpretation. Clark MM, Hildreth A, Batalov S, Ding Y, Chowdhury S, Watkins K, Ellsworth K, Camp B, Kint CI, Yacoubian C, Farnaes L, Bainbridge MN, Beebe C, Braun JJA, Bray M, Carroll J, Cakici JA, Caylor SA, Clarke C, Creed MP, Friedman J, Frith A, Gain R, Gaughran M, George S, Gilmer S, Gleeson J, Gore J, Grunenwald H, Hovey RL, Janes ML, Lin K, McDonagh PD, McBride K, Mulrooney P, Nahas S, Oh D, Oriol A, Puckett L, Rady Z, Reese MG, Ryu J, Salz L, Sanford E, Stewart L, Sweeney N, Tokita M, Van Der Kraan L, White S, Wigby K, Williams B, Wong T, Wright MS, Yamada C, Schols P, Reynders J, Hall K, Dimmock D, Veeraraghavan N, Defay T, Kingsmore SF. Sci Transl Med. 2019 Apr 24;11(489).

Links:

DNA Sequencing Fact Sheet (National Human Genome Research Institute/NIH)

Genomics and Medicine (NHGRI/NIH)

Genetic and Rare Disease Information Center (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

Stephen Kingsmore (Rady Children’s Institute for Genomic Medicine, San Diego, CA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences


A CRISPR Approach to Treating Sickle Cell

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Unedited and edited sickle cells
Caption: Red blood cells from patient with sickle cell disease. The cells were differentiated from bone marrow with unedited and edited hematopoietic stem cells, and the red arrows show the sickled cells. Credit: Wu et al. Nature Medicine. March 25, 2019

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 [1].

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 [2]. 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 [3]. 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 [4].

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.

References:

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

Links:

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


More Progress Toward Gene Editing for Kids with Muscular Dystrophy

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Normal and treated muscles with DMD
Caption: Muscles of untreated mouse model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (left) compared to muscles of similar mice one year after gene-editing treatment (right). Dystrophin production (green) is restored in treated animals, despite therapy-related immune response to the Cas9 editing enzyme (dark spots in white inset). Credit: Charles Gersbach, Duke University, Durham, NC

Thanks to CRISPR and other gene editing technologies, hopes have never been greater for treating or even curing Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) and many other rare, genetic diseases that once seemed tragically out of reach. The latest encouraging news comes from a study in which a single infusion of a CRISPR editing system produced lasting benefits in a mouse model of DMD.

There currently is no way to cure DMD, an ultimately fatal disease that mainly affects boys. Caused by mutations in a gene that codes for a critical protein called dystrophin, DMD progressively weakens the skeletal and heart muscles. People with DMD are usually in wheelchairs by the age of 10, with most dying before the age of 30.

The exquisite targeting ability of CRISPR/Cas9 editing systems rely on a sequence-specific guide RNA to direct a scissor-like, bacterial enzyme (Cas9) to just the right spot in the genome, where it can be used to cut out, replace, or repair disease-causing mutations. In previous studies in mice and dogs, researchers directly infused CRISPR systems directly into the animals bodies. This “in vivo” approach to gene editing successfully restored production of functional dystrophin proteins, strengthening animals’ muscles within weeks of treatment.

But an important question remained: would CRISPR’s benefits persist over the long term? The answer in a mouse model of DMD appears to be “yes,” according to findings published recently in Nature Medicine by Charles Gersbach, Duke University, Durham, NC, and his colleagues [1]. Specifically, the NIH-funded team found that after mice with DMD received one infusion of a specially designed CRISPR/Cas9 system, the abnormal gene was edited in a way that restored dystrophin production in skeletal and heart muscles for more than a year. What’s more, lasting improvements were seen in the structure of the animals’ muscles throughout the same time period.

As exciting as these results may be, much more research is needed to explore both the safety and the efficacy of in vivo gene editing before it can be tried in humans with DMD. For instance, the researchers found that older mice that received the editing system developed an immune response to the bacterially-derived Cas9 protein. However, this response didn’t prevent the CRISPR/Cas9 system from doing its job or appear to cause any adverse effects. Interestingly, younger animals didn’t show such a response.

It’s worth noting that the immune systems of mice and people often respond quite differently. But the findings do highlight some possible challenges of such treatments, as well as approaches to reduce possible side effects. For instance, the latest findings suggest CRISPR/Cas9 treatment might best be done early in life, before an infant’s immune system is fully developed. Also, if it’s necessary to deliver CRISPR/Cas9 to older individuals, it may be beneficial to suppress the immune system temporarily.

Another concern about CRISPR technology is the potential for damaging, “off-target” edits to other parts of the genome. In the new work, the Duke team found that its CRISPR system made very few “off-target” edits. However, the system did make a surprising number of complex edits to the targeted dystrophin gene, including integration of the viral vector used to deliver Cas9. While those editing “errors” might reduce the efficacy of treatment, researchers said they didn’t appear to affect the health of the mice studied.

It’s important to emphasize that this gene editing research aimed at curing DMD is being done in non-reproductive (somatic) cells, primarily muscle tissue. The NIH does not support the use of gene editing technologies in human embryos or human reproductive (germline) cells, which would change the genetic makeup of future offspring.

As such, the Duke researchers’ CRISPR/Cas9 system is designed to work optimally in a range of muscle and muscle-progenitor cells. Still, they were able to detect editing of the dystrophin-producing gene in the liver, kidney, brain, and other tissues. Importantly, there was no evidence of edits in the germline cells of the mice. The researchers note that their CRISPR system can be reconfigured to limit gene editing to mature muscle cells, although that may reduce the treatment’s efficacy.

It’s truly encouraging to see that CRISPR gene editing may confer lasting benefits in an animal model of DMD, but a great many questions remain before trying this new approach in kids with DMD. But that time is coming—so let’s boldly go forth and get answers to those questions on behalf of all who are affected by this heartbreaking disease.

Reference:

[1] Long-term evaluation of AAV-CRISPR genome editing for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Nelson CE, Wu Y, Gemberling MP, Oliver ML, Waller MA, Bohning JD, Robinson-Hamm JN, Bulaklak K, Castellanos Rivera RM, Collier JH, Asokan A, Gersbach CA. Nat Med. 2019 Feb 18.

Links:

Muscular Dystrophy Information Page (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Gersbach Lab (Duke University, Durham, NC)

Somatic Cell Genome Editing (Common Fund/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering


Accelerating Cures in the Genomic Age: The Sickle Cell Example

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Sickle Cell Disease Symbol
Credit: Jill George, NIH

Forty-five years ago, when I was a first-year medical student, a lecturer introduced me to a young man with sickle cell disease (SCD). Sickle cell disease is the first “molecular disease”, with its cause having been identified decades ago. That helped me see the connection between the abstract concepts of molecular genetics and their real-world human consequences in a way no textbook could. In fact, it inspired some of my earliest research on human hemoglobin disorders, which I conducted as a postdoctoral fellow.

Today, I’m heartened to report that, thanks to decades of biomedical advances, we stand on the verge of a cure for SCD. While at the American Society of Hematology meeting in San Diego last week, I was excited to be part of a discussion about how the tools and technologies arising from the Human Genome Project are accelerating the quest for cures.

The good news at the meeting included some promising, early results from human clinical trials of SCD gene therapies, including new data from the NIH Clinical Center. Researchers also presented very encouraging pre-clinical work on how gene-editing technologies, such as CRISPR, can be used in ways that may open the door to curing everyone with SCD. In fact, just days before the meeting, the first clinical trial for a CRISPR approach to SCD opened.

One important note: the gene editing research aimed at curing SCD is being done in non-reproductive (somatic) cells. The NIH does not support the use of gene editing technologies in human embryos (germline). I recently reiterated our opposition to germline gene editing, in response to an unethical experiment by a researcher in China who claims to have used CRISPR editing on embryos to produce twin girls resistant to HIV.

SCD affects approximately 100,000 people in the United States, and another 20 million worldwide, mostly in developing nations. This inherited, potentially life-threatening disorder is caused by a specific point mutation in a gene that codes for the beta chain of hemoglobin, a molecule found in red blood cells that deliver oxygen throughout the body. In people with SCD, the mutant hemoglobin forms insoluble aggregates when de-oxygenated. As a result the red cells assume a sickle shape, rather than the usual donut shape. These sickled cells clump together and stick in small blood vessels, resulting in severe pain, blood cell destruction, anemia, stroke, pulmonary hypertension, organ failure, and much too often, early death.

The need for a widespread cure for SCD is great. Since 1998, doctors have used a drug called hydroxyurea to reduce symptoms, but it can cause serious side effects and increase the risk of certain cancers. Blood transfusions can also ease symptoms in certain instances, but they too come with risks and complications. At the present time, the only way to cure SCD is a bone marrow transplant. However, transplants are not an option for many patients due to lack of matched marrow donors.

The good news is that novel genetic approaches have raised hopes of a widespread cure for SCD, possibly even within five to 10 years. So, in September, NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute launched the Cure Sickle Cell Initiative to accelerate development of the most promising of these next generation of therapies

At the ASH meeting, that first wave of this progress was evident. A team led by NHLBI’s John Tisdale, in collaboration with Bluebird bio, Cambridge, MA, was among the groups that presented impressive early results from human clinical trials testing novel gene replacement therapies for SCD. In the NIH trial, researchers removed blood precursor cells, called hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), from a patient’s own bone marrow or bloodstream and used a harmless virus to insert a sickle-resistant hemoglobin gene. Then, after a chemotherapy infusion to condition the patient’s existing bone marrow, they returned the corrected cells to the patient.

So far, nine SCD patients have received the most advanced form of the experimental gene therapy, and Tisdale presented data on those who were farthest out from treatment [1,2]. His team found that in the four patients who were at least six months out, levels of gene therapy-derived hemoglobin were found to equal or exceed their levels of SCD hemoglobin.

Very cool science, but what does this mean for SCD patients’ health and well-being? Well, none of the gene therapy trial participants have required a blood transfusion during the follow-up period. In addition, improvements were seen in their hemoglobin levels and key markers of blood-cell destruction (total bilirubin concentration, lactate dehydrogenase, and reticulocyte counts) compared to baseline. Most importantly, in the years leading up to the clinical trial, all of the participants had experienced frequent painful sickle crises, in which sickled cells blocked their blood vessels. No such episodes were reported among the participants in the months after they received the gene therapy.

Researchers did report that one patient receiving this form of gene therapy developed myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a serious condition in which the blood-forming cells in the bone marrow become abnormal. However, there is no indication that the gene replacement technology itself caused the problem, and MDS has previously been linked to the chemotherapy drugs used in conditioning regimens before bone marrow transplants.

The NIH trial is just one of several clinical trials for SCD that are using viral vectors to deliver a variety of genes with therapeutic potential. Other trials actively recruiting are led by researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

While it’s hoped that genes inserted by viral vectors will provide long-lasting or curative treatment, other researchers are betting that new gene-editing technologies, such as CRISPR, will offer the best chance for developing a widespread cure for SCD. One strategy being eyed by these “gene editors” is to correct the SCD mutation, replacing it with a normal gene. Another strategy involves knocking out certain DNA sequences to reactivate production of fetal hemoglobin (HbF).

The HbF protein is produced in the developing fetus to give it better access to oxygen from the mother’s bloodstream. But shortly after birth, the production of fetal hemoglobin shuts down, and the adult form kicks in. Adults normally have very low levels of fetal hemoglobin, which makes sense. However, from genome-wide association studies of human genetic variation, we know that that actual levels of HbF are under genetic control.

A major factor has been mapped to the BCL11A gene, which has subsequently been found to be a master mediator for the fetal to adult hemoglobin switch. Specifically, variations in a red cell specific enhancer of BCL11A affect an adult’s level of HbF— levels of BCL11A protein lead to higher amounts of fetal hemoglobin. Furthermore, it’s been known for some time that rare individuals keep on producing relatively high levels of hemoglobin into adulthood. If people with SCD happen to have a rare mutation that keeps fetal hemoglobin production active in adulthood (the first of these was found as part of my postdoctoral research), their SCD symptoms are much less severe.

Currently, two groups—CRISPR Therapeutics/Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Sangamo Therapeutics/Bioverativ—are gearing up to begin the first U.S. human clinical trials of gene-editing for SCD within the next few months. While they employ different technologies, both approaches involve removing a patient’s HSCs, using gene editing to knock out the BCL11A red cell enhancer, and then returning the gene-edited cells to the patient. The hope is that the gene-edited cells will greatly boost fetal hemoglobin production, thereby offsetting the effects of SCD.

All of this is exciting news for the 100,000 people living in the United States who have SCD. But what about the 300,000 babies born with SCD every year in other parts of the world, mostly in low- and middle-income countries?

The complicated, high-tech procedures that I just described may not be practical for a very long time in places like sub-Saharan Africa. That’s one reason why NIH recently launched a new effort to speed the development of safe, effective genome-editing approaches that could be delivered directly into a patient’s body (in vivo), perhaps by infusion of the CRISPR gene editing apparatus. Recent preclinical experiments demonstrating the promise of in vivo gene editing for Duchenne muscular dystrophy make me optimistic that NIH’s Somatic Cell Genome Editing Program, which is hosting its first gathering of investigators this week, will be able to develop similar approaches for SCD and many other conditions.

While moving forward in this fast-paced field, it is important that we remain ethical, but also remain bold on behalf of the millions of patients with genetic diseases who are still waiting for a cure. We must continue to assess and address the very serious ethical concerns raised by germline gene editing of human embryos, which will irreversibly alter the DNA instruction book of future children and affect future generations. I continue to argue that we are not ready to undertake such experiments.

But the use of gene editing to treat, perhaps even to cure, children and adults with genetic diseases, by correcting the mutation in their relevant tissues (so-called somatic cell gene editing), without risk of passing those changes on to a future generation, holds enormous promise. Somatic cell gene editing is associated with ethical issues that are much more in line with decades of deep thinking about benefits and risks of therapeutic trials.

Finally, we must recognize that somatic cell gene editing is a profoundly promising approach not only for people with SCD, but for all who are struggling with the thousands of diseases that still have no treatments or cures. Real hope for cures has never been greater.

References:

[1] NIH researcher presents encouraging results for gene therapy for severe sickle cell disease. NIH News Release. December 4, 2018 

[2] Bluebird bio presents new data for LentiGlobin gene therapy in sickle cell disease at 60th annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. Bluebird bio. December 3, 2018 

Links:

Sickle Cell Disease (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

Cure Sickle Cell Initiative (NHLBI)

John Tisdale (NHLBI)

Somatic Cell Genome Editing Program (Common Fund/NIH)

What are genome editing and CRISPR-Cas9? (National Library of Medicine/NIH)

ClinicalTrials.gov (NIH) 

NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; Common Fund


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