Editor's Note: In the year 2000, Amber Salzman was a 39-year-old mom from Philadelphia living a normal life: working as a pharmaceutical executive, raising an infant son, and enjoying time with her family. But when tragedy struck in the form of a ticking time bomb in her son's DNA, she sprang into action. Her staggering triumphs after years of turmoil exemplify how parents today can play a crucial role in pushing science forward. This is her family's story, as told to LeapsMag's Editor-in-Chief Kira Peikoff.
For a few years, my nephew Oliver, suffered from symptoms that first appeared as attention deficit disorder and then progressed to what seemed like Asperger's, and he continued to worsen and lose abilities he once had. After repeated misdiagnoses, he was finally diagnosed at age 8 with adrenoleukodystrophy, or ALD – a degenerative brain disease that puts kids on the path toward death. We learned it was an X-linked disease, so we had to test other family members. Because Oliver had it, that meant his mother, my sister, was carrier, which meant I had a 50-50 chance of being a carrier, and if I was, then my son had a 50-50 chance of getting the bad gene.
You know how some people win prizes all the time? I don't have that kind of luck. I had a sick feeling when we drew my son's blood. It was almost late December in the year 2000. Spencer was 1 and climbing around like a monkey, starting to talk—a very rambunctious kid. He tested positive, along with Oliver's younger brother, Elliott.
"The only treatment at the time was an allogenic stem cell transplant from cord blood or bone marrow."
You can imagine the dreadful things that go through your mind. Everything was fine then, but he had a horrific chance that in about 3 or 4 years, a bomb would go off. It was so tough thinking that we were going to lose Oliver, and then Spencer and Elliott were next in line. The only treatment at the time was an allogenic stem cell transplant from cord blood or bone marrow, which required finding a perfect match in a donor and then undergoing months of excruciating treatment. The mortality rate can be as high as 40 percent. If your kid was lucky enough to find a donor, he would then be lucky to leave the hospital 100 days after a transplant with a highly fragile immune system.
At the time, I was at GlaxoSmithKline in Research and Development, so I did have a background in working with drug development and I was fortunate to report to the chairman of R&D, Tachi Yamada.
I called Tachi and said, "I need your advice, I have three or four years to find a cure. What do I do?" He did some research and said it's a monogenic disease—meaning it's caused by only one errant gene—so my best bet was gene therapy. This is an approach to treatment that involves taking a sample of the patient's own stem cells, treating them outside the body with a viral vector as a kind of Trojan Horse to deliver the corrected gene, and then infusing the solution back into the patient, in the hopes that the good gene will proliferate throughout the body and stop the disease in its tracks.
Tachi said to call his friend Jim Wilson, who was a leader in the field at UPenn.
Since I live in Philadelphia I drove to see Jim as soon as possible. What I didn't realize was how difficult a time it was. This was shortly after Jesse Gelsinger died in a clinical trial for gene therapy run by UPenn—the first death for the field—and research had abruptly stopped. But when I met with Jim, he provided a road map for what it would take to put together a gene therapy trial for ALD.
Meanwhile, in parallel, I was dealing with my son's health.
After he was diagnosed, we arranged a brain MRI to see if he had any early lesions, because the only way you can stop the disease is if you provide a bone marrow transplant before the disease evolves. Once it is in full force, you can't reverse it, like a locomotive that's gone wild.
"He didn't recover like other kids because his brain was not a normal brain; it was an ALD brain."
We found he had a brain tumor that had nothing to do with ALD. It was slow growing, and we would have never found it otherwise until it was much bigger and caused symptoms. Long story short, he ended up getting the tumor removed, and when he was healing, he didn't recover like other kids because his brain was not a normal brain; it was an ALD brain. We knew we needed a transplant soon, and the gene therapy trial was unfortunately still years away.
At the time, he was my only child, and I was thinking of having additional kids. But I didn't want to get pregnant with another ALD kid and I wanted a kid who could provide a bone marrow transplant for my son. So while my son was still OK, I went through 5 cycles of in vitro fertilization, a process in which hormone shots stimulated my ovaries to produce multiple eggs, which were then surgically extracted and fertilized in a lab with my husband's sperm. After the embryos grew in a dish for three to five days, doctors used a technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, screening those embryos to determine which genes they carry, in order to try to find a match for Spencer. Any embryo that had ALD, we saved for research. Any that did not have ALD but were not a match for Spencer, we put in the freezer. We didn't end up with a single one that was a match.
So he had a transplant at Duke Children's Hospital at age 2, using cord blood donated from a public bank. He had to be in the hospital a long time, infusing meds multiple times a day to prevent the donor cells from rejecting his body. We were all excited when he made it out after 100 days, but then we quickly had to go back for an infection he caught.
We were still bent on moving forward with the gene therapy trials.
Jim Wilson at Penn explained what proof of concept we needed in animals to go forward to humans, and a neurologist in Paris, Patrick Aubourg, had already done that using a vector to treat ALD mice. But he wasn't sure which vector to use in humans.
The next step was to get Patrick and a team of gene therapy experts together to talk about what they knew, and what needed to be done to get a trial started. There was a lot of talk about viral vectors. Because viruses efficiently transport their own genomes into the cells they infect, they can be useful tools for sending good genes into faulty cells. With some sophisticated tinkering, molecular biologists can neuter normally dangerous viruses to make them into delivery trucks, nothing more. The biggest challenge we faced then was: How do we get a viral vector that would be safe in humans?
Jim introduced us to Inder Verma, chair of the scientific advisory board of Cell Genesys, a gene therapy company in California that was focused on oncology. They were the closest to making a viral vector that could go into humans, based on a disabled form of HIV. When I spoke to Inder, he said, "Let's review the data, but you will need to convince the company to give you the vector." So I called the CEO and basically asked him, "Would you be willing to use the vector in this horrific disease?" I told him that our trial would be the fastest way to test their vector in humans. He said, "If you can convince my scientists this is ready to go, we will put the vector forward." Mind you, this was a multi-million-dollar commitment, pro bono.
I kept thinking every day, the clock is ticking, we've got to move quickly. But we convinced the scientists and got the vector.
Then, before we could test it, an unrelated clinical trial in gene therapy for a severe immunodeficiency disease, led to several of the kids developing leukemia in 2003. The press did a bad number and scared everyone away from the field, and the FDA put studies on hold in the U.S. That was one of those moments where I thought it was over. But we couldn't let it stop. Nothing's an obstacle, just a little bump we have to overcome.
Patrick wanted to do the study in France with the vector. This is where patient advocacy is important in providing perspective on the risks vs. benefits of undergoing an experimental treatment. What nobody seemed to realize was that the kids in the 2003 trial would have died if they were not first given the gene therapy, and luckily their leukemia was a treatable side effect.
Patrick and I refused to give up pushing for approval of the trial in France. Meanwhile, I was still at GSK, working full time, and doing this at night, nonstop. Because my day job did require travel to Europe, I would stop by Paris and meet with him. Another sister of mine who did not have any affected children was a key help and we kept everything going. You really need to continually stay engaged and press the agenda forward, since there are so many things that pop up that can derail the program.
Finally, Patrick was able to treat four boys with the donated vector. The science paper came out in 2009. It was a big deal. That's when the venture money came in—Third Rock Ventures was the first firm to put big money behind gene therapy. They did a deal with Patrick to get access to the Intellectual Property to advance the trial, brought on scientists to continue the study, and made some improvements to the vector. That's what led to the new study reported recently in the New England Journal of Medicine. Of 17 patients, 15 of them are still fine at least two years after treatment.
You know how I said we felt thrilled that my son could leave the hospital after 100 days? When doing the gene therapy treatment, the hospital stay needed is much quicker. Shortly after one kid was treated, a physician in the hospital remarked, "He is fine, he's only here because of the trial." Since you get your own cells, there is no risk of graft vs. host disease. The treatment is pretty anticlimactic: a bag of blood, intravenously infused. You can bounce back within a few weeks.
Now, a few years out, approximately 20 percent of patients' cells have been corrected—and that's enough to hold off the disease. That's what the data is showing. I was blown away when it worked in the first two patients.
The formerly struggling field is now making a dramatic comeback.
Now I run a company, Adverum Biotechnologies, that I wish existed back when my son was diagnosed, because I want people who are like me, coming to me, saying: "I have proof of concept in an animal, I need to get a vector suitable for human trials, do the work needed to file with the FDA, and move it into humans." Our company knows how to do that and would like to work with such patient advocates.
Often parents feel daunted to partake in similar efforts, telling me, "Well, you worked in pharma." Yes, I had advantages, but if you don't take no for an answer, people will help you. Everybody is one degree of separation from people who can help them. You don't need a science or business background. Just be motivated, ask for help, and have your heart in the right place.
Having said that, I don't want to sound judgmental of families who are completely paralyzed. When you get a diagnosis that your child is dying, it is hard to get out of bed in the morning and face life. My sister at a certain point had one child dying, one in the hospital getting a transplant, and a healthy younger child. To expect someone like that to at the same time be flying to an FDA meeting, it's hard. Yet, she made critical meetings, and she and her husband graciously made themselves available to talk to parents of recently diagnosed boys. But it is really tough and my heart goes out to anyone who has to live through such devastation.
Tragically, my nephew Oliver passed away 13 years ago at age 12. My other nephew was 8 when he had a cord blood transplant; our trial wasn't available yet. He had some bad graft vs. host disease and he is now navigating life using a wheelchair, but thank goodness, it stopped the disease. He graduated Stanford a year ago and is now a sports writer for the Houston Chronicle.
As for my son, today he is 17, a precocious teenager applying to colleges. He also volunteers for an organization called the Friendship Circle, providing friends for kids with special needs. He doesn't focus on disability and accepts people for who they are – maybe he would have been like that anyway, but it's part of who he is. He lost his cousin and knows he is alive today because Oliver's diagnosis gave us a head start on his.
My son's story is a good one in that he had a successful transplant and recovered.
Once we knew he would make it and we no longer needed our next child to be a match, we had a daughter using one of our healthy IVF embryos in storage. She is 14 now, but she jokes that she is technically 17, so she should get to drive. I tell her, they don't count the years in the freezer. You have to joke about it.
I am so lucky to have two healthy kids today based on advances in science.
And I often think of Oliver. We always try to make him proud and honor his name.
[Editor's Note: This story was originally published in November 2017. We are resurfacing archive hits while our staff is on vacation.]
Salzman and her son Spencer, 17, who is now healthy.
(Courtesy of Salzman)
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.
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Stacey Khoury felt more fatigued and out of breath than she was used to from just walking up the steps to her job in retail jewelry sales in Nashville, Tennessee. By the time she got home, she was more exhausted than usual, too.
"I just thought I was working too hard and needed more exercise," recalls the native Nashvillian about those days in December 2010. "All of the usual excuses you make when you're not feeling 100%."
As a professional gemologist, being hospitalized during peak holiday sales season wasn't particularly convenient. There was no way around it though when her primary care physician advised Khoury to see a blood disorder oncologist because of her disturbing blood count numbers. As part of a routine medical exam, a complete blood count screens for a variety of diseases and conditions that affect blood cells, such as anemia, infection, inflammation, bleeding disorders and cancer.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before."
While she was in the hospital, a bone marrow biopsy revealed that Khoury had acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a high-risk blood cancer. After Khoury completed an intense first round of chemotherapy, her oncologist recommended a bone marrow transplant. The potentially curative treatment for blood-cancer patients requires them to first receive a high dose of chemotherapy. Next, an infusion of stem cells from a healthy donor's bone marrow helps form new blood cells to fight off the cancer long-term.
Each year, approximately 8,000 patients in the U.S. with AML and other blood cancers receive a bone marrow transplant from a donor, according to the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research. But Khoury wasn't so lucky. She ended up being among the estimated 40% of patients eligible for bone marrow transplants who don't receive one, usually because there's no matched donor available.
Khoury's oncologist told her about another option. She could enter a clinical trial for an investigational cell therapy called omidubicel, which is being developed by Israeli biotech company Gamida Cell. The company's cell therapy, which is still experimental, could up a new avenue of treatment for cancer patients who can't get a bone marrow transplant.
Omidubicel consists of stem cells from cord blood that have been expanded using Gamida's technology to ensure there are enough cells for a therapeutic dose. The company's technology allows the immature cord blood cells to multiply quickly in the lab. Like a bone marrow transplant, the goal of the therapy is to make sure the donor cells make their way to the bone marrow and begin producing healthy new cells — a process called engraftment.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before, so there's something very novel and exciting about that," says Ronit Simantov, Gamida Cell's chief medical officer.
Khoury and her husband Rick packed up their car and headed to the closest trial site, the Duke University School of Medicine, roughly 500 miles away. There they met with Mitchell Horowitz, a stem cell transplant specialist at Duke and principal investigator for Gamida's omidubicel study in the U.S.
He told Khoury she was a perfect candidate for the trial, and she enrolled immediately. "When you have one of two decisions, and it's either do this or you're probably not going to be around, it was a pretty easy decision to make, and I am truly thankful for that," she says.
Khoury's treatment started at the end of March 2011, and she was home by July 4 that year. She say the therapy "worked the way the doctors wanted it to work." Khoury's blood counts were rising quicker than the people who had bone marrow matches, and she was discharged from Duke earlier than other patients were.
By expanding the number of cord blood cells — which are typically too few to treat an adult — omidubicel allows doctors to use cord blood for patients who require a transplant but don't have a donor match for bone marrow.
Patients receiving omidubicel first get a blood test to determine their human leukocyte antigen, or HLA, type. This protein is found on most cells in the body and is an important regulator of the immune system. HLA typing is used to match patients to bone marrow and cord blood donors, but cord blood doesn't require as close of a match.
Like bone marrow transplants, one potential complication of omidubicel is graft-versus-host disease, when the donated bone marrow or stem cells register the recipient's body as foreign and attack the body. Depending on the severity of the response, according to the Mayo Clinic, treatment includes medication to suppress the immune system, such as steroids. In clinical trials, the occurrence of graft-versus-host disease with omidubicel was comparable with traditional bone marrow transplants.
"Transplant doctors are working on improving that," Simantov says. "A number of new therapies that specifically address graft-versus-host disease will be making some headway in the coming months and years."
Gamida released the results of the Phase 3 study in February and continues to follow Khoury and the other study patients for their long-term outcomes. The large randomized trial evaluated the safety and efficacy of omidubicel compared to standard umbilical cord blood transplants in patients with blood cancer who didn't have a suitable bone marrow donor. Around 120 patients aged 12 to 65 across the U.S., Europe and Asia were included in the trial. The study found that omidubicel resulted in faster recovery, fewer bacterial and viral infections and fewer days in the hospital.
The company plans to seek FDA approval this year. Simantov anticipates the therapy will receive FDA approval by 2022.
"Opening up cord blood transplants is very important, especially for people of diverse ethnic backgrounds," says oncologist Gary Schiller, principal investigator at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA for Gamida Cell's mid- and late-stage trials. "This expansion technology makes a big difference because it makes cord blood an available option for those who do not have another donor source."
As for Khoury, who proudly celebrated the anniversary of her first transplant in April—she remains cancer free and continues to work full-time as a gemologist. When she has a little free time, she enjoys gardening, sewing, or maybe traveling to national parks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon with her husband Rick.