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)
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads, Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?"
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the Hillman Cancer Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Dr. Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at Hillman who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of C. difficile infection and he wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy.
In Sydney, Australia, in the basement of an inner-city high-rise, lives a mass of unexpected inhabitants: millions of maggots. The insects are far from unwelcome. They are there to feast on the food waste generated by the building's human residents.
Goterra, the start-up that installed the maggots in the building in December, belongs to the rapidly expanding insect agriculture industry, which is experiencing a surge of investment worldwide.
The maggots – the larvae of the black soldier fly – are voracious, unfussy eaters. As adult flies, they don't eat, so the young fatten up swiftly on whatever they can get. Goterra's basement colony can munch through 5 metric tons of waste in a day.
"Maggots are nature's cleaners," says Bob Gordon, Head of Growth at Goterra. "They're a great tool to manage waste streams."
Their capacity to consume presents a neat response to the problem of food waste, which contributes up to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year as it rots in landfill.
"The maggots eat the food fairly fresh," Gordon says. "So, there's minimal degradation and you don't get those methane emissions."
Alongside their ability to devour waste, the soldier fly larvae hold further agricultural promise: they yield an incredibly efficient protein. After the maggots have binged for about 12 days, Goterra harvests and processes them into a protein-rich livestock feed. Their excrement, known as frass, is also collected and turned into soil conditioner.
"We are producing protein in a basement," says Gordon. "It's urban farming – really sustainable, urban farming."
Goterra's module in the basement at Barangaroo, Sydney.
Supplied by Goterra
Goterra's founder Olympia Yarger started producing the insects in "buckets in her backyard" in 2016. Today, Goterra has a large-scale processing plant and has developed proprietary modules – in shipping containers – that use robotics to manage the larvae.
The modules have been installed on site at municipal buildings, hospitals, supermarkets, several McDonald's restaurants, and a range of smaller enterprises in Australia. Users pay a subscription fee and simply pour in the waste; Goterra visits once a fortnight to harvest the bugs.
Insect agriculture is well established outside of the West, and the practice is gaining traction around the world. China has mega-facilities that can process hundreds of tons of waste in a day. In Kenya, a program recently trained 2000 farmers in soldier fly farming to boost their economic security. French biotech company InnovaFeed, in partnership with US agricultural heavyweight ADM, plans to build "the world's largest insect protein facility" in Illinois this year.
"The [maggots] are science fiction on earth. Watching them work is awe-inspiring."
But the concept is still not to everyone's taste.
"This is still a topic that I say is a bit like black liquorice – people tend to either really like it or really don't," says Wendy Lu McGill, Communications Director at the North American Coalition of Insect Agriculture (NACIA).
Formed in 2016, NACIA now has over 100 members – including researchers and commercial producers of black soldier flies, meal worms and crickets.
McGill says there have been a few iterations of insect agriculture in the US – beginning with worms produced for bait after World War II then shifting to food for exotic pets. The current focus – "insects as food and feed" – took root about a decade ago, with the establishment of the first commercial farms for this purpose.
"We're starting to see more expansion in the U.S. and a lot of the larger investments have been for black soldier fly producers," McGill says. "They tend to have larger facilities and the animal feed market they're looking at is potentially quite large."
InnovaFeed's Illinois facility is set to produce 60,000 metric tons of animal feed protein per year.
"They'll be trying to employ many different circular principles," McGill says of the project. "For example, the heat from the feed factory – the excess heat that would normally just be vented – will be used to heat the other side that's raising the black soldier fly."
Although commercial applications have started to flourish recently, scientific knowledge of the black soldier fly's potential has existed for decades.
Dr. Jeffery Tomberlin, an entomologist at Texas A&M University, has been studying the insect for over 20 years, contributing to key technologies used in the industry. He also founded Evo, a black soldier fly company in Texas, which feeds its larvae the waste from a local bakery and distillery.
"They are science fiction on earth," he says of the maggots. "Watching them work is awe-inspiring."
Tomberlin says fly farms can work effectively at different scales, and present possibilities for non-Western countries to shift towards "commodity independence."
"You don't have to have millions of dollars invested to be successful in producing this insect," he says. "[A farm] can be as simple as an open barn along the equator to a 30,000 square-foot indoor facility in the Netherlands."
As the world's population balloons, food insecurity is an increasing concern. By 2050, the UN predicts that to feed our projected population we will need to ramp up food production by at least 60%. Insect agriculture, which uses very little land and water compared to traditional livestock farming, could play a key role.
Insects may become more common human food, but the current commercial focus is animal feed. Aquaculture is a key market, with insects presenting an alternative to fish meal derived from over-exploited stocks. Insect meal is also increasingly popular in pet food, particularly in Europe.
While recent investment has been strong – NACIA says 2020 was the best year yet – reaching a scale that can match existing agricultural industries and providing a competitive price point are still hurdles for insect agriculture.
But COVID-19 has strengthened the argument for new agricultural approaches, such as the decentralized, indoor systems and circular principles employed by insect farms.
"This has given the world a preview – which no one wanted – of [future] supply chain disruptions," says McGill.
As the industry works to meet demand, Tomberlin predicts diversification and product innovation: "I think food science is going to play a big part in that. They can take an insect and create ice cream." (Dried soldier fly larvae "taste kind of like popcorn," if you were wondering.)
Tomberlin says the insects could even become an interplanetary protein source: "I do believe in that. I mean, if we're going to colonize other planets, we need to be sustainable."
But he issues a word of caution about the industry growing too big, too fast: "I think we as an industry need to be very careful of how we harness and apply [our knowledge]. The black soldier fly is considered the crown jewel today, but if it's mismanaged, it can be relegated back to a past."
Goterra's Gordon also warns against rushing into mass production: "If you're just replacing big intensive animal agriculture with big intensive animal agriculture with more efficient animals, then what's the change you're really effecting?"
But he expects the industry will continue its rise though the next decade, and Goterra – fuelled by recent $8 million Series A funding – plans to expand internationally this year.
"Within 10 years' time, I would like to see the vast majority of our unavoidable food waste being used to produce maggots to go into a protein application," Gordon says.
"There's no lack of demand. And there's no lack of food waste."