Researchers Get Closer to Gene Editing Treatment for Cardiovascular Disease
Later this year, Verve Therapeutics of Cambridge, Ma., will initiate Phase 1 clinical trials to test VERVE-101, a new medication that, if successful, will employ gene editing to significantly reduce low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, or LDL.
LDL is sometimes referred to as the “bad” cholesterol because it collects in the walls of blood vessels, and high levels can increase chances of a heart attack, cardiovascular disease or stroke. There are approximately 600,000 heart attacks per year due to blood cholesterol damage in the United States, and heart disease is the number one cause of death in the world. According to the CDC, a 10 percent decrease in total blood cholesterol levels can reduce the incidence of heart disease by as much as 30 percent.
Verve’s Founder and CEO, Sekar Kathiresan, spent two decades studying the genetic basis for heart attacks while serving as a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. His research led to two critical insights.
“One is that there are some people that are naturally resistant to heart attack and have lifelong, low levels of LDL,” the cardiologist says. “Second, there are some genes that can be switched off that lead to very low LDL cholesterol, and individuals with those genes switched off are resistant to heart attacks.”
Kathiresan and his team formed a hypothesis in 2016 that if they could develop a medicine that mimics the natural protection that some people enjoy, then they might identify a powerful new way to treat and ultimately prevent heart attacks. They launched Verve in 2018 with the goal of creating a one-time therapy that would permanently lower LDL and eliminate heart attacks caused by high LDL.
"Imagine a future where somebody gets a one-time treatment at the time of their heart attack or before as a preventive measure," says Kathiresan.
The medication is targeted specifically for patients who have a genetic form of high cholesterol known as heterozygous familial hypercholesterolemia, or FH, caused by expression of a gene called PCSK9. Verve also plans to develop a program to silence a gene called ANGPTL3 for patients with FH and possibly those with or at risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
FH causes cholesterol to be high from birth, reaching levels of 200 to 300 milligrams per deciliter. Suggested normal levels are around 100 to 129 mg/dl, and anything above 130 mg/dl is considered high. Patients with cardiovascular disease usually are asked to aim for under 70 mg/dl, but many still have unacceptably high LDL despite taking oral medications such as statins. They are more likely to have heart attacks in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and require lifelong LDL control.
The goal for drug treatments for high LDL, Kathiresan says, is to reduce LDL as low as possible for as long as possible. Physicians and researchers also know that a sizeable portion of these patients eventually start to lose their commitment to taking their statins and other LDL-controlling medications regularly.
“If you ask 100 patients one year after their heart attack what fraction are still taking their cholesterol-lowering medications, it’s less than half,” says Kathiresan. “So imagine a future where somebody gets a one-time treatment at the time of their heart attack or before as a preventive measure. It’s right in front of us, and it’s something that Verve is looking to do.”
In late 2020, Verve completed primate testing with monkeys that had genetically high cholesterol, using a one-time intravenous injection of VERVE-101. It reduced the monkeys’ LDL by 60 percent and, 18 months later, remains at that level. Kathiresan expects the LDL to stay low for the rest of their lives.
Verve’s gene editing medication is packaged in a lipid nanoparticle to serve as the delivery mechanism into the liver when infused intravenously. The drug is absorbed and makes its way into the nucleus of the liver cells.
Verve’s program targeting PCSK9 uses precise, single base, pair base editing, Kathiresan says, meaning it doesn't cut DNA like CRISPR gene editing systems do. Instead, it changes one base, or letter, in the genome to a different one without affecting the letters around it. Comparing it to a pencil and eraser, he explains that the medication erases out a letter A and makes it a letter G in the A, C, G and T code in DNA.
“We need to continue to advance our approach and tools to make sure that we have the absolute maximum ability to detect off-target effects,” says Euan Ashley, professor of medicine and genetics at Stanford University.
By making that simple change from A to G, the medication switches off the PCSK9 gene, automatically lowering LDL cholesterol.
“Once the DNA change is made, all the cells in the liver will have that single A to G change made,” Kathiresan says. “Then the liver cells divide and give rise to future liver cells, but every time the cell divides that change, the new G is carried forward.”
Additionally, Verve is pursuing its second gene editing program to eliminate ANGPTL3, a gene that raises both LDL and blood triglycerides. In 2010, Kathiresan's research team learned that people who had that gene completely switched off had LDL and triglyceride levels of about 20 and were very healthy with no heart attacks. The goal of Verve’s medication will be to switch off that gene, too, as an option for additional LDL or triglyceride lowering.
“Success with our first drug, VERVE-101, will give us more confidence to move forward with our second drug,” Kathiresan says. “And it opens up this general idea of making [genomic] spelling changes in the liver to treat other diseases.”
The approach is less ethically concerning than other gene editing technologies because it applies somatic editing that affects only the individual patient, whereas germline editing in the patient’s sperm or egg, or in an embryo, gets passed on to children. Additionally, gene editing therapies receive the same comprehensive amount of testing for side effects as any other medicine.
“We need to continue to advance our approach and tools to make sure that we have the absolute maximum ability to detect off-target effects,” says Euan Ashley, professor of medicine and genetics at Stanford University and founding director of its Center for Inherited Cardiovascular Disease. Ashley and his colleagues at Stanford’s Clinical Genomics Program and beyond are increasingly excited about the promise of gene editing.
“We can offer precision diagnostics, so increasingly we’re able to define the disease at a much deeper level using molecular tools and sequencing,” he continues. “We also have this immense power of reading the genome, but we’re really on the verge of taking advantage of the power that we now have to potentially correct some of the variants that we find on a genome that contribute to disease.”
He adds that while the gene editing medicines in development to correct genomes are ahead of the delivery mechanisms needed to get them into the body, particularly the heart and brain, he’s optimistic that those aren’t too far behind.
“It will probably take a few more years before those next generation tools start to get into clinical trials,” says Ashley, whose book, The Genome Odyssey, was published last year. “The medications might be the sexier part of the research, but if you can’t get it into the right place at the right time in the right dose and not get it to the places you don’t want it to go, then that tool is not of much use.”
Medical experts consider knocking out the PCSK9 gene in patients with the fairly common genetic disorder of familial hypercholesterolemia – roughly one in 250 people – a potentially safe approach to gene editing and an effective means of significantly lowering their LDL cholesterol.
Nurse Erin McGlennon has an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator and takes medications, but she is also hopeful that a gene editing medication will be developed in the near future.
Mary McGowan, MD, chief medical officer for The Family Heart Foundation in Pasadena, CA, sees the tremendous potential for VERVE-101 and believes patients should be encouraged by the fact that this kind of research is occurring and how much Verve has accomplished in a relatively short time. However, she offers one caveat, since even a 60 percent reduction in LDL won’t completely eliminate the need to reduce the remaining amount of LDL.
“This technology is very exciting,” she said, “but we want to stress to our patients with familial hypercholesterolemia that we know from our published research that most people require several therapies to get their LDL down., whether that be in primary prevention less than 100 mg/dl or secondary prevention less than 70 mg/dl, So Verve’s medication would be an add-on therapy for most patients.”
Dr. Kathiresan concurs: “We expect our medicine to lower LDL cholesterol by about 60 percent and that our patients will be on background oral medications, including statins that lower LDL cholesterol.”
Several leading research centers are investigating gene editing treatments for other types of cardiovascular diseases. Elizabeth McNally, Elizabeth Ward Professor and Director at the Center for Genetic Medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, pursues advanced genetic correction in neuromuscular diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy and spinal muscular atrophy. A cardiologist, she and her colleagues know these diseases frequently have cardiac complications.
“Even though the field is driven by neuromuscular specialists, it’s the first therapies in patients with neuromuscular diseases that are also expected to make genetic corrections in the heart,” she says. “It’s almost like an afterthought that we’re potentially fixing the heart, too.”
Another limitation McGowan sees is that too many healthcare providers are not yet familiar with how to test patients to determine whether or not they carry genetic mutations that need to be corrected. “We need to get more genetic testing done,” she says. “For example, that’s the case with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, where a lot of the people who probably carry that diagnosis and have never been genetically identified at a time when genetic testing has never been easier.”
One patient who has been diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy also happens to be a nurse working in research at Genentech Pharmaceutical, now a member of the Roche Group, in South San Francisco. To treat the disease, Erin McGlennon, RN, has an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator and takes medications, but she is also hopeful that a gene editing medication will be developed in the near future.
“With my condition, the septum muscles are just growing thicker, so I’m on medicine to keep my heart from having dangerous rhythms,” says McGlennon of the disease that carries a low risk of sudden cardiac death. “So, the possibility of having a treatment option that can significantly improve my day-to-day functioning would be a major breakthrough.”
McGlennon has some control over cardiovascular destiny through at least one currently available technology: in vitro fertilization. She’s going through it to ensure that her children won't express the gene for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.