Robert Thomas was a devoted runner, gym goer, and crew member on a sailing team in San Diego when, in his 40s, he noticed that his range of movement was becoming more limited.
He thought he was just getting older, but when he was hiking an uphill trail in Lake Tahoe, he kept tripping over rocks. "I'd never had this happen before," Robert says. "I knew something was wrong but didn't know what it was."
It wasn't until age 50 when he was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. The genetic disorder damages the peripheral nerves, which connect the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. This network of nerves is responsible for relaying information and signals about sensation, movement, and motor coordination. Over time, the disease causes debilitating muscle weakness and the loss of limb control.
Charcot-Marie-Tooth usually presents itself in childhood or in a person's teens, but in some patients, like Robert, onset can be later in life. Symptoms may include muscle cramping, tingling, or burning. Many patients also have high foot arches or hammer toes — toes that curl from the middle joint instead of pointing forward. Those affected often have difficulty walking and may lose sensation in their lower legs, feet, hands, or forearms. One of the most common rare diseases, it affects around 130,000 people in the United States and 2.8 million worldwide.
Like many people with Charcot-Marie-Tooth, or CMT, Robert wears corrective braces on his legs to help with walking. Now 61, he can't run or sail anymore because of the disease, but he still works out regularly and can hike occasionally. CMT also affects his grip, so he has to use special straps while doing some exercises.
For the past few years, Robert has been participating in a clinical trial for an investigational CMT drug. He takes the liquid formulation every morning and evening using an oral syringe. Scientists are following patients like Robert to learn if their symptoms stabilize or improve while on the drug. Dubbed PXT300, the drug was designed by French biopharmaceutical company Pharnext and is the farthest along in development for CMT. If approved, it would be the first drug for the disease.
Currently, there's no cure for CMT, only supportive treatments like pain medication. Some individuals receive physical and occupational therapy. A drug for CMT could be a game-changer for patients whose quality of life is severely affected by the disease.
CMT arises from mutations in genes that are responsible for creating and maintaining the myelin sheath — the insulating layer around nerves. Pharnext's drug is meant to treat patients with CMT1A, the most common form of the disease, which represents about half of CMT cases. Around 5% of those with CMT1A become severely disabled and end up in wheelchairs. People with CMT1A have an extra copy of the gene PMP22, which makes a protein that's needed to maintain the myelin sheath around peripheral nerves.
Typically, an individual inherits one copy of PMP22 from each parent. But a person with CMT1A receives a copy of PMP22 from one parent and two copies from a parent with the disease. This extra copy of the gene results in excess protein production, which damages the cells responsible for preserving and regenerating the myelin sheath, called Schwann cells.
The myelin sheath helps ensure that a signal from the brain gets carried to nerves in the muscles so that a part of the body can carry out a particular action or movement. This sheath is like the insulation on an electrical cord and the action is like a light bulb. If the insulation is fine, the light bulb turns on. But if the insulation is frayed, the light will flicker.
"The same happens to these patients," says David Horn Solomon, CEO of Pharnext. "The signal to their muscle is weak and flickers." Over time, their muscles become weaker and thinner.
The PMP22 gene has proven difficult to target with a drug because it's located in a protected space — the Schwann cells that make up the insulation around nerves. "There's not an easy way to tamp it down," Solomon says.
Another company, Acceleron Pharma of Cambridge, Massachusetts, was developing an injectable CMT drug meant to increase the strength of leg muscles. But the company halted development last year after the experimental drug failed in a mid-stage trial. While the drug led to a statistically significant increase in muscle volume, it didn't translate to improvements in muscle function or quality of life for trial participants.
Made by Design
Pharnext's drug, PXT3003, is a combination of three existing drugs — baclofen, a muscle relaxant; naltrexone, a drug that decreases the desire for alcohol and opioids; and sorbitol, a type of sugar alcohol.
The company designed the drug using its artificial intelligence platform, which screened 20,000 existing drugs to predict combinations that could inhibit the PMP22 gene and thereby lower protein production. The AI system narrowed the search to several hundreds of combinations and Pharnext tested around 75 of them in the lab before landing on baclofen, naltrexone, and sorbitol. Individually, the drugs don't have much effect on the PMP22 gene. But combined, they work to lower how much protein the gene makes.
"How the drug inside the cell reduces expression isn't quite clear yet," says Florian Thomas, director of the Hereditary Neuropathy Center, and founding chair and professor in the department of neurology at Hackensack University Medical Center and Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine in New Jersey (no relation to Robert Thomas, the CMT patient). "By reducing the amount of protein being produced, we hopefully can stabilize the nerves."
In rodents genetically engineered to have the PMP22 gene, the drug reduced protein levels and delayed onset of muscle weakness when given to rats. In another animal study, the drug increased the size of the myelin sheath around nerves in rats.
"Like humans with CMT, one of the problems the animals have is they can't grip things, their grip strength is poor," Solomon says. But when treated with Pharnext's drug, "the grip strength of these animals improves dramatically even over 12 weeks."
Human trials look encouraging, too. But the company ran into a manufacturing issue during a late-stage trial. The drug requires refrigeration, and as a result of temperature changes, crystals formed inside vials containing the high dose of the drug. The study was a double-blind trial, meaning neither the trial participants nor investigators were supposed to know who received the high dose of the drug, who received the low dose, and who received a placebo. In these types of studies, the placebo and experimental drug should look the same so that investigators can't tell them apart. But because only the high dose contained crystals, not the low dose or placebo, regulators said the trial data could be biased.
Pharnext is now conducting a new randomized, double-blind trial to prove that its drug works. The study is recruiting individuals aged 16 through 65 years old with mild to moderate CMT. The company hopes to show that the drug can stop patients' symptoms from worsening, or in the best case scenario, possibly even improve them. The company doesn't think the drug will be able to help people with severe forms of the disease.
"In neurologic disease, you're looking for plasticity, where there's still the possibility of stabilization or reversal," Solomon says. Plasticity refers to the ability of the nervous system to change and adapt in response to stimuli.
Allison Moore, a CMT patient and founder and CEO of the Hereditary Neuropathy Foundation, has been following drug development for CMT since she founded the organization in 2001. She says many investigational drugs haven't moved forward because they've shown little success in animals. The fact that Pharnext's drug has made it to a late-stage human trial is promising, she says.
"It's really exciting," Moore says. "There's a chance that if you take the drug early before you're very severe, you'll end up not developing the disease to a level that's super disabling."
CMT has damaged Moore's peroneal nerve, a main nerve in the foot. As a result, she has foot drop, the inability to lift the front part of her foot, and needs to wear leg braces to help her walk. "The idea that you could take this early on and that it could stop progression, that's the hope that we have."
Thomas, the neurologist, says a drug doesn't have to be a cure to have a significant impact on patients. "If I have a CMT patient who's 50 years old, that patient will be more disabled by age 60," he says. "If I can treat that person with a drug, and that person is just as disabled at age 60 as they were at age 50, that's transformative in my mind."
While Robert Thomas says he hasn't noticed a dramatic improvement since he's been on the drug, he does think it's helping. Robert is now in an open-label study, which means he and his health provider are aware that he's receiving the drug.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, manufacturing and supply chain disruptions meant that Robert was without the trial drug for two months. When his medication ran out, his legs felt unstable again and walking was harder. "There was a clear distinction between being on and off that medication," he says.
Pharnext's current trial will take about a year and a half to complete. After that, the FDA will decide on whether to approve the drug for CMT patients.
As scientists learn more about the PMP22 gene and the more than 100 other genes that when mutated cause CMT, more precise treatments could be possible. For instance, scientists have used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to correct a CMT-causing mutation in human cells in the lab. The results were published August 16 in the journal Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology.
Pharnext is also interested in pursuing genetic treatments for CMT, but in the meantime, repurposed drugs may be the best shot at helping patients until more advanced treatments are available.
When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor types, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.