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.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”