Steve, a 60-year-old resident of the DC area who works in manufacturing, was always physically fit. In college, he played lacrosse in Division I, the highest level of intercollegiate athletics in the United States. Later, he stayed active by swimming, biking, and running--up until something strange happened around two years ago.
"It was hard for me to even get upstairs. I wasted away."
Steve, who requested that his last name be withheld to protect his privacy, started to notice weakness first in his toes, then his knees. On a trip to the zoo, he had trouble keeping up. Then some months later, the same thing happened on a family hike. What was supposed to be a four-mile trek up to see a waterfall ended for him at the quarter-mile mark. He turned around and struggled back to the start just as everyone else was returning from the excursion.
Alarmed, he sought out one doctor after the next, but none could diagnose him. The disabling weakness continued to creep up his legs, and by the time he got in to see a top neurologist at Johns Hopkins University last January, he was desperate for help.
"It was hard for me to even get upstairs," he recalls. "I wasted away and had lost about forty-five pounds."
The neurologist, Dr. Michael Polydefkis, finally made the correct diagnosis based on Steve's rapid progression of symptoms, a skin and nerve biopsy, and a genetic test. It turned out that Steve had a rare inherited disease called hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis. Transthyretin is a common blood protein whose normal function is to transport vitamins and hormones in the body. When patients possess certain genetic mutations in the transthyretin gene, the resulting protein can misfold, clump and produce amyloid, an aggregate of proteins, which then interferes with normal function. Many organs are affected in this disease, but most affected are the nervous system, the GI tract, and the heart.
Dr. Michael Polydefkis, Steve's neurologist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, MD.
(Courtesy of Dr. Polydefkis)
For the 50,000 patients like Steve around the world, the only treatment historically has been a liver transplant—a major, risky operation. The liver makes most of the transthyretin in a person's body. So if a person who carries a genetic mutation for a disease-causing form of transthyretin has their liver transplanted, the new liver will stop making the mutant protein. A few drugs can slow, but do not stop the disease.
Since it is a genetic condition, a regular "drug" can't tackle the problem.
"For almost all of medicine from the 18th century to today, drugs have been small molecules, typically natural, some invented by humans, that bind to proteins and block their functions," explains Dr. Phillip Zamore, chair of the department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. "But with most proteins (including this one), you can't imagine how that would ever happen. Because even if it stuck, there's no reason to think it would change anything. So people threw up their hands and said, 'Unless we can find a protein that is "druggable" in disease X, we can't treat it.'"
To draw a car analogy, treating a disease like Steve's with a small molecule would be like trying to shut down the entire car industry when all you can do is cut the power cord to one machine in one local factory. With few options, patients like Steve have been at a loss, facing continual deterioration and disability.
"It's more obvious how to be specific because we use the genetic code itself to design the drug."
A Radical New Approach
Luckily, Dr. Polydefkis knew of an experimental drug made by a biotech company that Dr. Zamore co-founded called Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. They were doing something completely different: silencing the chemical blueprint for protein, called RNA, rather than targeting the protein itself. In other words, shutting down all the bad factories across the whole car industry at once – without touching the good ones.
"It's more obvious how to be specific," says Dr. Zamore, "because we use the genetic code itself to design the drug."
For Steve's doctor, the new drug, called patisiran, is a game changer.
"It's the dawn of molecular medicine," says Dr. Polydefkis. "It's really a miraculous development. The ability to selectively knock down or reduce the amount of a specific protein is remarkable. I tell patients this is science fiction that is now becoming reality."
A (Very) Short History
The strategy of silencing RNA as a method of guiding drug development began in 1998. Basic research took six years before clinical testing in humans began in 2004. Just a few months ago, in November, the results of the first double-blind, placebo-controlled phase III trials were announced, testing patisiran in patients--and they surpassed expectations.
"The results were remarkably positive," says Dr. Polydefkis. "Every primary and secondary outcome measure target was met. It's the most positive trial I have ever been associated with and that I can remember in recent memory."
FDA approval is expected to come by summer, which will mark the first official sanction of a drug based on RNA inhibition (RNAi). Experts are confident that similar drugs will eventually follow for other diseases, like familial hypercholesterol, lipid disorders, and breathing disorders. Right now, these drugs must get into the liver to work, but otherwise the future treatment possibilities are wide open, according to Dr. Zamore.
"It doesn't have to be a genetic disease," he says. "In theory, it doesn't have to be just one gene, although I don't think anyone knows how many you could target at once. There is no precedent for targeting two."
Dr. Phillip Zamore, chair of the RNA Therapeutics Institute at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
(Courtesy of Dr. Zamore)
Alnylam, the leading company in RNAi therapeutics, plans to strategically design other new drugs based on what they have learned from this first trial – "so with each successive experience, with designing and testing, you get better at making more drugs. In a way, that's never happened before...This is a lot more efficient of a way to make drugs in the future."
And unlike gene therapy, in which a patient's own genetic code is permanently altered, this approach does not cause permanent genetic changes. Patients can stop taking it like any other drug, and its effects will vanish.
How Is Steve?
Last February, Steve started on the drug. He was granted early access since it is not yet FDA-approved and is still considered experimental. Every 21 days, he has received an IV infusion that causes some minor side effects, like headaches and facial flushing.
"The good news is, since I started on the drug, I don't see any more deterioration other than my speech."
So far, it seems to be effective. He's gained back 20 pounds, and though his enunciation is still a bit slurred, he says that his neuropathy has stopped. He plans to continue the treatment for the rest of his life.
"The good news is, since I started on the drug, I don't see any more deterioration other than my speech," he says. "I think the drug is working, but would I have continued to deteriorate without the drug? I'm not really sure."
Dr. Polydefkis jumps in with a more confident response: "If you ask me, I would say 100 percent he would have kept progressing at a fairly rapid pace without the drug. When Steve says the neuropathy has stopped, that's music to my ears."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.
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Stacey Khoury felt more fatigued and out of breath than she was used to from just walking up the steps to her job in retail jewelry sales in Nashville, Tennessee. By the time she got home, she was more exhausted than usual, too.
"I just thought I was working too hard and needed more exercise," recalls the native Nashvillian about those days in December 2010. "All of the usual excuses you make when you're not feeling 100%."
As a professional gemologist, being hospitalized during peak holiday sales season wasn't particularly convenient. There was no way around it though when her primary care physician advised Khoury to see a blood disorder oncologist because of her disturbing blood count numbers. As part of a routine medical exam, a complete blood count screens for a variety of diseases and conditions that affect blood cells, such as anemia, infection, inflammation, bleeding disorders and cancer.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before."
While she was in the hospital, a bone marrow biopsy revealed that Khoury had acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a high-risk blood cancer. After Khoury completed an intense first round of chemotherapy, her oncologist recommended a bone marrow transplant. The potentially curative treatment for blood-cancer patients requires them to first receive a high dose of chemotherapy. Next, an infusion of stem cells from a healthy donor's bone marrow helps form new blood cells to fight off the cancer long-term.
Each year, approximately 8,000 patients in the U.S. with AML and other blood cancers receive a bone marrow transplant from a donor, according to the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research. But Khoury wasn't so lucky. She ended up being among the estimated 40% of patients eligible for bone marrow transplants who don't receive one, usually because there's no matched donor available.
Khoury's oncologist told her about another option. She could enter a clinical trial for an investigational cell therapy called omidubicel, which is being developed by Israeli biotech company Gamida Cell. The company's cell therapy, which is still experimental, could up a new avenue of treatment for cancer patients who can't get a bone marrow transplant.
Omidubicel consists of stem cells from cord blood that have been expanded using Gamida's technology to ensure there are enough cells for a therapeutic dose. The company's technology allows the immature cord blood cells to multiply quickly in the lab. Like a bone marrow transplant, the goal of the therapy is to make sure the donor cells make their way to the bone marrow and begin producing healthy new cells — a process called engraftment.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before, so there's something very novel and exciting about that," says Ronit Simantov, Gamida Cell's chief medical officer.
Khoury and her husband Rick packed up their car and headed to the closest trial site, the Duke University School of Medicine, roughly 500 miles away. There they met with Mitchell Horowitz, a stem cell transplant specialist at Duke and principal investigator for Gamida's omidubicel study in the U.S.
He told Khoury she was a perfect candidate for the trial, and she enrolled immediately. "When you have one of two decisions, and it's either do this or you're probably not going to be around, it was a pretty easy decision to make, and I am truly thankful for that," she says.
Khoury's treatment started at the end of March 2011, and she was home by July 4 that year. She say the therapy "worked the way the doctors wanted it to work." Khoury's blood counts were rising quicker than the people who had bone marrow matches, and she was discharged from Duke earlier than other patients were.
By expanding the number of cord blood cells — which are typically too few to treat an adult — omidubicel allows doctors to use cord blood for patients who require a transplant but don't have a donor match for bone marrow.
Patients receiving omidubicel first get a blood test to determine their human leukocyte antigen, or HLA, type. This protein is found on most cells in the body and is an important regulator of the immune system. HLA typing is used to match patients to bone marrow and cord blood donors, but cord blood doesn't require as close of a match.
Like bone marrow transplants, one potential complication of omidubicel is graft-versus-host disease, when the donated bone marrow or stem cells register the recipient's body as foreign and attack the body. Depending on the severity of the response, according to the Mayo Clinic, treatment includes medication to suppress the immune system, such as steroids. In clinical trials, the occurrence of graft-versus-host disease with omidubicel was comparable with traditional bone marrow transplants.
"Transplant doctors are working on improving that," Simantov says. "A number of new therapies that specifically address graft-versus-host disease will be making some headway in the coming months and years."
Gamida released the results of the Phase 3 study in February and continues to follow Khoury and the other study patients for their long-term outcomes. The large randomized trial evaluated the safety and efficacy of omidubicel compared to standard umbilical cord blood transplants in patients with blood cancer who didn't have a suitable bone marrow donor. Around 120 patients aged 12 to 65 across the U.S., Europe and Asia were included in the trial. The study found that omidubicel resulted in faster recovery, fewer bacterial and viral infections and fewer days in the hospital.
The company plans to seek FDA approval this year. Simantov anticipates the therapy will receive FDA approval by 2022.
"Opening up cord blood transplants is very important, especially for people of diverse ethnic backgrounds," says oncologist Gary Schiller, principal investigator at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA for Gamida Cell's mid- and late-stage trials. "This expansion technology makes a big difference because it makes cord blood an available option for those who do not have another donor source."
As for Khoury, who proudly celebrated the anniversary of her first transplant in April—she remains cancer free and continues to work full-time as a gemologist. When she has a little free time, she enjoys gardening, sewing, or maybe traveling to national parks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon with her husband Rick.