Conner Curran was diagnosed with Duchenne's muscular dystrophy in 2015 when he was four years old. It's the most severe form of the genetic disease, with a nearly inevitable progression toward total paralysis. Many Duchenne's patients die in their teens; the average lifespan is 26.
But Conner, who is now 10, has experienced some astonishing improvements in recent years. He can now walk for more than two miles at a time – an impossible journey when he was younger.
In 2018, Conner became the very first patient to receive gene therapy specific to treating Duchenne's. In the initial clinical trial of nine children, nearly 80 percent reacted positively to the treatment). A larger-scale stage 3 clinical trial is currently underway, with initial results expected next year.
Gene therapy involves altering the genes in an individual's cells to stop or treat a disease. Such a procedure may be performed by adding new gene material to existing cells, or editing the defective genes to improve their functionality.
That the medical world is on the cusp of a successful treatment for a crippling and deadly disease is the culmination of more than 35 years of work by Dr. Jude Samulski, a professor of pharmacology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. More recently, he's become a leading gene therapy entrepreneur.
But Samulski likens this breakthrough to the frustrations of solving a Rubik's cube. "Just because one side is now all the color yellow does not mean that it is completely aligned," he says.
Although Conner's life and future have dramatically improved, he's not cured. The gene therapy tamed but did not extinguish his disorder: Conner is now suffering from the equivalent of Becker's muscular dystrophy, a milder form of the disease with symptoms that appear later in life and progress more slowly. Moreover, the loss of muscle cells Conner suffered prior to the treatment is permanent.
"It will take more time and more innovations," Samulski says of finding an even more effective gene therapy for muscular dystrophy.
Conner's family is still overjoyed with the results. "Jude's grit and determination gave Conner a chance at a new life, one that was not in his cards before gene therapy," says his mother Jessica Curran. She adds that "Conner is more confident than before and enjoys life, even though he has limitations, if compared to his brothers or peers."
Conner Curran holding a football post gene therapy treatment.
Courtesy of the Curran family
For now, the use of gene therapy as a treatment for diseases and disorders remains relatively isolated. On paper at least, progress appears glacially slow. In 2018, there were four FDA-approved gene therapies (excluding those reliant on bone marrow/stem cell transplants or implants). Today, there are 10. One therapy is solely for the cosmetic purpose of reducing facial lines and folds.
Nevertheless, experts in the space believe gene therapy is poised to expand dramatically.
"Certainly in the next three to five years you will see dozens of gene therapies and cell therapies be approved," says Dr. Pavan Cheruvu, who is CEO of Sio Gene Therapies in New York. The company is developing treatments for Parkinson's disease and Tay-Sachs, among other diseases.
Cheruvu's conclusion is supported by NEWDIGS, a think tank at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that keeps tabs on gene therapy developments. NEWDIGS predicts there will be at least 60 gene therapies approved for use in the U.S. by the end of the decade. That number could be closer to 100 if Chinese researchers and biotech ventures decide the American market is a good fit for the therapies they develop.
"We are watching something of a conditional evolution, like a dot-com, or cellphones that were sizes of shoeboxes that have now matured to the size of wafers. Our space will follow along very similarly."
Dr. Carsten Brunn, a chemist by training and CEO of Selecta Biosciences outside of Boston, is developing ways to reduce the immune responses in patients who receive gene therapy. He observes that there are more than 300 therapies in development and thousands of clinical trials underway. "It's definitely an exciting time in the field," he says.
That's a far cry from the environment of little more than a decade ago. Research and investment in gene therapy had been brought low for years after the death of teenager Jesse Gelsinger in 1999 while he had been enrolled in a clinical trial to treat a liver disease. Gene therapy was a completely novel concept back then, and his death created existential questions about whether it was a proper pathway to pursue. Cheruvu, a cardiologist, calls the years after Gelsinger's death an "ice age" for gene therapy.
However, those dark years eventually yielded to a thaw. And while there have been some recent stumbles, they are considered part of the trial-and-error that has often accompanied medical research as opposed to an ominous "stop" sign.
The deaths of three patients last year receiving gene therapy for myotubular myopathy – a degenerative disease that causes severe muscle weakness – promptly ended the clinical trial in which they were enrolled. However, the incident caused few ripples beyond that. Researchers linked the deaths to dosage sizes that caused liver toxicity, as opposed to the gene therapy itself being an automatic death sentence; younger patients who received lower doses due to a less advanced disease state experienced improvements.
The gene sequencing and editing that helped create vaccines for COVID-19 in record time also bolstered the argument for more investment in research and development. Cheruvu notes that the field has usually been the domain of investors with significant expertise in the field; these days, more money is flowing in from generalists.
The Challenges Ahead
What will be the next step in gene therapy's evolution? Many of Samulski's earliest innovations came in the laboratory, for example. Then that led to him forming a company called AskBio in collaboration with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. AskBio sold its gene therapy to Pfizer five years ago to assure that enough could be manufactured for stage 3 clinical trials and eventually reach the market.
Cheruvu suggests that many future gene therapy innovations will be the result of what he calls "congruent innovation." That means publicly funded laboratories and privately funded companies might develop treatments separately or in collaboration. Or, university scientists may depend on private ventures to solve one of gene therapy's most vexing issues: producing enough finished material to test and treat on a large scale. "Manufacturing is a real bottleneck right now," Brunn says.
The alternative is referred to in the sector as the "valley of death": a lab has found a promising treatment, but is not far enough along in development to submit an investigational new drug application with the FDA. The promise withers away as a result. But the new abundance of venture capital for gene therapy has made this scenario less of an issue for private firms, some of which have received hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.
There are also numerous clinical challenges. Many gene therapies use what are known as adeno-associated virus vectors (AAVs) to deliver treatments. They are hollowed-out husks of viruses that can cause a variety of mostly mild maladies ranging from colds to pink eye. They are modified to deliver the genetic material used in the therapy. Most of these vectors trigger an antibody reaction that limits treatments to a single does or a handful of smaller ones. That can limit the potential progress for patients – an issue referred to as treatment "durability."
Although vectors from animals such as horses trigger far less of an antibody reaction in patients -- and there has been significant work done on using artificial vectors -- both are likely years away from being used on a large scale. "For the foreseeable future, AAV is the delivery system of choice," Brunn says.
Also, there will likely be demand for concurrent gene therapies that can lead to a complete cure – not only halting the progress of Duchenne's in kids like Conner Curran, but regenerating their lost muscle cells, perhaps through some form of stem cell therapy or another treatment that has yet to be devised.
Nevertheless, Samulski believes demand for imperfect treatments will be high – particularly with a disease such as muscular dystrophy, where many patients are mere months from spending the remainder of their lives in wheelchairs. But Samulski believes those therapies will also inevitably evolve into something far more effective.
"We are watching something of a conditional evolution, like a dot-com, or cellphones that were sizes of shoeboxes that have now matured to the size of wafers," he says. "Our space will follow along very similarly."
Jessica Curran will remain forever grateful for what her son has received: "Jude gave us new hope. He gave us something that is priceless – a chance to watch Conner grow up and live out his own dreams."
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."