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 December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."