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."
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.