Sammy Basso has some profound ideas about fate. As long as he has been alive, he has known he has minimal control over his own. His parents, however, had to transition from a world of unlimited possibility to one in which their son might not live to his 20s.
"I remember very clearly that day because Sammy was three years old," his mother says of the day a genetic counselor diagnosed Sammy with progeria. "It was a devastating day for me."
But to Sammy, he has always been himself: a smart kid, interested in science, a little smaller than his classmates, with one notable kink in his DNA. In one copy of the gene that codes for the protein Lamin A, Sammy has a T where there should be a C. The incorrect code creates a toxic protein called progerin, which destabilizes Sammy's cells and makes him age much faster than a person who doesn't have the mutation. The older he gets, the more he is in danger of strokes, heart failure, or a heart attack. "I am okay with my situation," he says from his home in Tezze sul Brenta, Italy. "But I think, yes, fate has a great role in my life."
Just 400 or so people in the world live with progeria: The mutation that causes it usually arises de novo, or "of new," meaning that it is not inherited but happens spontaneously during gestation. The challenge, as with all rare diseases, is that few cases means few treatments.
"When we first started, there was absolutely nothing out there," says Leslie Gordon, a physician-researcher who co-founded the Progeria Research Foundation in 1999 after her own son, also named Sam, was diagnosed with the disease. "We knew we had to jumpstart the entire field, so we collected money through road races and special events and writing grants and all sorts of donors… I think the first year we raised $75,000, most of it from one donor."
"We have not only the possibility but the responsibility to make the world a better world, and also to make a body a better body."
By 2003, the foundation had collaborated with Francis Collins, a geneticist who is now director of the National Institutes of Health, to work out the genetic basis for progeria—that single mutation Sammy has. The discovery led to interest in lonafarnib, a drug that was already being used in cancer patients but could potentially operate downstream of the mutation, preventing the buildup of the defective progerin in the body. "We funded cellular studies to look at a lonafarnib in cells, mouse studies to look at lonafarnib in mouse models of progeria… and then we initiated the clinical trials," Gordon says.
Sammy Basso's family had gotten involved with the Progeria Research Foundation through their international patient registry, which maintains relationships with families in 49 countries. "We started to hear about lonafarnib in 2006 from Leslie Gordon," says Sammy's father, Amerigo Basso, with his son translating. "She told us about the lonafarnib. And we were very happy because for the first time we understood that there was something that could help our son and our lives." Amerigo used the Italian word speranza, which means hope.
Still, Sammy wasn't sure if lonafarnib was right for him. "Since when I was very young I thought that everything happens for a reason. So, in my mind, if God made me with progeria, there was a reason, and to try to heal from progeria was something wrong," he says. Gradually, his parents and doctors, and Leslie Gordon, convinced him otherwise. Sammy began to believe that God was also the force behind doctors, science, and research. "And so we have not only the possibility but the responsibility to make the world a better world, and also to make a body a better body," he says.
Sammy Basso and his parents.
Courtesy of Basso
Sammy began taking lonafarnib, with the Progeria Research Foundation intermittently flying him, and other international trial participants, to Boston for tests. He was immediately beset by some of the drug's more unpleasant side effects: Stomach problems, nausea, and vomiting. "The first period was absolutely the worst period of my life," he says.
At first, doctors prescribed other medicines for the side effects, but to Sammy it had as much effect as drinking water. He visited doctor after doctor, with some calling him weekly or even daily to ask how he was doing. Eventually the specialists decided that he should lower his dose, balancing his pain with the benefit of the drug. Sammy can't actually feel any positive effect of the lonafarnib, but his health measurements have improved relative to people with progeria who don't take it.
While they never completely disappeared, Sammy's side effects decreased to the point that he could live. Inspired by the research that led to lonafarnib, he went to university to study molecular biology. For his thesis work, he travelled to Spain to perform experiments on cells and on mice with progeria, learning how to use the gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 to cut out the mutated bit of DNA. "I was so excited to participate in this study," Sammy says. He felt like his work could make a difference.
In 2018, the Progeria Research Foundation was hosting one of their biennial workshops when Francis Collins, the researcher who had located the mutation behind progeria 15 years earlier, got in touch with Leslie Gordon. "Francis called me and said, Hey, I just saw a talk by David Liu from the Broad [Institute]. And it was pretty amazing. He has been looking at progeria and has very early, but very exciting data… Do you have any spaces, any slots you could make in your program for late breaking news?"
Gordon found a spot, and David Liu came to talk about what was going on in his lab, which was an even more advanced treatment that led to mice with the progeria mutation living into their senior mouse years—substantially closer to a normal lifespan. Liu's lab had built on the idea of CRISPR-Cas9 to create a more elegant genetic process called base editing: Instead of chopping out mutated DNA, a scientist could chemically convert an incorrect DNA letter to the correct one, like the search and replace function in word processing software. Mice who had their Lamin-A mutations corrected this way lived more than twice as long as untreated animals.
Sammy was in the audience at Dr. Liu's talk. "When I heard about this base editing as a younger scientist, I thought that I was living in the future," he says. "When my parents had my diagnosis of progeria, the science knew very little information about DNA. And now we are talking about healing the DNA… It is incredible."
Lonafarnib (also called Zokinvy) was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration this past November. Sammy, now 25, still takes it, and still manages his side effects. With luck, the gift of a few extra years will act as a bridge until he can try Liu's revolutionary new gene treatment, which has not yet begun testing in humans. While Leslie Gordon warns that she's always wrong about things like this, she hopes to see the new base editing techniques in clinical trials in the next year or two. Sammy won't need to be convinced to try it this time; his thinking on fate has evolved since his first encounter with lonafarnib.
"I would be very happy to try it," he says. "I know that for a non-scientist it can be difficult to understand. Some people think that we are the DNA. We are not. The DNA is a part of us, and to correct it is to do what we are already doing—just better." In short, a gene therapy, while it may seem like science fiction, is no different from a pill. For Sammy, both are a new way to think about fate: No longer something that simply happens to him.
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.