To fix heart conditions, a company is using gene therapy plus patient voices
As a child, Wendy Borsari participated in a health study at Boston Children’s Hospital. She was involved because heart disease and sudden cardiac arrest ran in her family as far back as seven generations. When she was 18, however, the study’s doctors told her that she had a perfectly healthy heart and didn’t have to worry.
A couple of years after graduating from college, though, the Boston native began to experience episodes of near fainting. During any sort of strenuous exercise, my blood pressure would drop instead of increasing, she recalls.
She was diagnosed at 24 with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Although HCM is a commonly inherited heart disease, Borsari’s case resulted from a rare gene mutation, the MYH7 gene. Her mother had been diagnosed at 27, and Borsari had already lost her grandmother and two maternal uncles to the condition. After her own diagnosis, Borsari spent most of her free time researching the disease and “figuring out how to have this condition and still be the person I wanted to be,” she says.
Then, her son was found to have the genetic mutation at birth and diagnosed with HCM at 15. Her daughter, also diagnosed at birth, later suffered five cardiac arrests.
That changed Borsari’s perspective. She decided to become a patient advocate. “I didn’t want to just be a patient with the condition,” she says. “I wanted to be more involved with the science and the biopharmaceutical industry so I could be active in helping to make it better for other patients.”
She consulted on patient advocacy for a pharmaceutical and two foundations before coming to a company called Tenaya in 2021.
“One of our core values as a company is putting patients first,” says Tenaya's CEO, Faraz Ali. “We thought of no better way to put our money where our mouth is than by bringing in somebody who is affected and whose family is affected by a genetic form of cardiomyopathy to have them make sure we’re incorporating the voice of the patient.”
Biomedical corporations and government research agencies are now incorporating patient advocacy more than ever, says Alice Lara, president and CEO of the Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndromes Foundation in Salt Lake City, Utah. These organizations have seen the effectiveness of including patient voices to communicate and exemplify the benefits that key academic research institutions have shown in their medical studies.
“From our side of the aisle,” Lara says, “what we know as patient advocacy organizations is that educated patients do a lot better. They have a better course in their therapy and their condition, and understanding the genetics is important because all of our conditions are genetic.”
Founded in 2016, Tenaya is advancing gene therapies and small molecule drugs in clinical trials for both prevalent and rare forms of heart disease, says Ali, the CEO.
The firm's first small molecule, now in a Phase 1 clinical trial, is intended to treat heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, where the amount of blood pumped by the heart is reduced due to the heart chambers becoming weak or stiff. The condition accounts for half or more of all heart failure in the U.S., according to Ali, and is growing quickly because it's closely associated with diabetes. It’s also linked with metabolic syndrome, or a cluster of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels.
“We have a novel molecule that is first in class and, to our knowledge, best in class to tackle that, so we’re very excited about the clinical trial,” Ali says.
The first phase of the trial is being performed with healthy participants, rather than people with the disease, to establish safety and tolerability. The researchers can also look for the drug in blood samples, which could tell them whether it's reaching its target. Ali estimates that, if the company can establish safety and that it engages the right parts of the body, it will likely begin dosing patients with the disease in 2024.
Tenaya’s therapy delivers a healthy copy of the gene so that it makes a copy of the protein missing from the patients' hearts because of their mutation. The study will start with adult patients, then pivot potentially to children and even newborns, Ali says, “where there is an even greater unmet need because the disease progresses so fast that they have no options.”
Although this work still has a long way to go, Ali is excited about the potential because the gene therapy achieved positive results in the preclinical mouse trial. This animal trial demonstrated that the treatment reduced enlarged hearts, reversed electrophysiological abnormalities, and improved the functioning of the heart by increasing the ejection fraction after the single-dose of gene therapy. That measurement remained stable to the end of the animals’ lives, roughly 18 months, Ali says.
He’s also energized by the fact that heart disease has “taken a page out of the oncology playbook” by leveraging genetic research to develop more precise and targeted drugs and gene therapies.
“Now we are talking about a potential cure of a disease for which there was no cure and using a very novel concept,” says Melind Desai of the Cleveland Clinic.
Tenaya’s second program focuses on developing a gene therapy to mitigate the leading cause of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy through a specific gene called MYPBC3. The disease affects approximately 600,000 patients in the U.S. This particular genetic form, Ali explains, affects about 115,000 in the U.S. alone, so it is considered a rare disease.
“There are infants who are dying within the first weeks to months of life as a result of this mutation,” he says. “There are also adults who start having symptoms in their 20s, 30s and 40s with early morbidity and mortality.” Tenaya plans to apply before the end of this year to get the FDA’s approval to administer an investigational drug for this disease humans. If approved, the company will begin to dose patients in 2023.
“We now understand the genetics of the heart much better,” he says. “We now understand the leading genetic causes of hypertrophic myopathy, dilated cardiomyopathy and others, so that gives us the ability to take these large populations and stratify them rationally into subpopulations.”
Melind Desai, MD, who directs Cleveland Clinic’s Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Center, says that the goal of Tenaya’s second clinical study is to help improve the basic cardiac structure in patients with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy related to the MYPBC3 mutation.
“Now we are talking about a potential cure of a disease for which there was no cure and using a very novel concept,” he says. “So this is an exciting new frontier of therapeutic investigation for MYPBC3 gene-positive patients with a chance for a cure.
Neither of Tenaya’s two therapies address the gene mutation that has affected Borsari and her family. But Ali sees opportunity down the road to develop a gene therapy for her particular gene mutation, since it is the second leading cause of cardiomyopathy. Treating the MYH7 gene is especially challenging because it requires gene editing or silencing, instead of just replacing the gene.
Wendy Borsari was diagnosed at age 24 with a commonly inherited heart disease. She joined Tenaya as a patient advocate in 2021.
“If you add a healthy gene it will produce healthy copies,” Ali explains, “but it won’t stop the bad effects of the mutant protein the gene produces. You can only do that by silencing the gene or editing it out, which is a different, more complicated approach.”
Euan Ashley, professor of medicine and genetics at Stanford University and founding director of its Center for Inherited Cardiovascular Disease, is confident that we will see genetic therapies for heart disease within the next decade.
“We are at this really exciting moment in time where we have diseases that have been under-recognized and undervalued now being attacked by multiple companies with really modern tools,” says Ashley, author of The Genome Odyssey. “Gene therapies are unusual in the sense that they can reverse the cause of the disease, so we have the enticing possibility of actually reversing or maybe even curing these diseases.”
Although no one is doing extensive research into a gene therapy for her particular mutation yet, Borsari remains hopeful, knowing that companies such as Tenaya are moving in that direction.
“I know that’s now on the horizon,” she says. “It’s not just some pipe dream, but will happen hopefully in my lifetime or my kids’ lifetime to help them.”
When I greeted Rodney Gorham, age 63, in an online chat session, he replied within seconds: “My pleasure.”
“Are you moving parts of your body as you type?” I asked.
This time, his response came about five minutes later: “I position the cursor with the eye tracking and select the same with moving my ankles.” Gorham, a former sales representative from Melbourne, Australia, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that impairs the brain’s nerve cells and the spinal cord, limiting the ability to move. ALS essentially “locks” a person inside their own body. Gorham is conversing with me by typing with his mind only–no fingers in between his brain and his computer.
The brain-computer interface enabling this feat is called the Stentrode. It's the brainchild of Synchron, a company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. After Gorham’s neurologist recommended that he try it, he became one of the first volunteers to have an 8mm stent, laced with small electrodes, implanted into his jugular vein and guided by a surgeon into a blood vessel near the part of his brain that controls movement.
After arriving at their destination, these tiny sensors can detect neural activity. They relay these messages through a small receiver implanted under the skin to a computer, which then translates the information into words. This minimally invasive surgery takes a day and is painless, according to Gorham. Recovery time is typically short, about two days.
When a paralyzed patient thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts.
When a paralyzed patient such as Gorham thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts. This pattern is detected by the Stentrode and relayed to a computer that learns to associate this pattern with the patient’s physical movements. The computer recognizes thoughts about kicking, making a fist and other movements as signals for clicking a mouse or pushing certain letters on a keyboard. An additional eye-tracking device controls the movement of the computer cursor.
The process works on a letter by letter basis. That’s why longer and more nuanced responses often involve some trial and error. “I have been using this for about two years, and I enjoy the sessions,” Gorham typed during our chat session. Zafar Faraz, field clinical engineer at Synchron, sat next to Gorham, providing help when required. Gorham had suffered without internet access, but now he looks forward to surfing the web and playing video games.
Gorham, age 63, has been enjoying Stentrode sessions for about two years.
The BCI revolution
In the summer of 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive the FDA’s Investigational Device Exemption, which allows research trials on the Stentrode in human patients. This past summer, the company, together with scientists from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at Utrecht University, published a paper offering a framework for how to develop BCIs for patients with severe paralysis – those who can't use their upper limbs to type or use digital devices.
Three months ago, Synchron announced the enrollment of six patients in a study called COMMAND based in the U.S. The company will seek approval next year from the FDA to make the Stentrode available for sale commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are making progress in the field of BCIs. In August, Neuralink announced a $280 million financing round, the biggest fundraiser yet in the field. Last December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round. “One thing I can promise you, in five years from now, we’re not going to be where we are today. We're going to be in a very different place,” says Elad I. Levy, professor of neurosurgery and radiology at State University of New York in Buffalo.
The risk of hacking exists, always. Cybercriminals, for example, might steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices while extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“The prospect of bestowing individuals with paralysis a renewed avenue for communication and motor functionality is a step forward in neurotech,” says Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. “It is an exciting breakthrough in a world of devastating, scary diseases,” says Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “To connect with the world when you are trapped inside your body is incredible.”
While the benefits for the paraplegic community are promising, the Stentrode’s long-term effectiveness and overall impact needs more research on safety. “Potential risks like inflammation, damage to neural tissue, or unexpected shifts in synaptic transmission due to the implant warrant thorough exploration,” Nelson says.
There are also concens about data privacy concerns and the policies of companies to safeguard information processed through BCIs. “Often, Big Tech is ahead of the regulators because the latter didn’t envisage such a turn of events...and companies take advantage of the lack of legal framework to push forward,” McArthur says. Hacking is another risk. Cybercriminals could steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices. Extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“We have to protect patient identity, patient safety and patient integrity,” Levy says. “In the same way that we protect our phones or computers from hackers, we have to stay ahead with anti-hacking software.” Even so, Levy thinks the anticipated benefits for the quadriplegic community outweigh the potential risks. “We are on the precipice of an amazing technology. In the future, we would be able to connect patients to peripheral devices that enhance their quality of life.”
In the near future, the Stentrode could enable patients to use the Stentrode to activate their wheelchairs, iPods or voice modulators. Synchron's focus is on using its BCI to help patients with significant mobility restrictions—not to enhance the lives of healthy people without any illnesses. Levy says we are not prepared for the implications of endowing people with superpowers.
I wondered what Gorham thought about that. “Pardon my question, but do you feel like you have sort of transcended human nature, being the first in a big line of cybernetic people doing marvelous things with their mind only?” was my last question to Gorham.
A slight smile formed on his lips. In less than a minute, he typed: “I do a little.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.