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.”
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”