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.”
Scientists redesign bacteria to tackle the antibiotic resistance crisis
In 1945, almost two decades after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he warned that as antibiotics use grows, they may lose their efficiency. He was prescient—the first case of penicillin resistance was reported two years later. Back then, not many people paid attention to Fleming’s warning. After all, the “golden era” of the antibiotics age had just began. By the 1950s, three new antibiotics derived from soil bacteria — streptomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline — could cure infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis and typhoid fever, among others.
Today, these antibiotics and many of their successors developed through the 1980s are gradually losing their effectiveness. The extensive overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to the rise of drug resistance. The livestock sector buys around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. every year. Farmers feed cows and chickens low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and fatten up the animals, which eventually causes resistant bacterial strains to evolve. If manure from cattle is used on fields, the soil and vegetables can get contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another major factor is doctors overprescribing antibiotics to humans, particularly in low-income countries. Between 2000 to 2018, the global rates of human antibiotic consumption shot up by 46 percent.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring a promising avenue: the use of synthetic biology to engineer new bacteria that may work better than antibiotics. The need continues to grow, as a Lancetstudy linked antibiotic resistance to over 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019, surpassing HIV/AIDS and malaria. The western sub-Saharan Africa region had the highest death rate (27.3 people per 100,000).
Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
To make it worse, our remedy pipelines are drying up. Out of the 18 biggest pharmaceutical companies, 15 abandoned antibiotic development by 2013. According to the AMR Action Fund, venture capital has remained indifferent towards biotech start-ups developing new antibiotics. In 2019, at least two antibiotic start-ups filed for bankruptcy. As of December 2020, there were 43 new antibiotics in clinical development. But because they are based on previously known molecules, scientists say they are inadequate for treating multidrug-resistant bacteria. Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
The rise of synthetic biology
To circumvent this dire future, scientists have been working on alternative solutions using synthetic biology tools, meaning genetically modifying good bacteria to fight the bad ones.
From the time life evolved on earth around 3.8 billion years ago, bacteria have engaged in biological warfare. They constantly strategize new methods to combat each other by synthesizing toxic proteins that kill competition.
For example, Escherichia coli produces bacteriocins or toxins to kill other strains of E.coli that attempt to colonize the same habitat. Microbes like E.coli (which are not all pathogenic) are also naturally present in the human microbiome. The human microbiome harbors up to 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells. The majority of them are beneficial organisms residing in the gut at different compositions.
The chemicals that these “good bacteria” produce do not pose any health risks to us, but can be toxic to other bacteria, particularly to human pathogens. For the last three decades, scientists have been manipulating bacteria’s biological warfare tactics to our collective advantage.
In the late 1990s, researchers drew inspiration from electrical and computing engineering principles that involve constructing digital circuits to control devices. In certain ways, every cell in living organisms works like a tiny computer. The cell receives messages in the form of biochemical molecules that cling on to its surface. Those messages get processed within the cells through a series of complex molecular interactions.
Synthetic biologists can harness these living cells’ information processing skills and use them to construct genetic circuits that perform specific instructions—for example, secrete a toxin that kills pathogenic bacteria. “Any synthetic genetic circuit is merely a piece of information that hangs around in the bacteria’s cytoplasm,” explains José Rubén Morones-Ramírez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, Mexico. Then the ribosome, which synthesizes proteins in the cell, processes that new information, making the compounds scientists want bacteria to make. “The genetic circuit remains separated from the living cell’s DNA,” Morones-Ramírez explains. When the engineered bacteria replicates, the genetic circuit doesn’t become part of its genome.
Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. cholerae strains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut.
In 2000, Boston-based researchers constructed an E.coli with a genetic switch that toggled between turning genes on and off two. Later, they built some safety checks into their bacteria. “To prevent unintentional or deleterious consequences, in 2009, we built a safety switch in the engineered bacteria’s genetic circuit that gets triggered after it gets exposed to a pathogen," says James Collins, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and faculty member at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “After getting rid of the pathogen, the engineered bacteria is designed to switch off and leave the patient's body.”
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes resistant strains to evolve
Seek and destroy
As the field of synthetic biology developed, scientists began using engineered bacteria to tackle superbugs. They first focused on Vibrio cholerae, whichin the 19th and 20th century caused cholera pandemics in India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and Americas. Like many other bacteria, V. cholerae communicate with each other via quorum sensing, a process in which the microorganisms release different signaling molecules, to convey messages to its brethren. Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. choleraestrains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut. When untreated, cholera has a mortality rate of 25 to 50 percent and outbreaks frequently occur in developing countries, especially during floods and droughts.
Sometimes, however, V. cholerae makes mistakes. In 2008, researchers at Cornell University observed that when quorum sensing V. cholerae accidentally released high concentrations of a signaling molecule called CAI-1, it had a counterproductive effect—the pathogen couldn’t colonize the gut.
So the group, led byJohn March, professor of biological and environmental engineering, developed a novel strategy to combat V. cholerae. They genetically engineered E.coli toeavesdrop on V. cholerae communication networks and equipped it with the ability to release the CAI-1 molecules. That interfered with V. cholerae progress.Two years later, the Cornell team showed that V. cholerae-infected mice treated with engineered E.coli had a 92 percent survival rate.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones.
Three years later in 2011, Singapore-based scientists engineered E.coli to detect and destroy Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an oftendrug-resistant pathogen that causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. Once the genetically engineered E.coli found its target through its quorum sensing molecules, it then released a peptide, that could eradicate 99 percent of P. aeruginosa cells in a test-tube experiment. The team outlined their work in a Molecular Systems Biology study.
“At the time, we knew that we were entering new, uncharted territory,” says lead author Matthew Chang, an associate professor and synthetic biologist at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the study. “To date, we are still in the process of trying to understand how long these microbes stay in our bodies and how they might continue to evolve.”
More teams followed the same path. In a 2013 study, MIT researchers also genetically engineered E.coli to detect P. aeruginosa via the pathogen’s quorum-sensing molecules. It then destroyed the pathogen by secreting a lab-made toxin.
Probiotics that fight
A year later in 2014, a Nature study found that the abundance of Ruminococcus obeum, a probiotic bacteria naturally occurring in the human microbiome, interrupts and reduces V.cholerae’s colonization— by detecting the pathogen’s quorum sensing molecules. The natural accumulation of R. obeumin Bangladeshi adults helped them recover from cholera despite living in an area with frequent outbreaks.
The findings from 2008 to 2014 inspired Collins and his team to delve into how good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi can attack drug-resistant bacteria. In 2018, Collins and his team developed the engineered probiotic strategy. They tweaked a commonly found bacteria in yogurt called Lactococcus lactis.
Engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut. --José Rubén Morones-Ramírez.
More scientists followed with more experiments. So far, researchers have engineered various probiotic organisms to fight pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (leading cause of skin, tissue, bone, joint and blood infections) and Clostridium perfringens (which causes watery diarrhea) in test-tube and animal experiments. In 2020, Russian scientists engineered a probiotic called Pichia pastoris to produce an enzyme called lysostaphin that eradicated S. aureus in vitro. Another 2020 study from China used an engineered probiotic bacteria Lactobacilli casei as a vaccine to prevent C. perfringens infection in rabbits.
In a study last year, Ramírez’s group at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, engineered E. coli to detect quorum-sensing molecules from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a notorious superbug. The E. coli then releases a bacteriocin that kills MRSA. “An antibiotic is just a molecule that is not intelligent,” says Ramírez. “On the other hand, engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut.”
Collins and Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, found that engineered E. coli can help treat other conditions—such as phenylketonuria, a rare metabolic disorder, that causes the build-up of an amino acid phenylalanine. Their start-up Synlogic aims to commercialize the technology, and has completed a phase 2 clinical trial.
Circumventing the challenges
The bacteria-engineering technique is not without pitfalls. One major challenge is that beneficial gut bacteria produce their own quorum-sensing molecules that can be similar to those that pathogens secrete. If an engineered bacteria’s biosensor is not specific enough, it will be ineffective.
Another concern is whether engineered bacteria might mutate after entering the gut. “As with any technology, there are risks where bad actors could have the capability to engineer a microbe to act quite nastily,” says Collins of MIT. But Collins and Ramírez both insist that the chances of the engineered bacteria mutating on its own are virtually non-existent. “It is extremely unlikely for the engineered bacteria to mutate,” Ramírez says. “Coaxing a living cell to do anything on command is immensely challenging. Usually, the greater risk is that the engineered bacteria entirely lose its functionality.”
However, the biggest challenge is bringing the curative bacteria to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in antibiotics or their alternatives because it’s less profitable than developing new medicines for non-infectious diseases. Unlike the more chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer that require long-term medications, infectious diseases are usually treated much quicker. Running clinical trials are expensive and antibiotic-alternatives aren’t lucrative enough.
“Unfortunately, new medications for antibiotic resistant infections have been pushed to the bottom of the field,” says Lu of MIT. “It's not because the technology does not work. This is more of a market issue. Because clinical trials cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the only solution is that governments will need to fund them.” Lu stresses that societies must lobby to change how the modern healthcare industry works. “The whole world needs better treatments for antibiotic resistance.”
Meet Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the first Director of President Biden's new health agency, ARPA-H
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Renee Wegrzyn, appointed by President Biden as the first director of a health agency created last year, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. It’s inspired by DARPA, the agency that develops innovations for the Defense department and has been credited with hatching world-changing technologies such as ARPANET, which became the internet.
Time will tell if ARPA-H will lead to similar achievements in the realm of health. That’s what President Biden and Congress expect in return for funding ARPA-H at 2.5 billion dollars over three years.
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How will the agency figure out which projects to take on, especially with so many patient advocates for different diseases demanding moonshot funding for rapid progress?
I talked with Dr. Wegrzyn about the opportunities and challenges, what lessons ARPA-H is borrowing from Operation Warp Speed, how she decided on the first ARPA-H project that was announced recently, why a separate agency was needed instead of reforming HHS and the National Institutes of Health to be better at innovation, and how ARPA-H will make progress on disease prevention in addition to treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among many other health priorities.
Dr. Wegrzyn’s resume leaves no doubt of her suitability for this role. She was a program manager at DARPA where she focused on applying gene editing and synthetic biology to the goal of improving biosecurity. For her work there, she received the Superior Public Service Medal and, in case that wasn’t enough ARPA experience, she also worked at another ARPA that leads advanced projects in intelligence, called I-ARPA. Before that, she ran technical teams in the private sector working on gene therapies and disease diagnostics, among other areas. She has been a vice president of business development at Gingko Bioworks and headed innovation at Concentric by Gingko. Her training and education includes a PhD and undergraduate degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and she did her postdoc as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Heidelberg, Germany.
Dr. Wegrzyn told me that she’s “in the hot seat.” The pressure is on for ARPA-H especially after the need and potential for health innovation was spot lit by the pandemic and the unprecedented speed of vaccine development. We'll soon find out if ARPA-H can produce gamechangers in health that are equivalent to DARPA’s creation of the internet.
ARPA-H - https://arpa-h.gov/
Dr. Wegrzyn profile - https://arpa-h.gov/people/renee-wegrzyn/
Dr. Wegrzyn Twitter - https://twitter.com/rwegrzyn?lang=en
President Biden Announces Dr. Wegrzyn's appointment - https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statement...
Leaps.org coverage of ARPA-H - https://leaps.org/arpa/
ARPA-H program for joints to heal themselves - https://arpa-h.gov/news/nitro/ -
ARPA-H virtual talent search - https://arpa-h.gov/news/aco-talent-search/
Dr. Renee Wegrzyn was appointed director of ARPA-H last October.
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.