Talaris Therapeutics, Inc., a biotech company based in Louisville, Ky., is edging closer to eradicating the need for immunosuppressive drugs for kidney transplant patients.
In a series of research trials, Talaris is infusing patients with immune system stem cells from their kidney donor to create a donor-derived immune system that accepts the organ without the need for anti-rejection medications. That newly generated system does not attack other parts of the recipient’s body and also fights off infections and diseases as a healthy immune system would.
Talaris is now moving into the final clinical trial, phase III, before submitting for FDA approval. Known as Freedom-1, this trial has 17 sites open throughout the U.S., and Talaris will enroll a total of 120 kidney transplant recipients. One day after receiving their donor’s kidney, 80 people will undergo the company’s therapy, involving the donor’s stem cells and other critical cells that are processed at their facility. Forty will have a regular kidney transplant and remain on immunosuppression to provide a control group.
“The beauty of this procedure is that I don’t have to take all of the anti-rejection drugs,” says Robert Waddell, a finance professional. “I forget that I ever had any kidney issues. That’s how impactful it is.”
The procedure was pioneered decades ago by Suzanne Ildstad as a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh before she became founding CEO of Talaris and then its Chief Scientific Officer. If approved by the FDA, the method could soon become the standard of care for patients in need of a kidney transplant.
“We are working to find a way to reprogram the immune system of transplant recipients so that it sees the donated organ as [belonging to one]self and doesn’t attack it,” explains Scott Requadt, CEO of Talaris. “That obviates the need for lifelong immunosuppression.”
Each year, there are roughly 20,000 kidney transplants, making kidneys the most transplanted organ. About 6,500 of those come from living donors, while deceased donors provide roughly 13,000.
One of the challenges, Requadt points out, is that kidney transplant recipients aren’t always aware of all the implications of immunosuppression. Typically, they will need to take about 20 anti-rejection drugs several times a day to provide immunosuppression as well as treat complications caused by the toxicities of immunosuppression medications. The side effects of chronic immunosuppression include weight gain, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. These cardiovascular comorbidities, Requadt says, are “often more frequently the cause of death than failure of a transplanted organ.”
Patients who are chronically immunosuppressed generally have much higher rates of infections and cancers that have an immune component to them, such as skin cancers.
For the past couple of years, those patients have experienced heightened anxiety because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Immune-suppressing medicine used to protect their new organ also makes it hard for patients to build immunity to foreign invaders like COVID-19.
A study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found the probability of a pandemic with similar impact to COVID-19 is about 2 percent in any year, and estimated that the probability of novel disease outbreaks will grow three-fold in the next few decades. All the more reason to identify an FDA-approved alternative to harsh immunosuppressive drugs.
Of the 18 patients during the phase II research trial who received the Talaris therapy, didn’t take immunosuppression medication and were vaccinated, only two ended up with a COVID infection, according to a review of the data. Among patients who needed to continue taking immunosuppressants or those who didn’t have them but were unvaccinated, the rates of infection were between 40 and 60 percent.
In the earlier phase II study by Talaris with 37 patients, the combined transplantation approach allowed 70 percent of patients to get off all immunosuppression.
“We’ve followed that whole cohort for more than six and a half years and one of them for 12 years from transplant, and every single patient that we got off immunosuppression has been able to stay off,” Requadt says.
That one patient, Robert Waddell, 55, was especially thankful to be weaned off immunosuppressive drugs approximately one year after his transplant procedure. The Louisville resident had long watched his mother, sister and other family members with polycystic kidney disease, or PKD, suffer the effects of chronic immunosuppression. That became his greatest fear when he was diagnosed with end stage renal failure.
Waddell enrolled in the phase II research taking place in Louisville after learning about it in early 2006. He chose to remain in the study when it relocated its clinical headquarters to Northwestern University’s medical center in Chicago a couple years later.
Before surgery, he underwent an enervating regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. It’s required to clear out a patient’s bone marrow cells so that they can be replaced by the donor’s cells. Waddell says the result was worth it: he had his combined kidney and immune system stem cell transplant in May 2009, without any need for chronic immunosuppression.
“I call it ‘short-term pain, long-term gain,’ because it was difficult to go through the conditioning, but after that, it was great,” he says. “I’ve talked to so many kidney recipients who say, ‘I wish I would have done that,’ because most people don’t think about clinical trials, but I was very fortunate.”
Waddell has every reason to support the success of this research, especially given the genetic disorder, PKD, that has plagued his family. One of his four children has PKD. He is anxious for the procedure to become standard of care, if and when his son needs it.
The Talaris procedure was pioneered decades ago by Suzanne Ildstad, founding CEO of Talaris and the company's Chief Scientific Officer, pictured here with the current CEO, Scott Requadt.
“The beauty of this procedure is that I don’t have to take all of the anti-rejection drugs,” says Waddell, a finance professional. “I forget that I ever had any kidney issues. That’s how impactful it is.”
Talaris will continue to follow Waddell and the rest of his cohort to track the effectiveness and safety of the procedure. According to Requadt, the average life of a transplanted kidney is 12 to 15 years, partly because the immunosuppressive drugs worsen the functioning of the organ each year.
“We were the first group to show that we could robustly and fairly reproducibly do this in a clinical setting in humans,” Requadt says. “Most important, we’ve been able to show that we can still get a good engraftment of the stem cells from the donor, even if there is a profound…mismatch between the donor and the recipient’s immune systems.”
In kidney transplantation, it’s important to match for human leukocyte antigens (HLA) because there is a better graft survival in HLA-identical kidney transplants compared with HLA mismatched transplants.
About three months after the transplant, Talaris researchers look for evidence that the donated immune cells and stem cells have engrafted, while making a donor immune system for the patient. If more than 50 percent of the T cells contain the donor’s DNA after six months, patients can start taking fewer immunosuppressants.
“We know from phase II that in our patients who were able to tolerize [accept the organ without rejection] to their donated organ, we saw completely preserved and in fact slightly increased kidney function,” Requadt says. “So, it stands to reason that if you eliminate the drugs that are associated with declining kidney function that you would preserve kidney function, so hopefully the patient will have that one kidney for life.”
Matthew Cooper, director of kidney and pancreas transplantation for MedStar Georgetown Transplant Institute in Washington, DC, states that, “Right now, the Achilles’ heel is we have such a long waiting list and few donors that people die every day waiting for a kidney transplant. Eventually, we will eliminate the organ shortage so that people won’t die from organ failure.”
Cooper, a nationally recognized clinical transplant surgeon for 20 years, says when he started his career, finding a way for patients to forgo immunosuppression was considered “the Holy Grail” of modern transplant medicine.
“Now that we’ve got the protocols in place and some personal examples of how that can happen, it’s pretty exciting to see that all coming together,” he adds.
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 scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- How to improve your working memory
- A plain old solution to stress
- Progress on a deadly cancer for first time since 1995*
- Rise of the robot surgeon
- Tomato brain power
And in an honorable mention this week, new research on the gut connection to better brain health after strokes.
* The methodology for this study has come under scrutiny here.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5 percent of patients die from the attack, and 20 percent within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1 percent of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20 percent of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
This article was originally published by Leaps.org on July 28, 2021.