Like all those whose kidneys have failed, Scott Burton’s life revolves around dialysis. For nearly two decades, Burton has been hooked up (or, since 2020, has hooked himself up at home) to a dialysis machine that performs the job his kidneys normally would. The process is arduous, time-consuming, and expensive. Except for a brief window before his body rejected a kidney transplant, Burton has depended on machines to take the place of his kidneys since he was 12-years-old. His whole life, the 39-year-old says, revolves around dialysis.
“Whenever I try to plan anything, I also have to plan my dialysis,” says Burton says, who works as a freelance videographer and editor. “It’s a full-time job in itself.”
Many of those on dialysis are in line for a kidney transplant that would allow them to trade thrice-weekly dialysis and strict dietary limits for a lifetime of immunosuppressants. Burton’s previous transplant means that his body will likely reject another donated kidney unless it matches perfectly—something he’s not counting on. It’s why he’s enthusiastic about the development of artificial kidneys, small wearable or implantable devices that would do the job of a healthy kidney while giving users like Burton more flexibility for traveling, working, and more.
Still, the devices aren’t ready for testing in humans—yet. But recent advancements in engineering mean that the first preclinical trials for an artificial kidney could happen as soon as 18 months from now, according to Jonathan Himmelfarb, a nephrologist at the University of Washington.
“It would liberate people with kidney failure,” Himmelfarb says.
An engineering marvel
Compared to the heart or the brain, the kidney doesn’t get as much respect from the medical profession, but its job is far more complex. “It does hundreds of different things,” says UCLA’s Ira Kurtz.
Kurtz would know. He’s worked as a nephrologist for 37 years, devoting his career to helping those with kidney disease. While his colleagues in cardiology and endocrinology have seen major advances in the development of artificial hearts and insulin pumps, little has changed for patients on hemodialysis. The machines remain bulky and require large volumes of a liquid called dialysate to remove toxins from a patient’s blood, along with gallons of purified water. A kidney transplant is the next best thing to someone’s own, functioning organ, but with over 600,000 Americans on dialysis and only about 100,000 kidney transplants each year, most of those in kidney failure are stuck on dialysis.
Part of the lack of progress in artificial kidney design is the sheer complexity of the kidney’s job. Each of the 45 different cell types in the kidney do something different.
Part of the lack of progress in artificial kidney design is the sheer complexity of the kidney’s job. To build an artificial heart, Kurtz says, you basically need to engineer a pump. An artificial pancreas needs to balance blood sugar levels with insulin secretion. While neither of these tasks is simple, they are fairly straightforward. The kidney, on the other hand, does more than get rid of waste products like urea and other toxins. Each of the 45 different cell types in the kidney do something different, helping to regulate electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and phosphorous; maintaining blood pressure and water balance; guiding the body’s hormonal and inflammatory responses; and aiding in the formation of red blood cells.
There's been little progress for patients during Ira Kurtz's 37 years as a nephrologist. Artificial kidneys would change that.
Dialysis primarily filters waste, and does so well enough to keep someone alive, but it isn’t a true artificial kidney because it doesn’t perform the kidney’s other jobs, according to Kurtz, such as sensing levels of toxins, wastes, and electrolytes in the blood. Due to the size and water requirements of existing dialysis machines, the equipment isn’t portable. Physicians write a prescription for a certain duration of dialysis and assess how well it’s working with semi-regular blood tests. The process of dialysis itself, however, is conducted blind. Doctors can’t tell how much dialysis a patient needs based on kidney values at the time of treatment, says Meera Harhay, a nephrologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
But it’s the impact of dialysis on their day-to-day lives that creates the most problems for patients. Only one-quarter of those on dialysis are able to remain employed (compared to 85% of similar-aged adults), and many report a low quality of life. Having more flexibility in life would make a major different to her patients, Harhay says.
“Almost half their week is taken up by the burden of their treatment. It really eats away at their freedom and their ability to do things that add value to their life,” she says.
Art imitates life
The challenge for artificial kidney designers was how to compress the kidney’s natural functions into a portable, wearable, or implantable device that wouldn’t need constant access to gallons of purified and sterilized water. The other universal challenge they faced was ensuring that any part of the artificial kidney that would come in contact with blood was kept germ-free to prevent infection.
As part of last year’s KidneyX Prize, a partnership between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the American Society of Nephrology, inventors were challenged to create prototypes for artificial kidneys. Himmelfarb’s team at the University of Washington’s Center for Dialysis Innovation won the prize by focusing on miniaturizing existing technologies to create a portable dialysis machine. The backpack sized AKTIV device (Ambulatory Kidney to Increase Vitality) will recycle dialysate in a closed loop system that removes urea from blood and uses light-based chemical reactions to convert the urea to nitrogen and carbon dioxide, which allows the dialysate to be recirculated.
Himmelfarb says that the AKTIV can be used when at home, work, or traveling, which will give users more flexibility and freedom. “If you had a 30-pound device that you could put in the overhead bins when traveling, you could go visit your grandkids,” he says.
Kurtz’s team at UCLA partnered with the U.S. Kidney Research Corporation and Arkansas University to develop a dialysate-free desktop device (about the size of a small printer) as the first phase of a progression that will he hopes will lead to something small and implantable. Part of the reason for the artificial kidney’s size, Kurtz says, is the number of functions his team are cramming into it. Not only will it filter urea from blood, but it will also use electricity to help regulate electrolyte levels in a process called electrodeionization. Kurtz emphasizes that these additional functions are what makes his design a true artificial kidney instead of just a small dialysis machine.
One version of an artificial kidney.
“It doesn't have just a static function. It has a bank of sensors that measure chemicals in the blood and feeds that information back to the device,” Kurtz says.
Other startups are getting in on the game. Nephria Bio, a spinout from the South Korean-based EOFlow, is working to develop a wearable dialysis device, akin to an insulin pump, that uses miniature cartridges with nanomaterial filters to clean blood (Harhay is a scientific advisor to Nephria). Ian Welsford, Nephria’s co-founder and CTO, says that the device’s design means that it can also be used to treat acute kidney injuries in resource-limited settings. These potentials have garnered interest and investment in artificial kidneys from the U.S. Department of Defense.
For his part, Burton is most interested in an implantable device, as that would give him the most freedom. Even having a regular outpatient procedure to change batteries or filters would be a minor inconvenience to him.
“Being plugged into a machine, that’s not mimicking life,” he says.
In 2018, Robyn was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a blood cancer causing chronic inflammation and scarring. As a research scientist by training, she knew she had limited options. A stem cell transplant is a terminally ill patient's best chance for survival against blood cancers, including leukaemia. It works by destroying a patient's cancer cells and replacing them with healthy cells from a donor.
However, there is a huge risk of Graft vs Host disease (GVHD), which affects around 30-40% of recipients. Patients receive billions of cells in a stem cell transplant but only a fraction are beneficial. The rest can attack healthy tissue leading to GVHD. It affects the skin, gut and lungs and can be truly debilitating.
Currently, steroids are used to try and prevent GVHD, but they have many side effects and are effective in only 50% of cases. “I spoke with my doctors and reached out to patients managing GVHD,” says Robyn, who prefers not to use her last name for privacy reasons. “My concerns really escalated for what I might face post-transplant.”
Then she heard about a new highly precise cell therapy developed by a company called Orca Bio, which gives patients more beneficial cells and fewer cells that cause GVHD. She decided to take part in their phase 2 trial.
How It Works
In stem cell transplants, patients receive immune cells and stem cells. The donor immune cells or T cells attack and kill malignant cells. This is the graft vs leukaemia effect (GVL). The stem cells generate new healthy cells.
Unfortunately, T cells can also cause GVHD, but a rare subset of T cells, called T regulatory cells, can actually prevent GVHD.
Orca’s cell sorting technology distinguishes T regulatory cells from stem cells and conventional T cells on a large scale. It’s this cell sorting technology which has enabled them to create their new cell therapy, called Orca T. It contains a precise combination of stem cells and immune cells with more T regulatory cells and fewer conventional T cells than in a typical stem cell transplant.
“Ivan Dimov’s idea was to spread out the cells, keep them stationary and then use laser scanning to sort the cells,” explains Nate Fernhoff, co-founder of Orca Bio. “The beauty here is that lasers don't care how quickly you move them.”
Over the past 40 years, scientists have been trying to create stem cell grafts that contain the beneficial cells whilst removing the cells that cause GVHD. What makes it even harder is that most transplant centers aren’t able to manipulate grafts to create a precise combination of cells.
Innovative Cell Sorting
Ivan Dimov, Jeroen Bekaert and Nate Fernhoff came up with the idea behind Orca as postdocs at Stanford, working with cell pioneer Irving Weissman. They recognised the need for a more effective cell sorting technology. In a small study at Stanford, Professor Robert Negrin had discovered a combination of T cells, T regulatory cells and stem cells which prevented GVHD but retained the beneficial graft vs leukaemia effect (GVL). However, manufacturing was problematic. Conventional cell sorting is extremely slow and specific. Negrin was only able to make seven highly precise products, for seven patients, in a year. Annual worldwide cases of blood cancer number over 1.2 million.
“We started Orca with this idea: how do we use manufacturing solutions to impact cell therapies,” co-founder Fernhoff reveals. In conventional cell sorting, cells move past a stationary laser which analyses each cell. But cells can only be moved so quickly. At a certain point they start to experience stress and break down. This makes it very difficult to sort the 100 billion cells from a donor in a stem cell transplant.
“Ivan Dimov’s idea was to spread out the cells, keep them stationary and then use laser scanning to sort the cells,” Fernhoff explains. “The beauty here is that lasers don't care how quickly you move them.” They developed this technology and called it Orca Sort. It enabled Orca to make up to six products per week in the first year of manufacturing.
Every product Orca makes is for one patient. The donor is uniquely matched to the patient. They have to carry out the cell sorting procedure each time. Everything also has to be done extremely quickly. They infuse fresh living cells from the donor's vein to the patient's within 72 hours.
“We’ve treated almost 200 patients in all the Orca trials, and you can't do that if you don't fix the manufacturing process,” Fernhoff says. “We're working on what we think is an incredibly promising drug, but it's all been enabled by figuring out how to make a high precision cell therapy at scale.”
Orca revealed the results of their phase 1b and phase 2 trials at the end of last year. In their phase 2 trial only 3% of the 29 patients treated with Orca T cell therapy developed chronic GVHD in the first year after treatment. Comparatively, 43% of the 95 patients given a conventional stem cell transplant in a contemporary Stanford trial developed chronic GVHD. Of the 109 patients tested in phase 1b and phase 2 trials, 74% using Orca T didn't relapse or develop any form of GVHD compared to 34% in the control trial.
“Until a randomised study is done, we can make no assumption about the relative efficacy of this approach," says Jeff Szer, professor of haematology at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. "But the holy grail of separating GVHD and GVL is still there and this is a step towards realising that dream.”
Stan Riddell, an immunology professor, at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Centre, believes Orca T is highly promising. “Orca has advanced cell selection processes with innovative methodology and can engineer grafts with greater precision to add cell subsets that may further contribute to beneficial outcomes,” he says. “Their results in phase 1 and phase 2 studies are very exciting and offer the potential of providing a new standard of care for stem cell transplant.”
However, though it is an “intriguing step,” there’s a need for further testing, according to Jeff Szer, a professor of haematology at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
“The numbers tested were tiny and comparing the outcomes to anything from a phase 1/2 setting is risky,” says Szer. “Until a randomised study is done, we can make no assumption about the relative efficacy of this approach. But the holy grail of separating GVHD and GVL is still there and this is a step towards realising that dream.”
The team is soon starting Phase 3 trials for Orca T. Its previous success has led them to develop Orca Q, a cell therapy for patients who can't find an exact donor match. Transplants for patients who are only a half-match or mismatched are not widely used because there is a greater risk of GVHD. Orca Q has the potential to control GVHD even more and improve access to transplants for many patients.
Fernhoff hopes they’ll be able to help people not just with blood cancers but also with other blood and immune disorders. If a patient has a debilitating disease which isn't life threatening, the risk of GVHD outweighs the potential benefits of a stem cell transplant. The Orca products could take away that risk.
Meanwhile, Robyn has no regrets about participating in the Phase 2 trial. “It was a serious decision to make but I'm forever grateful that I did,” she says. “I have resumed a quality of life aligned with how I felt pre-transplant. I have not had a single issue with GVHD.”
“I want to be able to get one of these products to every patient who could benefit from it,” Fernhoff says. “It's really exciting to think about how Orca's products could be applied to all sorts of autoimmune disorders.”
Later this year, Verve Therapeutics of Cambridge, Ma., will initiate Phase 1 clinical trials to test VERVE-101, a new medication that, if successful, will employ gene editing to significantly reduce low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, or LDL.
LDL is sometimes referred to as the “bad” cholesterol because it collects in the walls of blood vessels, and high levels can increase chances of a heart attack, cardiovascular disease or stroke. There are approximately 600,000 heart attacks per year due to blood cholesterol damage in the United States, and heart disease is the number one cause of death in the world. According to the CDC, a 10 percent decrease in total blood cholesterol levels can reduce the incidence of heart disease by as much as 30 percent.
Verve’s Founder and CEO, Sekar Kathiresan, spent two decades studying the genetic basis for heart attacks while serving as a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. His research led to two critical insights.
“One is that there are some people that are naturally resistant to heart attack and have lifelong, low levels of LDL,” the cardiologist says. “Second, there are some genes that can be switched off that lead to very low LDL cholesterol, and individuals with those genes switched off are resistant to heart attacks.”
Kathiresan and his team formed a hypothesis in 2016 that if they could develop a medicine that mimics the natural protection that some people enjoy, then they might identify a powerful new way to treat and ultimately prevent heart attacks. They launched Verve in 2018 with the goal of creating a one-time therapy that would permanently lower LDL and eliminate heart attacks caused by high LDL.
"Imagine a future where somebody gets a one-time treatment at the time of their heart attack or before as a preventive measure," says Kathiresan.
The medication is targeted specifically for patients who have a genetic form of high cholesterol known as heterozygous familial hypercholesterolemia, or FH, caused by expression of a gene called PCSK9. Verve also plans to develop a program to silence a gene called ANGPTL3 for patients with FH and possibly those with or at risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
FH causes cholesterol to be high from birth, reaching levels of 200 to 300 milligrams per deciliter. Suggested normal levels are around 100 to 129 mg/dl, and anything above 130 mg/dl is considered high. Patients with cardiovascular disease usually are asked to aim for under 70 mg/dl, but many still have unacceptably high LDL despite taking oral medications such as statins. They are more likely to have heart attacks in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and require lifelong LDL control.
The goal for drug treatments for high LDL, Kathiresan says, is to reduce LDL as low as possible for as long as possible. Physicians and researchers also know that a sizeable portion of these patients eventually start to lose their commitment to taking their statins and other LDL-controlling medications regularly.
“If you ask 100 patients one year after their heart attack what fraction are still taking their cholesterol-lowering medications, it’s less than half,” says Kathiresan. “So imagine a future where somebody gets a one-time treatment at the time of their heart attack or before as a preventive measure. It’s right in front of us, and it’s something that Verve is looking to do.”
In late 2020, Verve completed primate testing with monkeys that had genetically high cholesterol, using a one-time intravenous injection of VERVE-101. It reduced the monkeys’ LDL by 60 percent and, 18 months later, remains at that level. Kathiresan expects the LDL to stay low for the rest of their lives.
Verve’s gene editing medication is packaged in a lipid nanoparticle to serve as the delivery mechanism into the liver when infused intravenously. The drug is absorbed and makes its way into the nucleus of the liver cells.
Verve’s program targeting PCSK9 uses precise, single base, pair base editing, Kathiresan says, meaning it doesn't cut DNA like CRISPR gene editing systems do. Instead, it changes one base, or letter, in the genome to a different one without affecting the letters around it. Comparing it to a pencil and eraser, he explains that the medication erases out a letter A and makes it a letter G in the A, C, G and T code in DNA.
“We need to continue to advance our approach and tools to make sure that we have the absolute maximum ability to detect off-target effects,” says Euan Ashley, professor of medicine and genetics at Stanford University.
By making that simple change from A to G, the medication switches off the PCSK9 gene, automatically lowering LDL cholesterol.
“Once the DNA change is made, all the cells in the liver will have that single A to G change made,” Kathiresan says. “Then the liver cells divide and give rise to future liver cells, but every time the cell divides that change, the new G is carried forward.”
Additionally, Verve is pursuing its second gene editing program to eliminate ANGPTL3, a gene that raises both LDL and blood triglycerides. In 2010, Kathiresan's research team learned that people who had that gene completely switched off had LDL and triglyceride levels of about 20 and were very healthy with no heart attacks. The goal of Verve’s medication will be to switch off that gene, too, as an option for additional LDL or triglyceride lowering.
“Success with our first drug, VERVE-101, will give us more confidence to move forward with our second drug,” Kathiresan says. “And it opens up this general idea of making [genomic] spelling changes in the liver to treat other diseases.”
The approach is less ethically concerning than other gene editing technologies because it applies somatic editing that affects only the individual patient, whereas germline editing in the patient’s sperm or egg, or in an embryo, gets passed on to children. Additionally, gene editing therapies receive the same comprehensive amount of testing for side effects as any other medicine.
“We need to continue to advance our approach and tools to make sure that we have the absolute maximum ability to detect off-target effects,” says Euan Ashley, professor of medicine and genetics at Stanford University and founding director of its Center for Inherited Cardiovascular Disease. Ashley and his colleagues at Stanford’s Clinical Genomics Program and beyond are increasingly excited about the promise of gene editing.
“We can offer precision diagnostics, so increasingly we’re able to define the disease at a much deeper level using molecular tools and sequencing,” he continues. “We also have this immense power of reading the genome, but we’re really on the verge of taking advantage of the power that we now have to potentially correct some of the variants that we find on a genome that contribute to disease.”
He adds that while the gene editing medicines in development to correct genomes are ahead of the delivery mechanisms needed to get them into the body, particularly the heart and brain, he’s optimistic that those aren’t too far behind.
“It will probably take a few more years before those next generation tools start to get into clinical trials,” says Ashley, whose book, The Genome Odyssey, was published last year. “The medications might be the sexier part of the research, but if you can’t get it into the right place at the right time in the right dose and not get it to the places you don’t want it to go, then that tool is not of much use.”
Medical experts consider knocking out the PCSK9 gene in patients with the fairly common genetic disorder of familial hypercholesterolemia – roughly one in 250 people – a potentially safe approach to gene editing and an effective means of significantly lowering their LDL cholesterol.
Nurse Erin McGlennon has an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator and takes medications, but she is also hopeful that a gene editing medication will be developed in the near future.
Mary McGowan, MD, chief medical officer for The Family Heart Foundation in Pasadena, CA, sees the tremendous potential for VERVE-101 and believes patients should be encouraged by the fact that this kind of research is occurring and how much Verve has accomplished in a relatively short time. However, she offers one caveat, since even a 60 percent reduction in LDL won’t completely eliminate the need to reduce the remaining amount of LDL.
“This technology is very exciting,” she said, “but we want to stress to our patients with familial hypercholesterolemia that we know from our published research that most people require several therapies to get their LDL down., whether that be in primary prevention less than 100 mg/dl or secondary prevention less than 70 mg/dl, So Verve’s medication would be an add-on therapy for most patients.”
Dr. Kathiresan concurs: “We expect our medicine to lower LDL cholesterol by about 60 percent and that our patients will be on background oral medications, including statins that lower LDL cholesterol.”
Several leading research centers are investigating gene editing treatments for other types of cardiovascular diseases. Elizabeth McNally, Elizabeth Ward Professor and Director at the Center for Genetic Medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, pursues advanced genetic correction in neuromuscular diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy and spinal muscular atrophy. A cardiologist, she and her colleagues know these diseases frequently have cardiac complications.
“Even though the field is driven by neuromuscular specialists, it’s the first therapies in patients with neuromuscular diseases that are also expected to make genetic corrections in the heart,” she says. “It’s almost like an afterthought that we’re potentially fixing the heart, too.”
Another limitation McGowan sees is that too many healthcare providers are not yet familiar with how to test patients to determine whether or not they carry genetic mutations that need to be corrected. “We need to get more genetic testing done,” she says. “For example, that’s the case with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, where a lot of the people who probably carry that diagnosis and have never been genetically identified at a time when genetic testing has never been easier.”
One patient who has been diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy also happens to be a nurse working in research at Genentech Pharmaceutical, now a member of the Roche Group, in South San Francisco. To treat the disease, Erin McGlennon, RN, has an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator and takes medications, but she is also hopeful that a gene editing medication will be developed in the near future.
“With my condition, the septum muscles are just growing thicker, so I’m on medicine to keep my heart from having dangerous rhythms,” says McGlennon of the disease that carries a low risk of sudden cardiac death. “So, the possibility of having a treatment option that can significantly improve my day-to-day functioning would be a major breakthrough.”
McGlennon has some control over cardiovascular destiny through at least one currently available technology: in vitro fertilization. She’s going through it to ensure that her children won't express the gene for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.