Rob Waddell dreaded getting a kidney transplant. He suffers from a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes the uncontrolled growth of cysts that gradually choke off kidney function. The inherited defect has haunted his family for generations, killing his great grandmother, grandmother, and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.
But he saw how difficult it was for his mother and sister, who also suffer from this condition, to live with the side effects of the drugs they needed to take to prevent organ rejection, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, and even kidney failure because of their toxicity. Many of his relatives followed the same course, says Waddell: "They were all on dialysis, then a transplant and ended up usually dying from cancers caused by the medications."
When the Louisville native and father of four hit 40, his kidneys barely functioned and the only alternative was either a transplant or the slow death of dialysis. But in 2009, when Waddell heard about an experimental procedure that could eliminate the need for taking antirejection drugs, he jumped at the chance to be their first patient. Devised by scientists at the University of Louisville and Northwestern University, the innovative approach entails mixing stem cells from the live kidney donor with that of the recipient to create a hybrid immune system, known as a chimera, that would trick the immune system and prevent it from attacking the implanted kidney.
The procedure itself was done at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, using a live kidney donated by a neighbor of Waddell's, who camped out in Chicago during his recovery. Prior to surgery, Waddell underwent a conditioning treatment that consisted of low dose radiation and chemotherapy to weaken his own immune system and make room for the infusion of stem cells.
"The low intensity chemo and radiation conditioning regimen create just enough space for the donor stem cells to gain a foothold in the bone marrow and the donor's immune system takes over," says Dr. Joseph Levanthal, the transplant surgeon who performed the operation and director of kidney and pancreas transplantation at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "That way the recipient develops an immune system that doesn't see the donor organ as foreign."
"As a surgeon, I saw what my patients had to go through—taking 25 pills a day, dying at an early age from heart disease, or having a 35% chance of dying every year on dialysis."
A week later, Waddell had the kidney transplant. The following day, he was infused with a complex cellular cocktail that included blood-forming stem cells derived from his donor's bone marrow mixed what are called tolerance inducing facilitator cells (FCs); these cells help the foreign stem cells get established in the recipient's bone marrow.
Over the course of the following year, he was slowly weaned off of antirejection medications—a precaution in case the procedure didn't work—and remarkably, hasn't needed them since. "I felt better than I had in decades because my kidneys [had been] degrading," recalls Waddell, now 54 and a CPA for a global beverage company. And what's even better is that this new approach offers hope for one of his sons who has also inherited the disorder.
Kidney transplants are the most frequent organ transplants in the world and more than 23,000 of these procedures were done in the United States in 2019, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. Of this, about 7,000 operations are done annually using live organ donors; the remainder use organs from people who are deceased. Right now, this revolutionary new approach—as well as a similar strategy formulated by Stanford University scientists--is in the final phase of clinical trials. Ultimately, this research may pave the way towards realizing the holy grail of organ transplantation: preventing organ rejection by creating a tolerant state in which the recipient's immune system is compatible with the donor, which would eliminate the need for a lifetime of medications.
"As a surgeon, I saw what my patients had to go through—taking 25 pills a day, dying at an early age from heart disease, or having a 35% chance of dying every year on dialysis," says Dr. Suzanne Ildstad, a transplant surgeon and director of the Institute for Cellular Therapeutics at the University of Louisville, whose discovery of facilitator cells were the basis for this therapeutic platform. Ildstad, who has spent more than two decades searching for a better way, says, "This is something I have worked for my entire life."
The Louisville group uses a combination of chemo and radiation to replace the recipient's immune and blood forming cells with that of the donor. In contrast, the Stanford protocol involves harvesting the donor's blood stem cells and T-cells, which are the foot soldiers of the immune system that fight off infections and would normally orchestrate the rejection of the transplanted organ. Their transplant recipients undergo a milder form of "conditioning" that only radiates discrete parts of the body and selectively targets the recipient's T-cells, creating room for both sets of T-cells, a strategy these researchers believe has a better safety profile and less of a chance of rejection.
"We try to achieve immune tolerance by a true chimerism," says Dr. Samuel Strober, a professor of medicine for immunology and rheumatology at Stanford University and a leader of this research team. "The recipients immune system cells are maintained but mixed in the blood with that of the donor."
Studies suggest both approaches work. In a 2018 clinical trial conducted by Talaris Therapeutics, a Louisville-based biotech founded by Ildstad, 26 of 37 (70%) of the live donor kidney transplant recipients no longer need immunosuppressants. Last fall, Talaris began the final phase of clinical tests that will eventually encompass more than 120 such patients.
The Stanford group's cell-based immunotherapy, which is called MDR-101 and is sponsored by the South San Francisco biotech, Medeor Therapeutics, has had similar results in patients who received organs from live donors who were either well matched, such as one from siblings, meaning they were immunologically identical, or partially matched; Talaris uses unrelated donors where there is only a partial match.
In their 2020 clinical trial of 51 patients, 29 were fully matched and 22 were a partial match; 22 of the fully matched recipients didn't need antirejection drugs and ten of the partial matches were able to stop taking some of these medications without rejection. "With our fully matched, roughly 80% have been completely off drugs up to 14 years later," says Strober, "and reducing the number of drugs from three to one [in the partial matches] means you have far fewer side effects. The goal is to get them off of all drugs."
But these protocols are limited to a small number of patients—living donor kidney recipients. As a consequence, both teams are experimenting with ways to broaden their approach so they can use cadaver organs from deceased donors, with human tests planned in the coming year. Here's how that would work: after the other organs are removed from a deceased donor, stem cells are harvested from the donor's vertebrae in the spinal column and then frozen for storage.
"We do the transplant and give the patient a chance to recover and maintain them on drugs," says Ildstad. "Then we do the tolerance conditioning at a later stage."
If this strategy is successful, it would be a genuine game changer, and open the door to using these protocols for transplanting other cadaver organs, including the heart, lungs and liver. While the overall procedure is complex and costly, in the long run it's less expensive than repeated transplant surgeries, the cost of medications and hospitalizations for complications caused by the drugs, or thrice weekly dialysis treatments, says Ildstad.
And she adds, you can't put a price tag on the vast improvement in quality of life.
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.