Imagine that the protein in bread, eggs, steak, even beans is not the foundation for a healthy diet, but a poison to your brain. That is the reality for people living with Phenylketonuria, or PKU. This cluster of rare genetic variations affects the ability to digest phenylalanine (Phe), one of the chemical building blocks of protein. The toxins can build up in the brain causing severe mental retardation.
Can a probiotic help digest the troublesome proteins before they can enter the bloodstream and travel to the brain? A Boston area biotech start up, Synlogic, believes it can. Their starting point is an E. coli bacterium that has been used as a probiotic for more than a century. The company then screened thousands of gene variants to identify ones that produced enzymes most efficient at slicing and dicing the target proteins and optimized them further through directed evolution. The results have been encouraging.
But Christine Brown knew none of this when the hospital called saying that standard newborn screening of her son Connor had come back positive for PKU. It was urgent that they visit a special metabolic clinic the next day, which was about a three-hour drive away.
“I was told not to go on the Internet,” Christine recalls, “So when somebody tells you not to go on the Internet, what do you do? Even back in 2005, right.” What she saw were the worst examples of retardation, which was a common outcome from PKU before newborn screening became routine. “We were just in complete shell shock, our whole world just kind of shattered and went into a tail spin.”
“I remember feeding him the night before our clinic visit and almost feeling like I was feeding him poison because I knew that breast milk must have protein in it,” she says.
“Some of my first memories are of asking, ‘Mommy, can I eat this? There were yes foods and no foods.'"
Over the next few days the dedicated staff of the metabolic clinic at the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison began to walk she and husband Kevin back from that nightmare. They learned that a simple blood test to screen newborns had been developed in the early 1960s to detect PKU and that the condition could be managed with stringent food restrictions and vigilant monitoring of Phe levels.
Everything in Your Mouth Counts
PKU can be successfully managed with a severely restricted diet. That simple statement is factually true, but practically impossible to follow, as it requires slashing protein consumption by about 90 percent. To compensate for the missing protein, several times a day PKU patients take a medical formula – commonly referred to simply as formula – containing forms of proteins that are digestible to their bodies. Several manufacturers now add vitamins and minerals and offer a variety of formats and tastes to make it more consumer friendly, but that wasn't always the case.
“When I was a kid, it tasted horrible, was the consistency of house paint. I didn't think about it, I just drank it. I didn't like it but you get used to it after a while,” recalls Jeff Wolf, the twang of Appalachia still strong in his voice. Now age 50, he grew up in Ashland, Kentucky and was part of the first wave of persons with PKU who were identified at birth as newborn screening was rolled out across the US. He says the options of taste and consistency have improved tremendously over the years.
Some people with PKU are restricted to as little as 8 grams of protein a day from food. That's a handful of almonds or a single hard-boiled egg; a skimpy 4-ounce hamburger and slice of cheese adds up to half of their weekly protein ration. Anything above that daily allowance is more than the body can handle and toxic levels of Phe begin to accumulate in the brain.
“Some of my first memories are of asking, ‘Mommy, can I eat this? There were yes foods and no foods,’” recalls Les Clark. He has never eaten a hamburger, steak, or ribs, practically a sacrilege for someone raised in Stanton, a small town in northeastern Nebraska, a state where the number of cattle and hogs are several-fold those of people.
His grandmother learned how to make low protein bread, but it looked and tasted different. His mom struggled making birthday cakes. “I learned some bad words at a very young age” as mom struggled applying icing that would pull the cake apart or a slice would collapse into a heap of crumbs, Les recalls.
Les Clark with a birthday cake.
Controlling the diet “is not so bad when you are a baby” because that's all you know, says Jerry Vockley, Director of the Center for Rare Disease Therapy at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. “But after a while, as you get older and you start tasting other things and you say, Well, gee, this stuff tastes way better than what you're giving me. What's the deal? It becomes harder to maintain the diet.”
First is the lure of forbidden foods as children venture into the community away from the watchful eyes of parents. The support system weakens further when they leave home for college or work. “Pizza was mighty tasty,” Wolf' says of his first slice.
Vockley estimates that about 90 percent of adults with PKU are off of treatment. Moving might mean finding a new metabolic clinic that treats PKU. A lapse in insurance coverage can be a factor. Finally there is plain fatigue from multiple daily dosing of barely tolerable formula, monitoring protein intake, and simply being different in terms of food restrictions. Most people want to fit in and not be defined by their medical condition.
Jeff Wolf was one of those who dropped out in his twenties and thirties. He stopped going to clinic, monitoring his Phe levels, and counting protein. But the earlier experience of living with PKU never completely left the back of his mind; he listened to his body whenever eating too much protein left him with the “fuzzy brain" of a protein hangover. About a decade ago he reconnected with a metabolic clinic, began taking formula and watching his protein intake. He still may go over his allotment for a single day but he tries to compensate on subsequent days so that his Phe levels come back into balance.
Jeff Wolf on a boat.
One of the trickiest parts of trying to manage phenylalanine intake is the artificial sweetener aspartame. The chemical is ubiquitous in diet and lite foods and drinks. Gum too, you don't even have to swallow to receive a toxic dose of Phe. Most PKUers say it is easier to simply avoid these products entirely rather than try to count their Phe content.
Most rare diseases have no treatment. There are two drugs for PKU that provide some benefit to some portion of patients but those drugs often have their own burdens.
KUVAN® (sapropterin dihydrochloride) is a pill or powder that helps correct a protein folding error so that food proteins can be digested. It is approved for most types of PKU in adults and children one month and older, and often is used along with a protein-restricted diet.
“The problem is that it doesn't work for every [patient's genetic] mutation, and there are hundreds of mutations that have been identified with PKU. Two to three percent of patients will have a very dramatic response and if you're one of those small number of patients, it's great,” says Vockley. “If you have one of the other mutation, chances are pretty good you still are going to end up on a restricted diet.”
PALYNZIQ® (pegvaliase-pqpz) “has the potential to lower the Phe to normal levels, it's a real breakthrough in the field,” says Vockley. “But is a very hard drug to use. Most folks have to take either one or two 2ml injections a day of something that is basically a gel, and some individuals have to take three.”
Many PKUers have reactions at the site of the injection and some develop anaphylaxis, a severe potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that can happen within seconds and can occur at any time, even after long term use. Many patients using Palynziq carry an EpiPen, a self-injection devise containing a form of adrenaline that can reverse some of the symptoms of anaphylaxis.
Then there is the cost. With the Kuvan dosing for an adult, “you're talking between $100,000 and $200,000 a year. And Palynziq is three times that,” says Vockley. Insurance coverage through a private plan or a state program is essential. Some state programs provide generous coverage while others are skimpy. Most large insurance company plans cover the drugs, sometimes with significant copays, but companies that are self-insured are under no legal obligation to provide coverage.
Les Clark found that out the hard way when the company he worked for was sold. The new owner was self-insured and declined to continue covering his drugs. Almost immediately he was out of pocket an additional $1500 a month for formula, and that was with a substantial discount through the manufacturer's patient support program. He says, “If you don't have an insurance policy that will cover the formula, it's completely unaffordable.” He quickly began to look for a new job.
It's easy to see why PKUers are eager for advances that will make managing their condition more effect, easier, and perhaps more affordable. Synlogic's efforts have drawn their attention and raised hopes.
Just before Thanksgiving Jerry Vockley presented the latest data to a metabolism conference meeting in Australia. There were only 8 patients in this group of a phase 2 trial using the original version of the company's lead E. coli product, SYNB1618, but they were intensely studied. Each was given the probiotic and then a challenge meal. Vockley saw a 40% reduction in Phe absorption and later a 20% reduction in mean fasting Phe levels in the blood. The product was easy to use and tolerate.
The company also presented early results for SYNB1934, a follow on version that further genetically tweaked the E. coli to roughly double the capacity to chop up the target proteins. Synlogic is recruiting patients for studies to determine the best dosing, which they are planning for next year.
“It's an exciting approach,” says Lex Cowsert, Director of Research Development at the National PKU Alliance, a nonprofit that supports the patient, family, and research communities involved with PKU. “Every patient is different, every patient has a different tolerance for the type of therapy that they are willing to pursue,” and if it pans out, it will be a welcome addition, either alone or in combination with other approaches, to living with PKU.
Author's Note: Reporting this story was made possible by generous support from the National Press Foundation and the Fondation Ipsen. Thanks to the people who so generously shared their time and stories in speaking with me.
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:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”