Three years ago, Jordan Janz of Consort, Alberta, knew his gene therapy treatment for cystinosis was working when his hair started to darken. Pigmentation or melanin production is just one part of the body damaged by cystinosis.
“When you have cystinosis, you’re either a redhead or a blonde, and you are very pale,” attests Janz, 23, who was diagnosed with the disease just eight months after he was born. “After I got my new stem cells, my hair came back dark, dirty blonde, then it lightened a little bit, but before it was white blonde, almost bleach blonde.”
According to Cystinosis United, about 500 to 600 people have the rare genetic disease in the U.S.; an estimated 20 new cases are diagnosed each year.
Located in Cambridge, Mass., AVROBIO is a gene therapy company that targets cystinosis and other lysosomal storage disorders, in which toxic materials build up in the cells. Janz is one of five patients in AVROBIO’s ongoing Phase 1/2 clinical trial of a gene therapy for cystinosis called AVR-RD-04.
Recently, AVROBIO compiled positive clinical data from this first and only gene therapy trial for the disease. The data show the potential of the therapy to genetically modify the patients’ own hematopoietic stem cells—a certain type of cell that’s capable of developing into all different types of blood cells—to express the functional protein they are deficient in. It stabilizes or reduces the impact of cystinosis on multiple tissues with a single dose.
Medical researchers have found that more than 80 different mutations to a gene called CTNS are responsible for causing cystinosis. The most common mutation results in a deficiency of the protein cystinosin. That protein functions as a transporter that regulates a lot metabolic processes in the cells.
“One of the first things we see in patients clinically is an accumulation of a particular amino acid called cystine, which grows toxic cystine crystals in the cells that cause serious complications,” explains Essra Rihda, chief medical officer for AVROBIO. “That happens in the cells across the tissues and organs of the body, so the disease affects many parts of the body.”
Jordan Janz, 23, meets Stephanie Cherqui, the principal investigator of his gene therapy trial, before the trial started in 2019.
According to Rihda, although cystinosis can occur in kids and adults, the most severe form of the disease affects infants and makes up about 95 percent of overall cases. Children typically appear healthy at birth, but around six to 18 months, they start to present for medical attention with failure to thrive.
Additionally, infants with cystinosis often urinate frequently, a sign of polyuria, and they are thirsty all the time, since the disease usually starts in the kidneys. Many develop chronic kidney disease that ultimately progresses to the point where the kidney no longer supports the body’s needs. At that stage, dialysis is required and then a transplant. From there the disease spreads to many other organs, including the eyes, muscles, heart, nervous system, etc.
“The gene for cystinosis is expressed in every single tissue we have, and the accumulation of this toxic buildup alters all of the organs of the patient, so little by little all of the organs start to fail,” says Stephanie Cherqui, principal investigator of Cherqui Lab, which is part of UC San Diego’s Department of Pediatrics.
Since the 1950s, a drug called cysteamine showed some therapeutic effect on cystinosis. It was approved by the FDA in 1994 to prevent damage that may be caused by the buildup of cystine crystals in organs. Prior to FDA approval, Cherqui says, children were dying of the disease before they were ten-years-old or after a kidney transplant. By taking oral cysteamine, they can live from 20 to 50 years longer. But it’s a challenging drug because it has to be taken every 6 or 12 hours, and there are serious gastric side effects such as nausea and diarrhea.
“With all of the complications they develop, the typical patient takes 40 to 60 pills a day around the clock,” Cherqui says. “They literally have a suitcase of medications they have to carry everywhere, and all of those medications don’t stop the progression of the disease, and they still die from it.”
Cherqui has been a proponent of gene therapy to treat children’s disorders since studying cystinosis while earning her doctorate in 2002. Today, her lab focuses on developing stem cell and gene therapy strategies for degenerative, hereditary disorders such as cystinosis that affect multiple systems of the body. “Because cystinosis expresses in every tissue in the body, I decided to use the blood-forming stem cells that we have in our bone marrow,” she explains. “These cells can migrate to anywhere in the body where the person has an injury from the disease.”
AVROBIO’s hematopoietic stem cell gene therapy approach collects stem cells from the patient’s bone marrow. They then genetically modify the stem cells to give the patient a copy of the healthy CTNS gene, which the person either doesn’t have or it’s defective.
The patient first undergoes apheresis, a medical procedure in which their blood is passed through an apparatus that separates out the diseased stem cells, and a process called conditioning is used to help eliminate the damaged cells so they can be replaced by the infusion of the patient’s genetically modified stem cells. Once they become engrafted into the patient’s bone marrow, they reproduce into a lot of daughter cells, and all of those daughter cells contain the CTNS gene. Those cells are able to express the healthy, functional, active protein throughout the body to correct the metabolic problem caused by cystinosis.
“What we’re seeing in the adult patients who have been dosed to date is the consistent and sustained engraftment of our genetically modified cells, 17 to 27 months post-gene therapy, so that’s very encouraging and positive,” says Rihda, the chief medical officer at AVROBIO.
When Janz was 11-years-old, his mother got him enrolled in the trial of a new form of cysteamine that would only need to be taken every 12 hours instead of every six. Two years later, she made sure he was the first person on the list for Cherqui’s current stem cell gene therapy trial.
AVROBIO researchers have also confirmed stabilization or improvement in motor coordination and visual perception in the trial participants, suggesting a potential impact on the neuropathology of the disease. Data from five dosed patients show strong safety and tolerability as well as reduced accumulation of cystine crystals in cells across multiple tissues in the first three patients. None of the five patients need to take oral cysteamine.
Janz’s mother, Barb Kulyk, whom he credits with always making him take his medications and keeping him hydrated, had been following Cherqui’s research since his early childhood. When Janz was 11-years-old, she got him enrolled in the trial of a new form of cysteamine that would only need to be taken every 12 hours instead of every six. When he was 17, the FDA approved that drug. Two years later, his mother made sure he was the first person on the list for Cherqui’s current stem cell gene therapy trial. He received his new stem cells on October 7th, 2019, went home in January 2020, and returned to working full time in February.
Jordan Janz, pictured here with his girlfriend, has a new lease on life, plus a new hair color.
He notes that his energy level is significantly better, and his mother has noticed much improvement in him and his daily functioning: He rarely vomits or gets nauseous in the morning, and he has more color in his face as well as his hair. Although he could finish his participation at any time, he recently decided to continue in the clinical trial.
Before the trial, Janz was taking 56 pills daily. He is completely off all of those medications and only takes pills to keep his kidneys working. Because of the damage caused by cystinosis over the course of his life, he’s down to about 20 percent kidney function and will eventually need a transplant.
“Some day, though, thanks to Dr. Cherqui’s team and AVROBIO’s work, when I get a new kidney, cystinosis won’t destroy it,” he concludes.
Responding to COVID-19 outbreaks at more than 200 mink farms, the Danish government, in November 2020, culled its entire mink population. The Danish armed forces helped farmers slaughter each of their 17 million minks, which are normally farmed for their valuable fur.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, said officials, spread from human handlers to the small, ferret-like animals, mutated, and then spread back to several hundred humans. Although the mass extermination faced much criticism, Denmark’s prime minister defended the decision last month, stating that the step was “necessary” and that the Danish government had “a responsibility for the health of the entire world.”
Over the past two and half years, COVID-19 infections have been reported in numerous animal species around the world. In addition to the Danish minks, there is other evidence that the virus can mutate as it’s transmitted back and forth between humans and animals, which increases the risk to public health. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), COVID-19 vaccines for animals may protect the infected species and prevent the transmission of viral mutations. However, the development of such vaccines has been slow. Scientists attribute the deficiency to a lack of data.
“Several animal species have been predicted and found to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2,” says Suresh V. Kuchipudi, interim director of the Animal Diagnostic Laboratory at the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences. But the risk remains unknown for many animals in several parts of the world, he says. “Therefore, there is an urgent need to monitor the SARS-CoV-2 exposure of high-risk animals in different parts of the world.”
In June, India introduced Ancovax, its first COVID-19 vaccine for animals. The development came a year after the nation reported that the virus had infected eight Asiatic lions, with two of them dying. While 30 COVID-19 vaccines for humans have been approved for general or emergency use across the world, Ancovax is only the third such vaccine for animals. The first, named Carnivac-Cov, was registered by Russia in March last year, followed by another vaccine four months later, developed by Zoetis, a U.S. pharmaceutical company.
Christina Lood, a Zoetis spokesperson, says the company has donated over 26,000 doses of its animal vaccine to over 200 zoos – in addition to 20 conservatories, sanctuaries and other animal organizations located in over a dozen countries, including Canada, Chile and the U.S. The vaccine, she adds, has been administered to more than 300 mammalian species so far.
“At least 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases have an animal origin, including COVID-19,” says Lood. “Now more than ever before, we can all see the important connection between animal health and human health."
The Dangers of COVID-19 Infections among Animals
Cases of the virus in animals have been reported in several countries across the world. As of March this year, 29 kinds of animals have been infected. These include pet animals like dogs, cats, ferrets and hamsters; farmed animals like minks; wild animals like the white-tailed deer, mule deer and black-tailed marmoset; and animals in zoos and sanctuaries, including hyenas, hippopotamuses and manatees. Despite the widespread infection, the U.S. Centres for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that “we don’t yet know all of the animals that can get infected,” adding that more studies and surveillance are needed to understand how the virus is spread between humans and animals.
Leyi Wang, a veterinary virologist at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, University of Illinois, says that captive and pet animals most often get infected by humans. It goes both ways, he says, citing a recent study in Hong Kong that found the virus spread from pet hamsters to people.
Wang’s bigger concern is the possibility that humans or domestic animals could transmit the virus back to wildlife, creating an uncontrollable reservoir of the disease, especially given the difficulty of vaccinating non-captive wild animals. Such spillbacks have happened previously with diseases such as plague, yellow-fever, and rabies.
It’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets.
In the past, other human respiratory viruses have proven fatal for endangered great apes like chimpanzees and gorillas. Fearing that COVID-19 could have the same effect, primatologists have been working to protect primates throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, virus reservoirs have already been created among other animals, Wang says. “Deer of over 20 U.S. states were tested SARS-CoV-2 positive,” says Wang, pointing to a study that confirmed human-to-deer transmission as well as deer-to-deer transmission. It remains unclear how many wildlife species may be susceptible to the disease due to interaction with infected deer, says Wang.
In April, the CDC expressed concerns over new coronavirus variants mutating in wildlife, urging health authorities to monitor the spread of the contagion in animals as threats to humans. The WHO has made similar recommendations.
Challenges to Vaccine Development
Zoetis initiated development activities for its COVID-19 vaccine in February 2020 when the first known infection of a dog occurred in Hong Kong. The pharmaceutical giant completed the initial development work and studies on dogs and cats, and shared their findings at the World One Health Congress in the fall of 2020. A few months later, after a troop of eight gorillas contracted the virus at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Zoetis donated its experimental vaccine for emergency use in the great ape population.
Zoetis has uniquely formulated its COVID-19 vaccine for animals. It uses the same antigen as human vaccines, but it includes a different type of carrier protein for inducing a strong immune response. “The unique combination of antigen and carrier ensures safety and efficacy for the species in which a vaccine is used,” says Lood.
But it’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets. “As it became apparent that risk of severe disease for household pets such as cats and dogs was low, demand for those vaccines decreased before they became commercially available,” says William Karesh, executive vice-president for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance. He adds that in affected commercial mink farms, the utility of a vaccine could justify the cost in some cases.
Although scientists have made tremendous advances in making vaccines for animals, Kuchipudi thinks that the need for COVID-19 vaccines for animals “must be evaluated based on many factors, including the susceptibility of the particular animal species, health implications, and cost.”.
Not every scientist feels the need for animal vaccines. Joel Baines, a professor of virology at Cornell University’s Baker Institute for Animal Health, says that while domestic cats are the most susceptible to COVID-19, they usually suffer mild infections. Big cats in zoos are vulnerable, but they can be isolated or distanced from humans. He says that mink farms are a relatively small industry and, by ensuring that human handlers are COVID negative, such outbreaks can be curtailed.
Baines also suggests that human vaccines could probably work in animals, as they were tested in animals during early clinical trials and induced immune responses. “However, these vaccines should be used in humans as a priority and it would be unethical to use a vaccine meant for humans to vaccinate an animal if vaccine doses are at all limiting,” he says.
William Karesh, president of the World Animal Health Organization Working Group on Wildlife Diseases, says the best way to protect animals is to reduce their exposure to infected people.
In the absence of enough vaccines, Karesh says that the best way to protect animals is the same as protecting unvaccinated humans - reduce their exposure to infected people by isolating them when necessary. “People working with or spending time with wild animals should follow available guidelines, which includes testing themselves and wearing PPE to avoid accidentally infecting wildlife,” he says.
The Link between Animal and Human Health
Although there is a need for animal vaccines in response to virus outbreaks, the best approach is to try to prevent the outbreaks in the first place, explains K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India. He says that the incidence of zoonotic diseases has increased in the past six decades because human actions like increased deforestation, wildlife trade and animal meat consumption have opened an ecological window for disease transmission between humans and animals. Such actions chip away at the natural barriers between humans and forest-dwelling viruses, while building conveyor belts for the transmission of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.
Many studies suggest that the source of COVID-19 was infected live animals sold at a wet market in China’s Wuhan. The market sold live dogs, rats, porcupines, badgers, hares, foxes, hedgehogs, marmots and Chinese muntjac (small deer) and, according to a study published in July, the virus was found on the market’s stalls, animal cages, carts and water drains.
This research strongly suggests that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, one that jumps from animals to humans due to our close relationship with them in agriculture, as companions and in the natural environment. Half of the infectious diseases that affect people come from animals, but the study of zoonotic diseases has been historically underfunded, even as they can reduce the likelihood and cost of future pandemics.
“We need to invest in vaccines,” says Reddy, “but that cannot be a substitute for an ecologically sensible approach to curtailing zoonotic diseases.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in health 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.