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.
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.