To fix heart conditions, a company is using gene therapy plus patient voices
As a child, Wendy Borsari participated in a health study at Boston Children’s Hospital. She was involved because heart disease and sudden cardiac arrest ran in her family as far back as seven generations. When she was 18, however, the study’s doctors told her that she had a perfectly healthy heart and didn’t have to worry.
A couple of years after graduating from college, though, the Boston native began to experience episodes of near fainting. During any sort of strenuous exercise, my blood pressure would drop instead of increasing, she recalls.
She was diagnosed at 24 with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Although HCM is a commonly inherited heart disease, Borsari’s case resulted from a rare gene mutation, the MYH7 gene. Her mother had been diagnosed at 27, and Borsari had already lost her grandmother and two maternal uncles to the condition. After her own diagnosis, Borsari spent most of her free time researching the disease and “figuring out how to have this condition and still be the person I wanted to be,” she says.
Then, her son was found to have the genetic mutation at birth and diagnosed with HCM at 15. Her daughter, also diagnosed at birth, later suffered five cardiac arrests.
That changed Borsari’s perspective. She decided to become a patient advocate. “I didn’t want to just be a patient with the condition,” she says. “I wanted to be more involved with the science and the biopharmaceutical industry so I could be active in helping to make it better for other patients.”
She consulted on patient advocacy for a pharmaceutical and two foundations before coming to a company called Tenaya in 2021.
“One of our core values as a company is putting patients first,” says Tenaya's CEO, Faraz Ali. “We thought of no better way to put our money where our mouth is than by bringing in somebody who is affected and whose family is affected by a genetic form of cardiomyopathy to have them make sure we’re incorporating the voice of the patient.”
Biomedical corporations and government research agencies are now incorporating patient advocacy more than ever, says Alice Lara, president and CEO of the Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndromes Foundation in Salt Lake City, Utah. These organizations have seen the effectiveness of including patient voices to communicate and exemplify the benefits that key academic research institutions have shown in their medical studies.
“From our side of the aisle,” Lara says, “what we know as patient advocacy organizations is that educated patients do a lot better. They have a better course in their therapy and their condition, and understanding the genetics is important because all of our conditions are genetic.”
Founded in 2016, Tenaya is advancing gene therapies and small molecule drugs in clinical trials for both prevalent and rare forms of heart disease, says Ali, the CEO.
The firm's first small molecule, now in a Phase 1 clinical trial, is intended to treat heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, where the amount of blood pumped by the heart is reduced due to the heart chambers becoming weak or stiff. The condition accounts for half or more of all heart failure in the U.S., according to Ali, and is growing quickly because it's closely associated with diabetes. It’s also linked with metabolic syndrome, or a cluster of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels.
“We have a novel molecule that is first in class and, to our knowledge, best in class to tackle that, so we’re very excited about the clinical trial,” Ali says.
The first phase of the trial is being performed with healthy participants, rather than people with the disease, to establish safety and tolerability. The researchers can also look for the drug in blood samples, which could tell them whether it's reaching its target. Ali estimates that, if the company can establish safety and that it engages the right parts of the body, it will likely begin dosing patients with the disease in 2024.
Tenaya’s therapy delivers a healthy copy of the gene so that it makes a copy of the protein missing from the patients' hearts because of their mutation. The study will start with adult patients, then pivot potentially to children and even newborns, Ali says, “where there is an even greater unmet need because the disease progresses so fast that they have no options.”
Although this work still has a long way to go, Ali is excited about the potential because the gene therapy achieved positive results in the preclinical mouse trial. This animal trial demonstrated that the treatment reduced enlarged hearts, reversed electrophysiological abnormalities, and improved the functioning of the heart by increasing the ejection fraction after the single-dose of gene therapy. That measurement remained stable to the end of the animals’ lives, roughly 18 months, Ali says.
He’s also energized by the fact that heart disease has “taken a page out of the oncology playbook” by leveraging genetic research to develop more precise and targeted drugs and gene therapies.
“Now we are talking about a potential cure of a disease for which there was no cure and using a very novel concept,” says Melind Desai of the Cleveland Clinic.
Tenaya’s second program focuses on developing a gene therapy to mitigate the leading cause of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy through a specific gene called MYPBC3. The disease affects approximately 600,000 patients in the U.S. This particular genetic form, Ali explains, affects about 115,000 in the U.S. alone, so it is considered a rare disease.
“There are infants who are dying within the first weeks to months of life as a result of this mutation,” he says. “There are also adults who start having symptoms in their 20s, 30s and 40s with early morbidity and mortality.” Tenaya plans to apply before the end of this year to get the FDA’s approval to administer an investigational drug for this disease humans. If approved, the company will begin to dose patients in 2023.
“We now understand the genetics of the heart much better,” he says. “We now understand the leading genetic causes of hypertrophic myopathy, dilated cardiomyopathy and others, so that gives us the ability to take these large populations and stratify them rationally into subpopulations.”
Melind Desai, MD, who directs Cleveland Clinic’s Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Center, says that the goal of Tenaya’s second clinical study is to help improve the basic cardiac structure in patients with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy related to the MYPBC3 mutation.
“Now we are talking about a potential cure of a disease for which there was no cure and using a very novel concept,” he says. “So this is an exciting new frontier of therapeutic investigation for MYPBC3 gene-positive patients with a chance for a cure.
Neither of Tenaya’s two therapies address the gene mutation that has affected Borsari and her family. But Ali sees opportunity down the road to develop a gene therapy for her particular gene mutation, since it is the second leading cause of cardiomyopathy. Treating the MYH7 gene is especially challenging because it requires gene editing or silencing, instead of just replacing the gene.
Wendy Borsari was diagnosed at age 24 with a commonly inherited heart disease. She joined Tenaya as a patient advocate in 2021.
“If you add a healthy gene it will produce healthy copies,” Ali explains, “but it won’t stop the bad effects of the mutant protein the gene produces. You can only do that by silencing the gene or editing it out, which is a different, more complicated approach.”
Euan Ashley, professor of medicine and genetics at Stanford University and founding director of its Center for Inherited Cardiovascular Disease, is confident that we will see genetic therapies for heart disease within the next decade.
“We are at this really exciting moment in time where we have diseases that have been under-recognized and undervalued now being attacked by multiple companies with really modern tools,” says Ashley, author of The Genome Odyssey. “Gene therapies are unusual in the sense that they can reverse the cause of the disease, so we have the enticing possibility of actually reversing or maybe even curing these diseases.”
Although no one is doing extensive research into a gene therapy for her particular mutation yet, Borsari remains hopeful, knowing that companies such as Tenaya are moving in that direction.
“I know that’s now on the horizon,” she says. “It’s not just some pipe dream, but will happen hopefully in my lifetime or my kids’ lifetime to help them.”
Saliva May Help Diagnose PTSD in Veterans
As a bioinformatician and young veteran, Guy Shapira welcomed the opportunity to help with conducting a study to determine if saliva can reveal if war veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
The research team, which drew mostly from Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and Sagol School of Neuroscience, collected saliva samples from approximately 200 veterans who suffered psychological trauma stemming from the years they spent fighting in the First Lebanon War in 1982. The researchers also characterized the participants’ psychological, social and medical conditions, including a detailed analysis of their microbiomes.
They found that the former soldiers with PTSD have a certain set of bacteria in their saliva, a distinct microbiotic signature that is believed to be the first biological marker for PTSD. The finding suggests that, in the future, saliva tests could be used to help identify this disorder. As of now, PTSD is often challenging to diagnose.
Shapira, a Ph.D. student at Tel Aviv University, was responsible for examining genetic and health-related data of the veterans who participated – information that had been compiled steadily over four decades. The veterans provided this data voluntarily, Shapira says, at least partly because the study carries important implications for their own psychological health.
The research was led by Illana Gozes, professor emerita of clinical biochemistry. “We looked at the bacteria in their blood and their saliva,” Gozes explains. To discover the microbial signatures, they analyzed the biometric data for each soldier individually and as a group. Comparing the results of the participants’ microbial distribution to the results of their psychological examinations and their responses to personal welfare questionnaires, the researchers learned that veterans with PTSD – and, more generally, those with significant mental health issues – have the same bacterial content in their saliva.
“Having empirical metrics to assess whether or not someone has PTSD can help veterans who make their case to the Army to get reparations,” Shapira says.
More research is required to support this finding, published in July in Nature’s prestigious Molecular Psychiatry, but it could have important implications for identifying people with PTSD. Currently, it can be diagnosed only through psychological and behavioral symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, sleep disorders, increased irritability and physical aggressiveness. Veterans sometimes don’t report these symptoms to health providers or realize they’re related to the trauma they experienced during combat.
The researchers also identified a correlation that indicates people with a higher level of education show a lower occurrence of the microbiotic signature linked to PTSD, while people who experienced greater exposure to air pollution show a higher occurrence of this signature. That confirms their finding that the veterans’ health is dependent on their individual biology combined with the conditions of their environment.
“Thanks to this study, it may be possible in the future to use objective molecular and biological characteristics to distinguish PTSD sufferers, taking into account environmental influences,” Gozes said in an article in Israel21c. “We hope that this new discovery and the microbial signatures described in this study might promote easier diagnosis of post-traumatic stress in soldiers so they can receive appropriate treatment.”
Gozes added that roughly a third of the subjects in their study hadn’t been diagnosed with PTSD previously. That meant they had never received any support from Israel’s Ministry of Defense or other officials for treatment and reparations, the payments to compensate for injuries sustained during war.
Shapira’s motivation to participate in this study is personal as well as professional: in addition to being veteran himself, his father served in the First Lebanon War. “Fortunately, he did not develop any PTSD, despite being shot in the foot...some of his friends died, so it wasn’t easy on him,” says Shapira.
“Having empirical metrics to assess whether or not someone has PTSD can help veterans who make their case to the Army to get reparations,” Shapira says. “It is a very difficult and demanding process, so the more empirical metrics we have to assess PTSD, the less people will have to suffer in these committees and unending examinations that are mostly pitched against the veterans because the state is trying to avoid spending too much money.”
A new way to help kids with ADHD: Treat adult ADHD
When a child is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it can often be a surprise to the parents that one of them has ADHD as well. They may have experienced some of the symptoms but never had the condition diagnosed.
Physicians, however, are usually less surprised because they know that ADHD is a very heritable disorder. According to a 2015 study, if a parent has ADHD, the child has up to a 57 percent chance of having it, and the child’s risk is 32 percent if their sibling has it.
“There have been 20 to 30 twin studies that show that the heritability of ADHD is about 70 percent,” meaning that both twins have it, says Stephen Faraone, distinguished professor and vice chair for research at SUNY Upstate Medical University. “It is as heritable as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism or other psychiatric disorders that people tend to think are more biological than ADHD for some reason.”
More attention needed for adult ADHD
Brad McAlister, CMSE, executive director of the American Professional Society of ADHD & Related Disorders, or APSARD, explains that the consequences of untreated ADHD in adults are very well documented. The prevalence of ADHD in U.S. adults is 4.4 percent or about 11 million people.
Many adults go undiagnosed for decades or are misdiagnosed by providers. McAlister says that 75 percent are not receiving treatment. “The U.S. economic burden of adult ADHD is $105 to $194 billion annually,” he says. “The negative consequences on peoples’ lives include higher risks of dropping out of school, losing jobs, financial debt, divorce, fractured relationships, substance use disorders, and co-occurring depression/anxiety.”
One of the negative impacts of undiagnosed ADHD in adults is the effect that it can have on their children who have ADHD.
Adult ADHD is currently treated by a broad range of health care providers with different educational backgrounds and in different practice settings. In August, APSARD published the first U.S. guidelines for adult ADHD. “The creation of guidelines for ADHD in adults will allow all practitioners to benefit from the best evidence about diagnosing and treating the disorder,” McAlister says.
Faraone explains that the guidelines are intended to help practitioners understand the best practices for adults with ADHD, including screening and other ways of evaluating whether someone has it. He recently completed a study of what he calls the Metrics of Quality Care for adults with ADHD.
“We looked at a sizable group of primary care practices in the U.S., and we learned that although quality care for adults with ADHD has been gradually improving over the past decade, there are many areas where it is still far behind where it needs to be,” he says. “That’s consistent with other studies that show that in primary care for adults, ADHD is not treated nearly as well as it is treated in specialty and psychiatry care.”
How kids with ADHD are affected
One of the negative impacts of undiagnosed ADHD in adults is the effect that it can have on their children who have ADHD because their ability to care for that child’s special needs may be impaired.
“The treatments that are most effective in treating children with ADHD are medication and behavioral interventions as their reward bait, and at home, it’s the parent that administers them,” says Mark A. Stein, director of the ADHD and Related Disorders Program at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “Adults with ADHD have difficulties with time management and organization skills, so they will have a hard time making sure their child is ready for school, has breakfast, has their medications, etcetera.”
Even more challenging than getting a prescription, Stein adds, is finding a psychologist or therapist who is skilled in evaluating and working with children with ADHD and their parents. If left undiagnosed and untreated, adult ADHD may also interfere with getting a good evaluation for the child.
“If you have ADHD and your mind is wandering and you don’t have all of the forms from the school for your provider, and you’re focused on the bad day you’re having rather than giving a history of your child, all of that is going to delay getting an effective treatment for your child,” Stein says. “So that’s why it’s important to identify ADHD in parents.”
Promising research and training
After delays due to the pandemic, Stein and his colleague Andrea Chronis-Tuscano, professor and director of the Maryland ADHD Program at the University of Maryland, are now about two years into what they anticipate will be a six-year study that involves treating parents who have children with untreated ADHD symptoms. The goal is to see whether treating the parent first with medication and training, or just the training, helps the child’s symptoms due to improved parenting. They are also studying whether they can postpone the need for medication until children are older, when it’s more effective.
“Pediatricians are more aware of ADHD in parents because of our study,” Stein says. “They’re also more aware of the shortcomings in our healthcare delivery system in terms of how hard it is to find providers who are comfortable treating adult ADHD.”
“Besides depression, ADHD is the other disorder that parents have that really impacts kids significantly," Stein says. “With treatment, many people with ADHD do very well."
That said, he’s seen a significant improvement in the past decade with increased recognition of ADHD in adults. “It started with pediatricians recognizing that post-partum depression impacted the mother’s ability to care for her children and making it routine to screen for depression in parents of kids,” he says. “Besides depression, ADHD is the other disorder that parents have that really impacts kids significantly, so it’s important for them to be aware of characteristics of [ADHD in] parents and have resources they can give parents to help them.”
Stein emphasizes that even if someone displays symptoms of ADHD, that does not mean that they have it. They should seek a physician’s evaluation to confirm a diagnosis, which would enable them to get the medication and behavioral treatment they need.
The medication can take effect in parents within an hour. Meanwhile, when parents participate in the behavioral parent training courses, their kids with ADHD start showing significant improvement within about four to five weeks, according to Stein.
“With treatment, many people with ADHD do very well,” he says. “Especially if they get through formal schooling, find the right fit with their job, and if they make the right choices with their relationships, those three things can go a long way to make their ADHD fade into the background.”