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.”
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.”
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.