Later this year, Verve Therapeutics of Cambridge, Ma., will initiate Phase 1 clinical trials to test VERVE-101, a new medication that, if successful, will employ gene editing to significantly reduce low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, or LDL.
LDL is sometimes referred to as the “bad” cholesterol because it collects in the walls of blood vessels, and high levels can increase chances of a heart attack, cardiovascular disease or stroke. There are approximately 600,000 heart attacks per year due to blood cholesterol damage in the United States, and heart disease is the number one cause of death in the world. According to the CDC, a 10 percent decrease in total blood cholesterol levels can reduce the incidence of heart disease by as much as 30 percent.
Verve’s Founder and CEO, Sekar Kathiresan, spent two decades studying the genetic basis for heart attacks while serving as a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. His research led to two critical insights.
“One is that there are some people that are naturally resistant to heart attack and have lifelong, low levels of LDL,” the cardiologist says. “Second, there are some genes that can be switched off that lead to very low LDL cholesterol, and individuals with those genes switched off are resistant to heart attacks.”
Kathiresan and his team formed a hypothesis in 2016 that if they could develop a medicine that mimics the natural protection that some people enjoy, then they might identify a powerful new way to treat and ultimately prevent heart attacks. They launched Verve in 2018 with the goal of creating a one-time therapy that would permanently lower LDL and eliminate heart attacks caused by high LDL.
"Imagine a future where somebody gets a one-time treatment at the time of their heart attack or before as a preventive measure," says Kathiresan.
The medication is targeted specifically for patients who have a genetic form of high cholesterol known as heterozygous familial hypercholesterolemia, or FH, caused by expression of a gene called PCSK9. Verve also plans to develop a program to silence a gene called ANGPTL3 for patients with FH and possibly those with or at risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
FH causes cholesterol to be high from birth, reaching levels of 200 to 300 milligrams per deciliter. Suggested normal levels are around 100 to 129 mg/dl, and anything above 130 mg/dl is considered high. Patients with cardiovascular disease usually are asked to aim for under 70 mg/dl, but many still have unacceptably high LDL despite taking oral medications such as statins. They are more likely to have heart attacks in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and require lifelong LDL control.
The goal for drug treatments for high LDL, Kathiresan says, is to reduce LDL as low as possible for as long as possible. Physicians and researchers also know that a sizeable portion of these patients eventually start to lose their commitment to taking their statins and other LDL-controlling medications regularly.
“If you ask 100 patients one year after their heart attack what fraction are still taking their cholesterol-lowering medications, it’s less than half,” says Kathiresan. “So imagine a future where somebody gets a one-time treatment at the time of their heart attack or before as a preventive measure. It’s right in front of us, and it’s something that Verve is looking to do.”
In late 2020, Verve completed primate testing with monkeys that had genetically high cholesterol, using a one-time intravenous injection of VERVE-101. It reduced the monkeys’ LDL by 60 percent and, 18 months later, remains at that level. Kathiresan expects the LDL to stay low for the rest of their lives.
Verve’s gene editing medication is packaged in a lipid nanoparticle to serve as the delivery mechanism into the liver when infused intravenously. The drug is absorbed and makes its way into the nucleus of the liver cells.
Verve’s program targeting PCSK9 uses precise, single base, pair base editing, Kathiresan says, meaning it doesn't cut DNA like CRISPR gene editing systems do. Instead, it changes one base, or letter, in the genome to a different one without affecting the letters around it. Comparing it to a pencil and eraser, he explains that the medication erases out a letter A and makes it a letter G in the A, C, G and T code in DNA.
“We need to continue to advance our approach and tools to make sure that we have the absolute maximum ability to detect off-target effects,” says Euan Ashley, professor of medicine and genetics at Stanford University.
By making that simple change from A to G, the medication switches off the PCSK9 gene, automatically lowering LDL cholesterol.
“Once the DNA change is made, all the cells in the liver will have that single A to G change made,” Kathiresan says. “Then the liver cells divide and give rise to future liver cells, but every time the cell divides that change, the new G is carried forward.”
Additionally, Verve is pursuing its second gene editing program to eliminate ANGPTL3, a gene that raises both LDL and blood triglycerides. In 2010, Kathiresan's research team learned that people who had that gene completely switched off had LDL and triglyceride levels of about 20 and were very healthy with no heart attacks. The goal of Verve’s medication will be to switch off that gene, too, as an option for additional LDL or triglyceride lowering.
“Success with our first drug, VERVE-101, will give us more confidence to move forward with our second drug,” Kathiresan says. “And it opens up this general idea of making [genomic] spelling changes in the liver to treat other diseases.”
The approach is less ethically concerning than other gene editing technologies because it applies somatic editing that affects only the individual patient, whereas germline editing in the patient’s sperm or egg, or in an embryo, gets passed on to children. Additionally, gene editing therapies receive the same comprehensive amount of testing for side effects as any other medicine.
“We need to continue to advance our approach and tools to make sure that we have the absolute maximum ability to detect off-target effects,” says Euan Ashley, professor of medicine and genetics at Stanford University and founding director of its Center for Inherited Cardiovascular Disease. Ashley and his colleagues at Stanford’s Clinical Genomics Program and beyond are increasingly excited about the promise of gene editing.
“We can offer precision diagnostics, so increasingly we’re able to define the disease at a much deeper level using molecular tools and sequencing,” he continues. “We also have this immense power of reading the genome, but we’re really on the verge of taking advantage of the power that we now have to potentially correct some of the variants that we find on a genome that contribute to disease.”
He adds that while the gene editing medicines in development to correct genomes are ahead of the delivery mechanisms needed to get them into the body, particularly the heart and brain, he’s optimistic that those aren’t too far behind.
“It will probably take a few more years before those next generation tools start to get into clinical trials,” says Ashley, whose book, The Genome Odyssey, was published last year. “The medications might be the sexier part of the research, but if you can’t get it into the right place at the right time in the right dose and not get it to the places you don’t want it to go, then that tool is not of much use.”
Medical experts consider knocking out the PCSK9 gene in patients with the fairly common genetic disorder of familial hypercholesterolemia – roughly one in 250 people – a potentially safe approach to gene editing and an effective means of significantly lowering their LDL cholesterol.
Nurse Erin McGlennon has an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator and takes medications, but she is also hopeful that a gene editing medication will be developed in the near future.
Mary McGowan, MD, chief medical officer for The Family Heart Foundation in Pasadena, CA, sees the tremendous potential for VERVE-101 and believes patients should be encouraged by the fact that this kind of research is occurring and how much Verve has accomplished in a relatively short time. However, she offers one caveat, since even a 60 percent reduction in LDL won’t completely eliminate the need to reduce the remaining amount of LDL.
“This technology is very exciting,” she said, “but we want to stress to our patients with familial hypercholesterolemia that we know from our published research that most people require several therapies to get their LDL down., whether that be in primary prevention less than 100 mg/dl or secondary prevention less than 70 mg/dl, So Verve’s medication would be an add-on therapy for most patients.”
Dr. Kathiresan concurs: “We expect our medicine to lower LDL cholesterol by about 60 percent and that our patients will be on background oral medications, including statins that lower LDL cholesterol.”
Several leading research centers are investigating gene editing treatments for other types of cardiovascular diseases. Elizabeth McNally, Elizabeth Ward Professor and Director at the Center for Genetic Medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, pursues advanced genetic correction in neuromuscular diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy and spinal muscular atrophy. A cardiologist, she and her colleagues know these diseases frequently have cardiac complications.
“Even though the field is driven by neuromuscular specialists, it’s the first therapies in patients with neuromuscular diseases that are also expected to make genetic corrections in the heart,” she says. “It’s almost like an afterthought that we’re potentially fixing the heart, too.”
Another limitation McGowan sees is that too many healthcare providers are not yet familiar with how to test patients to determine whether or not they carry genetic mutations that need to be corrected. “We need to get more genetic testing done,” she says. “For example, that’s the case with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, where a lot of the people who probably carry that diagnosis and have never been genetically identified at a time when genetic testing has never been easier.”
One patient who has been diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy also happens to be a nurse working in research at Genentech Pharmaceutical, now a member of the Roche Group, in South San Francisco. To treat the disease, Erin McGlennon, RN, has an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator and takes medications, but she is also hopeful that a gene editing medication will be developed in the near future.
“With my condition, the septum muscles are just growing thicker, so I’m on medicine to keep my heart from having dangerous rhythms,” says McGlennon of the disease that carries a low risk of sudden cardiac death. “So, the possibility of having a treatment option that can significantly improve my day-to-day functioning would be a major breakthrough.”
McGlennon has some control over cardiovascular destiny through at least one currently available technology: in vitro fertilization. She’s going through it to ensure that her children won't express the gene for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
Late in 2018, Chris Reiner found himself “chasing a persistent cough” to figure out a cause. He talked to doctors; he endured various tests, including an X-ray. Initially, his physician suspected bronchitis. After several months, he still felt no improvement. In May 2019, his general practitioner recommended that Reiner, a business development specialist for a Seattle-based software company, schedule a CAT scan.
Reiner knew immediately that his doctor asking him to visit his office to discuss the results wasn’t a good sign. The longtime resident of Newburyport, MA, remembers dreading “that conversation that people who learn they have cancer have.”
“The doctor handed me something to look at, and the only thing I remember after that was everything went blank all around me,” Reiner, 50, reveals. “It was the magnitude of what he was telling me, that I had a malignant mass in my lung.”
Next, he recalls, he felt ushered into “the jaws of the medical system very quickly.” He spent a couple of days meeting with a team of doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in nearby Boston. One of them was from a medical field he hadn’t even known existed, a pulmonary interventionist, who would perform a biopsy on the mass in his lung.
“Knowing there was a medicine for my particular type of cancer was like a weight lifted off my shoulders."
A week later he and his wife Allison returned to meet with the oncologist, radiologist, pulmonary interventionist – his medical team. They confirmed his initial diagnosis: Stage 4 metastatic lung cancer that had spread to several parts of his body. “We just sat there, stunned,” he says. “I felt like I was getting hit by a wrecking ball over and over.”
An onslaught of medical terminology about what they had identified flowed over the shocked couple, but then the medical team switched gears, he recalls. They offered hope. “They told me, ‘Hey, you’re not a smoker, so that’s good,’” Reiner says. “‘There’s a good chance that what’s driving this disease for you is actually a genetic mutation, and we have ways to understand more about what that could be through some simple testing.’”
They told him about Foundation Medicine, a company launched in neighboring Cambridge, MA, in 2009 that develops, manufactures, and sells genomic profiling assays. These are tests that, according to the company’s website, “can analyze a broad panel of genes to detect the four main classes of genomic alterations known to drive cancer growth.” With these insights, certain patients can be matched with therapies targeted specifically for the genetic driver(s) of their cancer. The company maintains one of the largest cancer genomic databases in the world, with more than 500,000 patient samples profiled, and they have more than 65 biopharma partners.
According to Foundation Medicine, they are the only company that has FDA-approved tests for both tissue- and blood-based comprehensive genomic profiling tests. One other company has an FDA-approved biopsy test, and several other companies offer tissue-based genomic profiling. Additionally, several major cancer centers like Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York and Anderson Cancer Center in Texas have their own such testing platforms.
Currently, genomic profiling is more accessible for patients with advanced cancer, due to broader insurance coverage in later stages of disease.
“Right now, the vast majority of patients either have cancers for which we don’t have treatments or they have genetic alterations that are not known,” says Jorge Garcia, MD, Division Chief, Solid Tumor Oncology, UH Cleveland Medical Center, which has its own CGP testing platform. “However, a significant proportion of patients with advanced cancer have alterations that we can tap for therapeutic purposes.”
Foundation Medicine estimates that in 2017, just over 5 percent of advanced solid cancer patients in the U.S. received CGP testing. In 2021, they estimate that number is between 25 to 30 percent of advanced solid cancer patients in the U.S., which doesn’t include patients who are tested with small (less than 50 genes) panels. Their panel tests for more than 300 cancer-related genes.
“The good news is the platforms we are developing are better and more comprehensive, and they’re going to continue to be larger data sets,” Dr. Garcia adds.
In Reiner’s case, his team ordered comprehensive genetic profiling on both his tissue and blood, from Foundation Medicine.
At this point, Reiner still wasn’t sure what genetic mutations were or how they factored into cancer or what comprehensive genomic profiling entailed. That day, though, his team ushered the Reiners into the world of precision oncology that placed him on much more sure footing to learn about and fight the specific lung cancer that had been troubling him for more than a year.
What genetic alterations were driving his cancer? Foundation Medicine’s tests were about to find out.
At the core of these tests is next generation sequencing, a DNA sequencing technology. Since 2009, this has revolutionized genomic research, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, because it allows an entire human genome to be sequenced within one day. Cancer genomics posits that cancer is caused by mutations and is a disease of the genome. Now, cancer genomes can be systemically studied in their entirety. For cancer patients such as Reiner, NGS can provide a more precise diagnosis and classification of the disease, more accurate prognosis, and potentially the identification of targeted drug treatments. Ultimately, the technology can provide the basis of personalized cancer management.
The detailed reports supply patients and their oncologists with extensive information about the patient’s genomic profile and potential treatment options that they can discuss together. Reiner trusted his doctors that this approach was worth the two- or three-week wait to receive the Foundation Medicine report and the specifically targeted treatment, rather than immediately jump into a round of chemotherapy. He is especially grateful now, he says, because the report delivered a great deal of relief from his previously exhausting and growing anxiety about having cancer.
Reiner and his team learned his lung cancer contained the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mutation. That biomarker enabled his oncologist to prescribe Tagrisso (osimertinib), a medication developed to directly target that genetic mutation.
“Knowing there was a medicine for my particular type of cancer was like a weight lifted off my shoulders,” he says. “It only took a week or two before my cough finally started subsiding. This pill goes right after the particular piece of genetic material in the tumor that’s causing its growth.”
Dr. Jerry Mitchell, director field medical oncology, Foundation Medicine, in Columbus, Ohio, explains that genomic profiling is generating substantial impacts today. “This is a technology that is the standard of care across many advanced malignancies that takes patients from chemotherapy-only options to very targeted options or immunotherapy options,” he says. “You can also look at complex biomarkers, and these are not specific genetic changes but different genes across the tumor to get a biomarker.”
According to Dr. Mitchell, Foundation Medicine’s technology can test more than 324 different cancer-related genes in a single test. Thus, a growing number of patients are benefitting from comprehensive genetic profiling, due to the rapidly growing number of targeted therapies. While not all of the cancers are treatable yet, the company uses that information to partner with researchers to find new potential therapies for patient groups that may have rare mutations.
Since his tumor’s diagnosis, Reiner has undergone chemotherapy and a couple surgeries to treat the metastatic cancer in other parts of his body, but the drug Tagrisso has significantly reduced his lung tumor. Now, having learned so much during the past couple of years, he is grateful for precision oncology. He still reflects on the probability that, had the Tagrisso pill not been available in May 2019, he might have only survived for another six months or a year.
“Comprehensive Genomic Profiling is not some future state, but in both the U.S. and Europe, it is a very standard, accepted, and recommended first step to knowing how to treat your cancer,” says Dr. Mitchell, adding that he feels fortunate to be an oncologist in this era. “However, we know there are still people not getting this recommended testing, so we still have opportunities to find many more patients and impact them by knowing the molecular profile of their cancer.”
Stacey Khoury felt more fatigued and out of breath than she was used to from just walking up the steps to her job in retail jewelry sales in Nashville, Tennessee. By the time she got home, she was more exhausted than usual, too.
"I just thought I was working too hard and needed more exercise," recalls the native Nashvillian about those days in December 2010. "All of the usual excuses you make when you're not feeling 100%."
As a professional gemologist, being hospitalized during peak holiday sales season wasn't particularly convenient. There was no way around it though when her primary care physician advised Khoury to see a blood disorder oncologist because of her disturbing blood count numbers. As part of a routine medical exam, a complete blood count screens for a variety of diseases and conditions that affect blood cells, such as anemia, infection, inflammation, bleeding disorders and cancer.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before."
While she was in the hospital, a bone marrow biopsy revealed that Khoury had acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a high-risk blood cancer. After Khoury completed an intense first round of chemotherapy, her oncologist recommended a bone marrow transplant. The potentially curative treatment for blood-cancer patients requires them to first receive a high dose of chemotherapy. Next, an infusion of stem cells from a healthy donor's bone marrow helps form new blood cells to fight off the cancer long-term.
Each year, approximately 8,000 patients in the U.S. with AML and other blood cancers receive a bone marrow transplant from a donor, according to the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research. But Khoury wasn't so lucky. She ended up being among the estimated 40% of patients eligible for bone marrow transplants who don't receive one, usually because there's no matched donor available.
Khoury's oncologist told her about another option. She could enter a clinical trial for an investigational cell therapy called omidubicel, which is being developed by Israeli biotech company Gamida Cell. The company's cell therapy, which is still experimental, could up a new avenue of treatment for cancer patients who can't get a bone marrow transplant.
Omidubicel consists of stem cells from cord blood that have been expanded using Gamida's technology to ensure there are enough cells for a therapeutic dose. The company's technology allows the immature cord blood cells to multiply quickly in the lab. Like a bone marrow transplant, the goal of the therapy is to make sure the donor cells make their way to the bone marrow and begin producing healthy new cells — a process called engraftment.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before, so there's something very novel and exciting about that," says Ronit Simantov, Gamida Cell's chief medical officer.
Khoury and her husband Rick packed up their car and headed to the closest trial site, the Duke University School of Medicine, roughly 500 miles away. There they met with Mitchell Horowitz, a stem cell transplant specialist at Duke and principal investigator for Gamida's omidubicel study in the U.S.
He told Khoury she was a perfect candidate for the trial, and she enrolled immediately. "When you have one of two decisions, and it's either do this or you're probably not going to be around, it was a pretty easy decision to make, and I am truly thankful for that," she says.
Khoury's treatment started at the end of March 2011, and she was home by July 4 that year. She say the therapy "worked the way the doctors wanted it to work." Khoury's blood counts were rising quicker than the people who had bone marrow matches, and she was discharged from Duke earlier than other patients were.
By expanding the number of cord blood cells — which are typically too few to treat an adult — omidubicel allows doctors to use cord blood for patients who require a transplant but don't have a donor match for bone marrow.
Patients receiving omidubicel first get a blood test to determine their human leukocyte antigen, or HLA, type. This protein is found on most cells in the body and is an important regulator of the immune system. HLA typing is used to match patients to bone marrow and cord blood donors, but cord blood doesn't require as close of a match.
Like bone marrow transplants, one potential complication of omidubicel is graft-versus-host disease, when the donated bone marrow or stem cells register the recipient's body as foreign and attack the body. Depending on the severity of the response, according to the Mayo Clinic, treatment includes medication to suppress the immune system, such as steroids. In clinical trials, the occurrence of graft-versus-host disease with omidubicel was comparable with traditional bone marrow transplants.
"Transplant doctors are working on improving that," Simantov says. "A number of new therapies that specifically address graft-versus-host disease will be making some headway in the coming months and years."
Gamida released the results of the Phase 3 study in February and continues to follow Khoury and the other study patients for their long-term outcomes. The large randomized trial evaluated the safety and efficacy of omidubicel compared to standard umbilical cord blood transplants in patients with blood cancer who didn't have a suitable bone marrow donor. Around 120 patients aged 12 to 65 across the U.S., Europe and Asia were included in the trial. The study found that omidubicel resulted in faster recovery, fewer bacterial and viral infections and fewer days in the hospital.
The company plans to seek FDA approval this year. Simantov anticipates the therapy will receive FDA approval by 2022.
"Opening up cord blood transplants is very important, especially for people of diverse ethnic backgrounds," says oncologist Gary Schiller, principal investigator at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA for Gamida Cell's mid- and late-stage trials. "This expansion technology makes a big difference because it makes cord blood an available option for those who do not have another donor source."
As for Khoury, who proudly celebrated the anniversary of her first transplant in April—she remains cancer free and continues to work full-time as a gemologist. When she has a little free time, she enjoys gardening, sewing, or maybe traveling to national parks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon with her husband Rick.