Gene therapy halts fatal brain disease
EXPERTS SAY THEY INITIALLY BELIEVED THIS ACHIEVEMENT WAS IMPOSSIBLE BUT NOW IT LEADS THE WAY FOR MORE PROGRESSIVE DEVELOPMENTS IN TREATING DISORDER THAT STRIKES MOSTLY BOYS
F or the first time, doctors have used gene therapy to stave off a fatal degenerative brain disease, an achievement that some experts had thought impossible.
The key to making the therapy work? One of the medicine’s greatest villains: HIV.
The patients were children who had inherited a mutated gene causing a rare disorder, adrenoleukodystrophy, or ALD. Nerve cells in the brain die, and in a few short years, children lose the ability to walk or talk.
They become unable to eat without a feeding tube, to see, hear or think. They usually die within five years of diagnosis.
The disease strikes about one in 20,000 boys; symptoms first occur at an average age of 7. The only treatment is a bonemarrow transplant — if a compatible donor can be found — or a transplant with cord blood, if it was saved at birth.
But such transplants are an onerous and dangerous therapy, with a mortality rate as high as 20 per cent. Some who survive are left with lifelong disabilities.
Now a new study, published online in the New England Journal of Medicine, indicates that gene therapy can hold off ALD without side effects, but only if it is begun when the only signs of deterioration are changes in brain scans.
The study involved 17 boys (the disease strikes males almost exclusively), ages 4 to 13. All got gene therapy. Two years later, 15 were functioning normally without obvious symptoms.
“To me, it seems to be working,” said Dr Jim Wilson, director of the gene therapy programme at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, who was not involved in the new study.
One of the remaining two boys died; his disease progressed so rapidly that gene therapy could not stop it. The other withdrew from the study to have a bone-marrow transplant. He died of complications from the procedure.
The study opens new avenues for using gene therapy to treat brain diseases, said Dr Theodore Friedmann, a gene therapy pioneer at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine.
“Many think the central nervous system is intractable and unapproachable,” he said. This study proves them wrong.
The research began with a determined mother, Amber Salzman, who was an executive with a PhD in mathematics at GlaxoSmithKline. In 2000, her nephew was diagnosed with ALD, a disease she had heard of only in the movie, Lorenzo’s Oil. He was “this wonderful sweet brilliant kid,” Salzman said. “All of a sudden he loses his abilities. He crumbles in front of your eyes.”
She had her one-year-old son tested and found that he had the mutated gene, as did another nephew.
She looked into Lorenzo’s oil, a difficult dietary regimen featuring a specially designed oil.
Statisticians at her company told her studies of it did not show any effect.
Salzman met with Dr Tachi Yamada, who was head of research and development at Glaxo. “I said, ‘It will be a few years before the bomb goes off in my son and other nephew. What do we do?’”
Yamada told her that her best bet was gene therapy, but it had never been tried against
a disease like ALD. Indeed, gene therapy had recently fallen out of favour after 18-year-old Jesse Gelsinger died during an experimental treatment. Then, in 2003, four of nine children who got gene therapy for an immunodeficiency disease developed leukaemia.
Salzman, with assistance from her sister, Rachel, and from other scientists, was undeterred. She corralled researchers worldwide, asking why a different sort of virus couldn’t be used to slip a good ALD gene into the boys’ cells.
For Paul Rojas of Dover Plains, New York, whose son was in the study, gene therapy has been a lifesaver.
He never heard of the disease until his son Brandon, who was 7, started drooling, losing his ability to concentrate and listing to one side when he walked.
The diagnosis was a shock. And since Brandon was showing symptoms, it was too late for a bone-marrow transplant.
Brandon’s doctors, Rojas said, sat across from him and his wife, Liliana, in a small conference room and gave them the bad news: “This is a disease that has no cure.”
He had his 4-year-old, Brian, tested. He had the mutated gene, too.
The Rojases could not find a compatible donor for a bonemarrow transplant. But then they learnt about the gene therapy trial and got Brian enrolled. He is now 7, with no sign of the disease.
But his older brother Brandon, now 10, no longer speaks, walks or eats. He has a feeding tube.
“Brian misses playing with his brother,” Rojas said. “Brandon was his idol.”
For Salzman, the results of the new gene therapy study have come too late. She had to get treatment for her son before he developed symptoms.
He had a cord blood transplant, which was successful. Her nephew also had one, but suffered complications and must use a wheelchair.
The results of the new study also give rise to a concern that is becoming a regular feature of gene therapy work and other new biotech therapies: How much will this treatment cost?
Bluebird Bio is not saying — companies generally do not announce prices until their drugs are approved.
Dr David A. Williams, chief scientific officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and a principal investigator of the new study, expects the price to be similar to the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs for a bone-marrow transplant.
Liliana Rojas with her son Brandon in New York. Brandon was diagnosed with ADL in August 2014. Now 10, he no longer speaks, walks or eats.
Top: Dr David Williams visits the Rojas family (from left) ■ mother Liliana, son Brandon, father Paul and son Brian. Above: Brian, Paul and Brandon Rojas, at their home in Dover ■ Plains, New York.
A family photo shows Brandon Rojas at age 7, when he was ■ diagnosed with ALD.