Aperçu Rapide: Que signifie le succès dans les essais cliniques avec des oligonucléotides antisens (ASO) ?

La recherche avance rapidement pour traiter les troubles neurologiques héréditaires de tous types, y compris les ataxies spinocérébelleuses. SCAsource a déjà étudié la science derrière la thérapie ASO. Ces maladies partagent une théorie commune selon laquelle la mutation de l’ADN conduit à la formation d’une protéine altérée qui est toxique. La thérapie ASO est destinée à arrêter la formation de la protéine toxique en « tirant sur le messager ».

Qu’est-ce qui est impliqué dans ces essais cliniques?

Pour voir ce qui pourrait arriver dans les essais cliniques d’ataxie, regardons les essais d’ASO qui se déroulent actuellement dans les maladies polyglutamines apparentées. Dans la maladie de Huntington (HD), deux programmes sont actuellement en cours d’essais cliniques. Les autorités réglementaires considèrent les ASO comme des médicaments et exigent que le produit soit à la fois sûr et efficace chez les patients.

Les ASO ne peuvent pas être administrés sous forme de pilules et ils sont actuellement injectés dans le liquide céphalo-rachidien. C’est ce qu’on appelle l’administration intrathécale pour obtenir le médicament directement dans l’espace liquide où il peut retourner dans le cerveau. Les patients des études de phase 1 en HD sont invités à effectuer jusqu’à 7 injections et un programme de phase 3 nécessite des injections tous les deux mois pendant 2 ans. Cela implique un grand engagement envers l’étude et demande beaucoup aux patients et à leurs familles.

La seule étude publiée en double aveugle de phase 1 contrôlée contre placebo en HD (Tabrizi et al., New England Journal of Medicine, 2019) a identifié qu’une série de 4 injections étaient sans danger. Ils ont mesuré les changements de la « mauvaise » protéine dans le liquide céphalo-rachidien comme une preuve de concept que les ASO pourraient abaisser les niveaux de protéines. La bonne nouvelle, c’est qu’ils ont constaté une réduction liée à la dose de cette protéine d’environ 40%. Les patients de cette étude se sont vu proposer des injections mensuelles « en ouvert », ce qui a montré une réduction de 60 % de la protéine anormale selon une présentation récente. Les extensions en ouvert sont lorsque les patients peuvent continuer à prendre un médicament après la fin de la période d’essai clinique.

docteur en blouses bleues et une blouse blanche tenant un stéthoscope. Ils sont de côté, donc seul leur corps peut être vu, sans leur visage.
À quoi ressembleront les essais cliniques d’ataxie impliquant des ASO à l’avenir? À quoi ressemblera le succès?

Alors, que signifie le succès ?

Les études de phase 3 actuellement en cours dans la MH sont conçues pour voir s’il y a un ralentissement de la progression de la maladie. Ceci est mesuré en évaluant le changement des symptômes moteurs, cognitifs et comportementaux au fil du temps. Les changements se produisent lentement en HD et SCA. Par conséquent, un grand nombre de patients sont nécessaires sur une période d’étude relativement longue.

En fin de compte, une étude réussie qui montre un ralentissement de la progression de la maladie signifie probablement que les patients ne connaîtront aucune amélioration évidente pendant le traitement et qu’ils continueront à présenter des symptômes progressifs au fil du temps. Espérons que ce sera à un rythme plus lent par rapport au groupe placebo. Puisqu’il n’y a aucun traitement disponible pour SCA ou HD, ce sera le bienvenu. Il n’est en aucun cas considéré comme un remède ou susceptible d’arrêter la progression. Les vrais remèdes en médecine sont rares, où un remède est défini comme une maladie mettant fin aux médicaments.

Graphique des symptômes en fonction du temps. La ligne de "progression typique" présente plus de symptômes plus rapidement. La ligne «progression retardée après traitement potentiel» présente moins de symptômes, mais augmente toujours avec le temps.
Graphique expliquant comment un traitement ASO potentiel pourrait fonctionner à l’avenir. Bien que cela puisse ne pas faire disparaître complètement les symptômes, cela pourrait réduire la gravité des symptômes, le nombre de symptômes et / ou le délai d’apparition des premiers symptômes. Illustration de Celeste Suart.

Dans la communauté de la recherche HD, nous posons des questions qui incluent :

  1. Est-ce une bonne idée de réduire la bonne protéine qui fait partie de notre chimie cérébrale normale ? Dans l’étude de phase 3 actuelle, l’ASO réduit à la fois la « bonne » et la « mauvaise » protéine HD. Un autre programme de la phase 1 utilise un ASO qui ne fait que réduire la «mauvaise» protéine.
  2. Quel est le meilleur moment pour utiliser la thérapie ASO ? Étant donné que ces conditions sont associées à des dommages et à des pertes de cellules nerveuses, il est logique d’utiliser ces types de thérapie très tôt, avant même que les dommages ne surviennent. Cela signifie que les patients présentant des symptômes modérés ou avancés peuvent ne pas être de bons candidats pour le traitement par ASO.
  3. Devrions-nous envisager un traitement chez les personnes qui ont subi des tests génétiques prédictifs avant le début des symptômes ? Cette question est activement débattue, mais il est trop tôt pour en tenir compte. Nous devons montrer que les ASO sont sûrs et efficaces chez les patients symptomatiques. Nous devons avoir de bonnes mesures pour déterminer si les traitements fonctionnent. Les autorités réglementaires ont exigé des preuves que les traitements ont un effet positif sur la vie des patients. Cela peut être difficile à démontrer dans une courte étude. Nous devons considérer qu’il faut des décennies aux patients pour obtenir ces maladies: ralentir ou arrêter cela pourrait prendre aussi longtemps.

Nous ne pouvons trouver les réponses à ces questions que dans les essais cliniques. Ces essais visent à améliorer la qualité de vie des gens. Pour ce faire, nous avons besoin d’informations de vraies personnes atteintes de ces maladies, et pas seulement de modèles de maladie. Il s’agit d’un processus qui prendra du temps mais nous dira quelle approche est la plus prometteuse et mérite d’être poursuivie plus rapidement. Ainsi, les patients et les familles à ce stade sont tout aussi importants que les chercheurs en blouse de laboratoire travaillant ensemble pour traiter ces maladies.

Si vous souhaitez en savoir plus sur les essais cliniques, consultez cette ressource de la FDA ou notre précédent article sur le sujet.

Écrit par le Dr Mark Guttman, Édité par le Dr Ray Truant, Traduction française par: L’Association Alatax, Publication initiale: 13 décembre 2019

Gene Therapy Validated In Human SCA3 Stem Cells

Written by Dr. Marija Cvetanovic Edited by Dr. Sriram Jayabal

Research group in Michigan report the creation of the first NIH-approved human cell model that mirrors SCA3 disease features – cellular defects that, after gene therapy, show improvement

Spinocerebellar ataxia type 3 (SCA3) is a dominantly-inherited, late onset genetic disease that affects multiple brain regions. Affected individuals suffer from several symptoms, with impaired movement coordination being the most debilitating. SCA3 is caused by a mutation in the Ataxin-3 (ATXN3) gene. In unaffected individuals, ATXN3 typically has anywhere from 12 to 44 repeats of the genetic code “CAG;” however, in some people’s genetic code, the number of CAG repeats can become abnormally high. If this “repeat expansion” mutation causes the ATXN3 gene to have more than 56 CAG repeats, the person develops SCA3. Cells use repeating CAG sequences in their genome to make proteins with long tracts of the amino acid glutamine. In SCA3 cells, these “polyglutamine” (polyQ) tracts are abnormally long in the ATXN3 protein, which makes the protein more prone to form clumps (or “aggregates”) in the cell. The presence of these protein clumps in the cells of the brain is one of the hallmarks of SCA3.

Despite knowing the genetic cause of SCA3, it is still not known how this mutation affects cells on the molecular level. Having said that, several cellular and animal models have been developed in the past two decades to help study these underlying mechanisms. SCA3 models have not only helped to  our increased understanding of the disease’s progression at all levels – molecular, cellular, tissue, and behavioral – but also helped move us closer to therapeutic interventions. For instance, recent studies using SCA3 mouse models have established that targeting ATXN3 with a form of gene therapy known as antisense oligonucleotide (ASO) treatment could very well be an effective strategy for improving the lives of patients. ATXN3-targeting ASOs cause the cells of the brain to produce less of the mutant ATXN3 protein and, when given to SCA3 mice, improved their motor function. These results strongly support the potential use of ASOs to treat SCA3. Still, it is important to see if this finding can be repeated in human neurons (a step that is needed to bring us closer to ASO clinical trials).

Female scientist in a while lab coat busy at work, we are looking at her from behind through some glass bottles
Image of a research scientist hard at work in the lab. Image courtesy of pxfuel.

Previous experience from unsuccessful clinical trials highlight the importance of determining the similarities and differences between humans and mice when it comes to disease. For instance, the SCA3 mutation does not naturally occur in mice; therefore, modeling SCA3 with mice usually requires additional genetic manipulation, which could lead to unexpected effects that we do not typically see in patients. In addition, we may miss important determinants of SCA3 pathology due to the inherent differences between humans and mice. For example, proteins that help contribute to SCA3 in human patients may simply not be present in mouse neurons (and vice versa). Because of such species differences, the therapeutic interventions that are effective in mice are not always as effective in humans.

SCA3 human neurons can help bridge the gap between rodent models and human patients, acting as a clinically relevant tool for looking into disease mechanisms and testing new therapies. Because we cannot remove a portion of an SCA3 patient’s brain to study the disease, these neurons must be created in a lab. Human neurons can be generated from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) or from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are made from adult cells (usually blood or skin cells) that are reprogrammed to return to an embryo-like form (known as the “pluripotent” state). Just like during normal development, iPSCs can create many different types of cells, including neurons. One problem with this approach is that the process of reprograming can potentially change these cells in way that could affect how the disease presents. To avoid this issue, researchers can also create human neurons from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), which are derived from embryos and are, therefore, naturally pluripotent. Because hESCs do not require reprograming, they are more likely to accurately model disease. However, they are more difficult to obtain and work with. The researchers in this study, led by Lauren Moore in Dr. Hank Paulson’s lab at the University of Michigan, used hESCs to generate the first ever National Institutes of Health (NIH)-approved SCA3 model using human cells.

Continue reading “Gene Therapy Validated In Human SCA3 Stem Cells”

Snapshot: What are single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)?

It’s in our DNA

If you were to unravel the tightly wound packages of our genome known as chromosomes, you would find long strings of DNA. The strings are made up of only four different building blocks, compounds abbreviated as adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C). Picture a ridiculously long hospital baby bracelet made only of beads bearing the letters A, T, C, and G.

handmade bead bracelet. Each bead has either "A", "T", "C", or "G" on it. It represents the genetic code that is DNA.
Bead bracelet of A, T, G, and C bead. Image courtesy of Tamara Maiuri.

Our genes are simply stretches along the string of DNA–regions where the order of the compound “beads” is especially important. Genes are the blueprints that code for all the materials needed by our cells. Changes in the order of the building blocks (or, in the case of many spinocerebellar ataxias (SCAs), the addition of too many C-A-Gs), can result in faulty gene products, which can cause disease.

But we can’t all be walking around with identical DNA sequences, like an army of clones! What makes us different? One difference is the small, less consequential changes in the order of the building blocks: variations that usually occur in regions of the DNA between genes, which aren’t critical to gene function.

One such type of variation is called a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP, pronounced “snip”). Nucleotide is the scientific name for the A, T, C, and G compounds. Polymorphism derives from poly (many) and morph (forms). So a SNP is a change at a single position in the DNA, for example from an A to a C.

Why are SNPs important?

SNPs have been hugely beneficial in helping scientists figure out which genes are linked to disease by acting as biological markers that track with disease genes within families. They may also play a role in therapeutic strategies to lower disease-causing proteins such as the Ataxin proteins that cause some SCAs. SCAsource has previously covered ASO therapy and the clinical trials happening for Huntington’s disease. How can SNPs help with ASO therapies?

ASO therapies are based on the idea of blocking toxic protein production from the inherited disease gene, or “shooting the messenger”. The trouble with this strategy is that everyone actually has two copies of each gene in the genome: one from Mom and one from Dad. Sometimes we don’t necessarily want to block both copies because these genes, when functioning normally, have essential jobs to do in the cell. The ideal situation would then be to block the production of the toxic copy and leave the good copy alone.

For most SCAs, the toxicity comes from the expanded CAG region of the gene. So why not target the extra CAGs? The main problem is that a handful of other genes also have stretches of CAGs. So the drug would have off-target effects. But SNPs lying close to a disease gene are usually inherited along with it. These SNP sites can be targeted by ASO drugs, allowing the drugs to hone in on the toxic copy. The drawback is that these drugs wouldn’t work for people who don’t have the right SNP attached to their disease gene (or who have the same SNP on both copies of the gene).

In summary, just as SNPs tracking with a disease gene helped identify the causes of many genetic diseases, they may also help in their treatment. Vive la difference!

If you would like to learn more about Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs), take a look at these resources by the Encyclopedia Brittanica and National Human Genome Research Institute.

Snapshot written by Dr. Tamara Maiuri and edited by Dr. Hayley McLoughlin.

Snapshot: What Does Success Mean in Clinical Trials with Antisense Oligonucleotides (ASO)?

Research is rapidly moving from the bench to the bedside to treat neurological inherited disorders of all types, including spinocerebellar ataxias. SCAsource has previously gone over the science behind ASO therapy. These diseases share a common theory that the DNA mutation leads to the formation of an altered protein that is toxic. ASO therapy is meant to stop the formation of the toxic protein by “shooting the messenger”.

What is involved in these clinical trials?

To see what might happen in ataxia trials, let’s look at ASO trials happening right now in related polyglutamine diseases. In Huntington’s disease (HD), there are two programs that are currently in clinical trials. Regulatory authorities view ASOs as drugs and require that the product be shown to be both safe and effective in patients.

ASOs cannot be given as pills and they are currently injected into the spinal fluid. This is called intrathecal administration to get the drug directly in the fluid space where it can circulate back to the brain. Patients in phase 1 studies in HD are asked to have up to 7 injections and one phase 3 program requires injections every second month for 2 years. This involves a large commitment to the study and is asking a lot from patients and their families.

The only published phase 1 double-blind, placebo-controlled study in HD (Tabrizi et al., New England Journal of Medicine, 2019) has identified that a series of 4 injections were safe. They measured changes of the “bad” protein in the spinal fluid as a proof of concept that ASOs could lower protein levels. The good news was that they found that there was a dose-related reduction in this protein of about 40%. Patients from this study were offered “open label” monthly injections and this has shown a 60% reduction in the abnormal protein according to a recent presentation. Open label extensions are when patients can continue taking a drug after the formal time of the clinical trial is over.

medical doctor in blue scrubs and a white lab coat holding a stethoscope. They are off to one side, so only have their body can be seen, not inclduing their face.
What will ataxia clinical trials involving ASOs look like in the future? What will success look like?

So, what does success mean?

The phase 3 studies that are currently ongoing in HD are designed to see if there is a slowing of disease progression. This is being measured by assessing motor, cognitive and behavioral symptom change over time. Changes occur slowly in HD and SCA. Therefore, large numbers of patients are required over a relatively long study time.

The bottom line is that a successful study that shows slowing disease progression is likely to mean that the patients may not experience any obvious improvement while receiving the treatment and that they will continue to have progressive symptoms over time. Hopefully, this will be at a slower rate compared to the placebo group. Since there are no treatments available for SCA or HD, this will be welcome. It is by no means considered to be a cure or likely to stop the progression. True cures in medicine are rare, where a cure is defined as a drug ending disease.

Graphs of symptoms vs time. The "typical progression" line has more symptoms more quickly. The "delayed progression after potential treatment" line has fewer symptoms, but still increases over time.
Graph explaining how a potential ASO treatment might work in the future. Although it might not make symptoms go away completely, it could reduce how severe symptoms are, the number of symptoms, and/or delay when symptoms first appear. Illustration by Celeste Suart.

In the HD research community, we are asking questions that include:

  1. Is it a good idea to reduce the good protein that is part of our normal brain chemistry? In the current phase 3 study, the ASO reduces both the “good” and the “bad” HD protein. Another program in phase 1 uses an ASO that only reduces the “bad” protein.
  2. When is the best time to use ASO therapy? Since these conditions are associated with nerve cell damage and loss, it makes sense to use these types of therapy very early, even before damage occurs. This will mean that patients with moderate or advanced symptoms may not be good candidates for ASO therapy.
  3. Should we consider treatment in people who have had predictive genetic testing before symptoms start? This is being actively discussed but it is too early to consider this. We have to show that ASOs are safe and effective in symptomatic patients. We need to have good measures to determine if treatments are working. Regulatory authorities have required evidence that treatments have a positive effect on patients lives. This may be difficult to show in a short study. We must consider that it takes patients decades to get these diseases: slowing or stopping this could take just as long.

We can only figure out the answers to these questions in clinical trials. The goals of these trials are to improve people’s quality of life. To do this we need information from real people with these diseases, and not just models of disease. This is a process that will take time but will tell us which approach has the most promise and is worth pursuing faster. Thus, the patients and families at this point are just as important as the researchers in lab coats working together to treat these diseases.

If you would like to learn more about clinical trials, take a look at this resource by the FDA or our previous Snapshot on the subject.

Snapshot written by Dr. Mark Guttman and edited by Dr. Ray Truant.

Snapshot: What is Gene Therapy?

Gene therapy is using nucleic acids to treat a genetic disorder.  These nucleic acids can be designed in a variety of ways to achieve the same therapeutic outcome. Gene therapy tools can be used to correct a mutant gene by one of three ways:

  1. Expressing a healthy copy of a gene
  2. Silencing or inactivating the mutant gene transcript
  3. Using genome editing tools to repair or turn-off the mutated gene.
computer desk laptop stethoscope
Photo of a stethoscope by Negative Space on Pexels.com

How is gene therapy used?

Monogenic disorders, like some spinocerebellar ataxias (SCAs), are excellent targets for gene therapy approaches. Gene therapies are currently being used throughout ataxia research for studying disease mechanisms and for preclinical therapeutic application.

Overview of how gene therapy works. First, Package the healthy gene, RNAi, or gene editing tools into the AAV (can also deliver as naked DNA or in a nanoparticle). Second, Inject the packaged AAV into the tissue of interest. Third, AAV will enter the cell and release the genetic material. The cell will become healthy by either 1) expressing the normal gene, 2) repressing the mutant RNA, or by 3) correcting the mutant gene.
Overview of gene therapy, designed by Stephanie Coffin using Biorender.

One gene therapy approach for rescuing SCA1 phenotypes involves overexpressing a healthy gene, ataxin-1-like, which competes with the mutant ATXN1 protein for complex formation. This work, conducted by Keiser and colleagues in 2016, showed phenotypic rescue in a mouse model of SCA1.

There are two common technologies for silencing or inactivating disease genes: RNA interference (RNAi) or antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs). RNAi strategies utilize small RNA molecules to knock down the expression of target mutant RNA transcripts, while ASOs are DNA molecules used to knock down or correct mutant RNA transcripts. Both therapeutic approaches are being pursued in SCAs. For example, Carmo and colleagues in 2013 showed that using RNAi against the SCA3 disease gene, ATXN3, could longitudinally decrease mutant ATXN3 levels. See the SCAsource snapshot on ASOs for further information about their use in SCAs.

The most common genome editing tool is the CRISPR/Cas9 system, which uses an RNA guide to direct the Cas9 nuclease to the region of the genome to be edited. One can then knockout that gene or correct the mutant gene. It is early days for this technology as a potential therapeutic option due to the challenges of delivery and the risk of off-target editing.

How is gene therapy delivered?

One of the most difficult aspects of gene therapy is how to deliver these various molecules to the cells of interest. One of the most common delivery methods is through viral delivery.  The “drug” nucleic acid is transferred into the disease cells by a vector, which is a virus that has been modified to remove viral components. The most common viral vectors for gene therapies currently are adeno-associated viruses (AAVs). Other delivery methods include non-viral vectors such as naked DNA and nanoparticles.

How long-lasting is gene therapy?

Viral delivery of gene therapy products provides a longitudinal expression of the nucleic acid, while naked DNA and nanoparticles express the nucleic acid drug transiently, thus typically requiring ongoing treatment.

If you would like to learn more about gene therapy, take a look at these resources by the National Institutes of Health and KidsHealth.

Snapshot written by Stephanie Coffin and edited by Dr.Hayley McLoughlin.