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.

Huntingtin: a new player in the DNA repair arsenal

Written by Dr. Ambika Tewari Edited by Dr. Mónica Bañez-Coronel

Mutations in the Huntingtin protein impair DNA repair causing significant DNA damage and altered gene expression

Our genome houses the entirety of our genetic material which contains the instructions for making the proteins that are essential for all processes in the body. Each cell within our body, from skin cells that provide a crucial protective barrier, immune cells that protect us from invading species and brain cells that allow us to perceive and communicate with the world contains genetic material. During early development in every mammalian species, there is a massive proliferation of cells that allows the development from a one-cell stage embryo to a functional body containing trillions of cells. For this process to occur efficiently and reliably, the instructions contained in our genetic material need to be precisely transmitted during cell division and its integrity maintained during the cell’s life-span to guarantee its proper functioning.

There are many obstacles that hamper the intricate and highly orchestrated sequence of events during development and aging, causing alterations that can lead to cell dysfunction and disease. Internal and external sources of DNA damage constantly bombard the genome. Examples of external sources include ultraviolet radiation and exposure to chemical agents, while internal sources include cell processes that can arise, for example, from the reactive byproducts of metabolism. Fortunately, nature has evolved a special group of proteins known as DNA damage and repair proteins that act as surveyors to detect erroneous messages. These specialized proteins ensure that damage to the DNA molecules that encode our genetic information is not passed to the new generation of cells during cell division or during the expression of our genes, ultimately protecting our genome. Many genetic disorders are caused by mutations in the genetic material. This leads to a dysfunctional RNA or protein with little or no function (loss of function) or an RNA or protein with an entirely new function (gain of function). Since DNA repair proteins play a crucial role in identifying and targeting mistakes made in the message, it stands to reason that impairment in the DNA repair process might lead to disease. In this study, Rui Gao and colleagues through an extensive collaboration sought to understand the connection between altered DNA repair and Huntington’s disease.

Blue strands of DNA
An artist’s rendering of DNA molecules.

Continue reading “Huntingtin: a new player in the DNA repair arsenal”

Snapshot: What is RAN translation?

In many diseases caused by repeat expansion mutations in the DNA, harmful proteins containing repetitive stretches are found to build up in the brain. The repeat expansion mutation, when translated into a protein, results in an abnormally expanded repeat tract that can affect the function of the protein and have harmful consequences for the cells. Following a study published in 2011, we know that repeat expansion mutations can make additional harmful repeat-containing proteins by a process called Repeat Associated Non-AUG translation or RAN translation.

How are proteins made?

To get from DNA to protein, there are two main steps. The first step involves the conversion of a gene in the DNA into an instructional file called messenger RNA (mRNA). The second step is translation, this is where the cellular machinery responsible for making proteins uses mRNA as a template to make the protein encoded by the gene.

During translation mRNA is “read” in sets of three bases. Each set of three bases is called a codon and each codon codes for one amino acid. There is a specific codon that signals where to start making the protein, this codon is AUG. From the point where the cellular machinery “reads” the start codon, the mRNA is “read” one codon at a time and the matching amino acid is added onto the growing protein.

What happens when there is a repeat expansion mutation?

As the name suggests, Repeat Associated Non-AUG (RAN) translation is a protein translation mechanism that happens without a start codon. RAN translation occurs when the mRNA contains a repeat expansion that causes the mRNA to fold into RAN-promoting secondary structures. Because RAN translation starts without an AUG start codon, the mRNA can be “read” in different ways.

Let’s consider a CAG repeat expansion to illustrate this process. In the CAG “reading frame” a polyglutamine containing protein would be made because the codon CAG leads to incorporation of the amino acid glutamine. But a CAG repeat expansion could also be “read” as an AGC or a GCA repeat expansion if you don’t know where in the sequence to start “reading”. When “read” as AGC, the cellular machinery would incorporate the amino acid serine, making a polyserine repeat protein. In the GCA frame a polyalanine repeat protein would be made. This has been shown to happen in Huntington’s disease (HD). In HD, RAN-translated polyserine and polyalanine proteins accumulate in HD patients’ brains, along with the AUG-initiated mutant huntingtin protein containing a polyglutamine expansion.

Diagram show how different DNA sequences can be "read" and translated as different proteins
Overview of repeat proteins that can be produced by RAN-translation from a CAG expansion transcript. Designed by Mónica Bañez-Coronel.

To complicate matters more, RAN translation can happen from different repeat expansions, including those in regions of the DNA that aren’t normally made into proteins at all. Through the process of RAN translation, repeat expansion mutations in the DNA can give rise to multiple different proteins that aren’t made in healthy individuals. RAN proteins have now been identified in several neurodegenerative diseases where they have been shown to be toxic to cells, including in HD, spinocerebellar ataxia type 8, myotonic dystrophy type 1 and 2, and C9orf72 amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

To learn more about the implications of RAN proteins for repeat expansion diseases see this article by Stanford Medicine News Center.

To learn more about the process of translation see this article by Nature.

For the original article describing RAN translation see this article by PNAS, and this article by Neuron about RAN translated proteins in Huntington’s disease.

Snapshot written by Dr. Hannah Shorrock and edited by Dr. Mónica Bañez-Coronel.

DNA Damage Repair: A New SCA Disease Paradigm

Written by Dr. Laura Bowie Edited by Dr. Hayley McLoughlin

Researchers use genetics to find new pathways that impact the onset of polyglutamine disease symptoms

The cells of the human body are complex little machines, specifically evolved to fulfill certain roles. Brain cells, or neurons, act differently from skin cells, which, in turn, act differently from muscle cells. The blueprints for all of these cells are encoded in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). To carry out the instructions in these cellular blueprints, the DNA must be made into ribonucleic acid (RNA), which carries the instructions from the DNA to the machinery that makes proteins. Proteins are the primary molecules responsible for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s organs and tissues. A gene is a unit of DNA that encodes instructions for a heritable characteristic – usually, instructions for a making a particular protein. If there is something wrong at the level of the DNA (known as a mutation) then this can translate to a problem at the level of the protein. This could alter the function of a protein in a detrimental manner – possibly even rendering it totally non-functional.

Artist representation of a DNA molecule. Image courtesy of gagnonm1993 on Pixabay.

DNA is made up of smaller building blocks called nucleotides. There are four different nucleotides: cytosine (C), adenine (A), guanine (G), and thymine (T). Polyglutamine diseases, such as the spinocerebellar ataxias (SCAs) and Huntington’s disease (HD), are caused by a CAG triplet repeat gene expansion, which leads to the expansion of a polyglutamine tract in the protein product of this gene (MacDonald et al., 1993; Zoghbi & Orr, 2000). Beyond a certain tract length, known as the disease “threshold,” the length of this expansion is inversely correlated with age at disease onset. In other words, the longer this expansion is, the earlier those carrying the mutation will develop disease symptoms. However, scientists have determined that onset age is not entirely due to repeat length, since individuals with the same repeat length can have different age of disease symptom onset (Tezenas du Montcel et al., 2014; Wexler et al., 2004). Therefore, other factors must be involved. These factors could be environmental, genetic, or some combination of both.

Continue reading “DNA Damage Repair: A New SCA Disease Paradigm”