Stem cells and gene therapy were supposed to revolutionize biomedicine around the turn of the millennium and provide relief for desperate patients with incurable diseases. But for many, progress has been frustratingly slow. We still cannot, for example, regenerate damaged organs like a salamander regrows its tail, and genome engineering is more complicated than cutting and pasting letters in a word document.
For blind people, however, the future of medicine is one step closer to reality. In December, the FDA approved the first gene therapy for an inherited disease—a mutation in the gene RPE65 that causes a rare form of blindness. Several clinical trials also show promise for treating various forms of retinal degeneration using stem cells.
“It’s not surprising that the first gene therapy that was approved by the FDA was a therapy in the eye,” says Bruce Conklin, a senior investigator at the San Francisco-based Gladstone Institutes, a nonprofit life science research organization, and a professor in the Medical Genetics and Molecular Pharmacology department at the University of California, San Francisco. “There are a number of things that make it ideal for new experimental therapies which are not true necessarily in other organs.”
Physicians can easily see into the eye to check if a procedure worked or if it’s causing problems. “The imaging technology within the eye is really unprecedented. You can’t do this in someone’s spinal cord or someone’s brain cells or immune system,” says Conklin, who is also deputy director of the Innovative Genomics Institute.
There’s also a built-in control: researchers can test an intervention on one eye first. What’s more, if something goes wrong, the risk of mortality is low, especially when compared to experimenting on the heart or brain. Most types of blindness are currently incurable, so the risk-to-reward ratio for patients is high. If a problem arises with the treatment their eyesight could get worse, but if they do nothing their vision will likely decline anyway. And if the treatment works, they may be able to see for the first time in years.
An additional appeal for testing gene therapy in the eye is the low risk for off-target effects, in which genome edits could result in unintended changes to other genes or in other cell types. There are a number of genes that are solely expressed in the eye and not in any other part of the body. Manipulating those genes will only affect cells in the eye, so concerns about the impact on other organs are minimal.
RPE65 is one such gene. It creates an enzyme that helps the eye convert light into an electrical signal that travels back to the brain. Patients with the mutation don’t produce the enzyme, so visual signals are not processed. However, the retinal cells in the eye remain healthy for years; if you can restore the missing enzyme you can restore vision.
The newly approved therapy, developed by Spark Therapeutics, uses a modified virus to deliver RPE65 into the eye. A retinal surgeon injects the virus, which has been specially engineered to remove its disease-causing genes and instead carry the correct RPE65 gene, into the retina. There, it is sucked up by retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells. The RPE cells are a particularly good target for injection because their job is to eat up and recycle rogue particles. Once inside the cell, the virus slips into the nucleus and releases the DNA. The RPE65 gene then goes to work, using the cell’s normal machinery to produce the needed enzyme.
In the most recent clinical trial, 93 percent of patients who received the injection—who range in age from 4 to 44—had improved vision just one month after treatment. So far, the benefits have lasted at least two years.
“It’s an exciting time for this class of diseases, where these people have really not had treatments,” says Spark president and co-founder, Katherine High. “[Gene therapy] affords the possibility of treatment for diseases that heretofore other classes of therapeutics really have not been able to help.”
Another benefit of the eye is its immune privilege. In order to let light in, the eye must remain transparent. As a result, its immune system is dampened so that it won’t become inflamed if outside particles get in. This means the eye is much less likely to reject cell transplants, so patients do not need to take immunosuppressant drugs.
Henry Klassen, an assistant professor at UC Irvine, is taking advantage of the eye’s immune privilege to transplant retinal progenitor cells into the eye to treat retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disease affecting about 1 in 4000 people that eventually causes the retina to degenerate. The disease can stem from dozens of different genetic mutations, but the result is the same: RPE cells die off over the course of a few decades, leaving the patient blind by middle age. It is currently incurable.
Retinal progenitor cells are baby retinal cells that develop naturally from stem cells and will turn into one of several types of adult retinal cells. When transplanted into a patient’s eye, the progenitor cells don’t replace the lost retinal cells, but they do secrete proteins and enzymes essential for eye health.
“At the stage we get the retinal tissue it’s immature,” says Klassen. “They still have some flexibility in terms of which mature cells they can turn into. It’s that inherent flexibility that gives them a lot of power when they’re put in the context of a diseased retina.”
Klassen’s spin-off company, jCyte, sponsored the clinical trial with support from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The results from the initial study haven’t been published yet, but Klassen says he considers it a success. JCyte is now embarking on a phase two trial to assess improvements in vision after the treatment, which will wrap up in 2021.
Another study generating buzz is a clinical trial in Japan that is the first and, so far, only test of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) in the eye. iPSC are created by reprogramming a patient’s own skin cells into stem cells, circumventing any controversy around embryonic stem cell sources. In the trial, led by Masayo Takahashi at RIKEN, the scientists transplant retinal pigment epithelial cells created from iPSC into the retinas of patients with age-related macular degeneration. The first woman to receive the treatment is doing well, and her vision is stable. However, the second patient suffered a swollen retina as a result of the surgery. Despite this recent setback, Takahashi said last week that the trial would continue.
Although recent studies have provided patients with renewed hope, the field has not been without mishap. Most notably, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine last March described three patients who experienced severe side effects after receiving stem cell injections from a Florida clinic to treat age-related macular degeneration. Following the initial article, other reports came out about similar botched treatments. Lawsuits have been filed against US Stem Cell, the clinic that conducted the procedure, and the FDA sent them a warning letter with a long list of infractions.
Ajay Kuriyan, an ophthalmologist and retinal specialist at the University of Rochester who wrote the paper, says that because details about the Florida trial are scarce, it’s hard to say why the treatment caused the adverse reaction. His guess is that the stem cells were poorly prepared and not up to clinical standards.
Klassen agrees that small clinics like US Stem Cell do not offer the same caliber of therapy as larger clinical trials. “It’s not the same cells and it’s not the same technique and it’s not the same supervision and it’s not under FDA auspices. It’s just not the same thing,” he says. “Unfortunately, to the patient it might sound the same, and that’s the tragedy for me.”
For patients who are interested in joining a trial, Kuriyan listed a few things to watch out for. “One red flag is that the clinics charge patients to take part in the treatment—something extremely unusual for legitimate clinical trials,” he says. “Another big red flag is doing the procedure in both eyes” at the same time. Third, if the only treatment offered is cell therapy. “These clinics tend to be sort of stand-alone clinics, and that’s not very common for an actual big research study of this scale.”
Despite the recent scandal, Klassen hopes that the success of his trial and others will continue to push the field forward. “It just takes so many decades to move this stuff along, even when you’re trying to simplify it as much as possible,” he says. “With all the heavy lifting that’s been done, I hope the world’s got the patience to get this through.”