Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Sharon’s inspirational journey with CrossFit in the fight against Huntington’s disease

With her indomitable spirit Sharon Shaffer has not given up the fight against Huntington’s disease, despite a decade of struggling with symptoms that forced her to quit her job and stop driving, and which hamper her ability to speak.

On December 7, Sharon starred in her own HD educational fundraiser, “Sharing Sharons CrossFit Journey” (#CureHuntingtons and #SharingSharonsJourney). The event raised nearly $2,000 to support Sharon and her family’s plans to hold a much larger fundraiser for the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA).

More importantly, it gave several dozen participants and onlookers in the CrossFit gym insight into Sharon’s practice of regular, intense exercise as a strategy for slowing the inevitable progression of her untreatable condition.

“I believe that CrossFit has helped me bounce back from major falls and accidents that I have had,” Sharon, assisted by daughter Alexa, said in a speech before CrossFit trainers led her and participants through a regimen of exercises. “Although my balance, swallowing, and speech are worsening, I am confident that without exercise my symptoms would be worse.”

You can watch Sharon tell of her struggles with HD and her involvement with CrossFit in the video below, with an introduction by Lee Razalan, the owner of Stay Classy CrossFit, the gym that sponsored the event.

A rigorous workout

The trainers at Stay Classy CrossFit, a central San Diego outlet that is part of a national network of gyms, designed a program for the Shaffers’ event. It was geared specifically for HD-affected individuals.

Along with the other participants, I jumped on a box, lifted weights, swung on a pull-up bar, and did pushups and squats.

We rotated among the five exercise stations every 90 seconds, moving through the entire sequence three times over about 17 minutes.

The #CureHuntingtons WOD (workout of the day) (photo by Taylor Shaffer)

I found the workout very rigorous. Indeed, I had to stop several times to catch my breath.

Over the next couple of days, my muscles felt considerably sore. But it was a good soreness, the kind you get from using neglected muscles. Today one of my doctors gave me the go-ahead to stick with CrossFit, but only as long as I don’t overdo it.

It occurred to me that HD people and presymptomatic gene carriers such as I need more events such as this to help us refocus on exercise and holistic approaches to the disease.

For Sharon, CrossFit has not just served to stimulate her brain and strengthen her muscles, but also linked her to a whole new network of friends who literally support her as she sometimes stumbles through the exercises.

In addition to Stay Classy Crossfit, the event received support from Lululemon and Sushi on a Roll.

You can watch the CrossFit participants, including me, in the videos below.

Racing Across America again

The Shaffers put on “Sharing Sharons CrossFit Journey” in preparation for their fourth participation in the Race Across America (RAAM), a coast-to-coast, non-stop bicycle race from the pier in Oceanside, CA, to the boardwalk in Annapolis, MD. The Shaffers’ participation in the June 2015 event requires donations in kind and funds to cover such costs as a motor home to accompany the riders.

The Shaffers’ “Team 2 Cure Huntington’s Disease” participated in RAAM in 2006, 2007, and 2010, anchored by Renato. He also led a team in the Race Across the West in 2008.

These and affiliated events such as annual RAAM golf tournaments have raised more than $110,000 for HDSA. “Team 2 Cure HD” has also increased awareness about HD across the nation.

In addition to Renato, the 2015 team includes RAAM veterans John Sylvester and Jason Tate and newcomer Mikel Clementi. Their 2015 goal is to net $40,000 or more.

Renato Shaffer (photo by Gene Veritas)


Renato and his three team members have completed past RAAM events in less than ten days. To call RAAM grueling is a gross understatement, especially since Renato turns 50 today, December 9.

In their RAAM donation request letter, the Shaffers describe the race as “both physically and emotionally taxing” but that pales before “the realities that HD patients suffer from on a daily basis. Over the past ten years our family has changed drastically with the progression of Sharon’s symptoms. Nonetheless we live with purpose, hope and gratitude. Our purpose is to shed light on HD, to maintain realistic hope despite Sharon’s circumstances and always remain grateful for the selflessness of others who have helped us.”

Renato, the RAAM team members and support staff, the extended Shaffer family, and supporters and friends of the HD cause draw deep inspiration from Sharon.

My goal […] is to try to succeed at things that people would deem impossible given my condition,” said the 48-year-old Sharon, who has practiced CrossFit for five years. She believes that all HD-affected individuals can discover an activity or hobby for keeping active.

“Huntington’s does not define us,” she said. “It’s just another fork in the road.”

At the conclusion of the CrossFit program, we participants all gathered around Sharon and one of the trainers as he reflected on the purpose and the lessons gained.

I touched Sharon’s shoulder. She and her thoughtful event for HD families had motivated me to recommit to exercise and healthy living as I face my own inevitable onset. Once again, I acquired strength from my HD sister.

We all put our arms in the middle of the circle. Then we raised them as we cheered: “Cure Huntington’s!

(Stay tuned to this blog for updates on RAAM 2015 and how you can help. Scroll down for other photos from Sharon's event. Photos by Gene Veritas.)

Race Across America veteran and 2015 repeat participant John Sylvester

2015 Race Across America initiate Mikel Clementi

Alexa (left) and Taylor Shaffer

Sharon Shaffer and mother Fran Walker

Andrew Herndon, coordinator of the HDSA Center of Excellence for Family Services and Research at the University of California, San Diego

HD advocate and support group member Amy Anderson (left) and HD support group facilitator Sandy Jerkins

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Another major supplement, creatine, proven ineffective in the fight against Huntington’s disease

For the second time in less than three months, a widely taken and long-studied dietary supplement envisioned as a potential treatment for Huntingtons disease has been proven ineffective, bringing a halt to a clinical trial.

Creatine, a supplement popular among body builders and readily available in health food stores, was studied in a clinical trial called CREST-E (Creatine Safety, Tolerability, and Efficacy in Huntingtons Disease), which began in 2009 and was to be completed in 2016.

On October 29, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced that it was discontinuing CREST-E because a preliminary analysis of the data “showed with high confidence that it was unlikely that the study would be able to show that creatine was effective in slowing loss of function in early symptomatic Huntingtons Disease.”

The study was carried out by the Huntington Study Group (HSG) and led by Dr. Steven Hersch of Massachusetts General Hospital and Dr. Giovanni Schifitto of the University of Rochester School of Medicine.

“The entire point of the CREST-E study was to determine whether creatine slows the course of HD or not, and the answer is, no, it does not,” Martha Nance, M.D., a member of the HSG executive committee, said in an e-mail. “Although this result is disappointing, it is still important, as it gives us a definite answer to the question: ‘I have HD. Should I take creatine?’ The answer is, ‘no.’”

“I recommend that all stop taking creatine,” Dr. LaVonne Goodman, the founder of Huntington’s Disease Drug Works (HDDW), said in an e-mail.

False hopes

Huntington’s disease typically reduces people’s energy levels. Scientists thought that creatine, which cells use to store energy, might help compensate for the energy deficit in brain cells and enable them to survive.

Positive results in animal studies regarding the impact of creatine, the rise of HDDW’s “treatment now” program ten years ago, and the advent of both CREST-E and a companion study in presymptomatic individuals known as PRECREST led to much discussion about the supplement in the HD community.

Many people have taken or considered taking creatine in the hopes of avoiding or ameliorating symptoms.

I have taken creatine for about ten years, beginning with my participation in the HDDW program.

Just after receiving the news about CREST-E yesterday, I received an e-mail from an individual inquiring about where to purchase creatine and what amount to take. I responded that “it is now recommended that nobody take creatine.”

HDBuzz.net also reported on the end of CREST-E, calling the new evidence against creatine “compelling.

Awaiting HD-specific remedies

In mid-August, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the HSG stopped a clinical trial for coenzyme Q10, another widely taken supplement.

I outlined my approach to HD supplements and the pros and cons of the matter in a February article titled “To take, or not to take, unproven supplements in the fight against Huntingtons disease.” That article also reported on the hopes for PRECREST and CREST-E.

With the elimination of both coenzyme Q10 and creatine in rapid succession, the HD community is suddenly left without two potential treatments that supplied significant  hope.

However, supplements lack what researchers refer to as HD-specific approaches to treatments. They were not designed or marketed with HD in mind, whereas the new treatments currently under study will potentially attack the specific causes of Huntingtons.

Hope for effective treatments is on the rise as researchers and pharmaceutical firms gear up for new clinical trials such as the Isis Pharmaceuticals, Inc., gene-silencing approach announced for the first half of 2015.

“The important thing right now is to learn from ‘negative’ outcomes like this,” the HDBuzz article observed. “Studies like CREST-E have helped us, as a community, to get really good at designing, enrolling and running clinical trials, and understanding why particular treatments don’t work. Now we have the result of CREST-E, all that energy, enthusiasm and experience can be directed into testing other experimental treatments with a higher chance of success. One very solid benefit is that hundreds of volunteers are now freed up to sign up for other clinical trials enrolling now or in the near future.”

For the latest news on HD research and clinical trials, watch the video below for the update by Jody Corey-Bloom, M.D., Ph.D. (Note that the talk took place on October 27, before the announcement about creatine.)

The dire need for neurological treatments

I am now rethinking my approach to supplements. I have stopped taking coenzyme Q10.

I agree with the doctorsrecommendations to halt creatine. My breakfasts and dinners will no longer include a heaping teaspoon of fruit-flavored creatine dissolved in a glass of water.

Container with over-the-counter creatine (photo by Gene Veritas)

I will discard my remaining supply of creatine but keep the container as a piece of historical evidence in the quest for HD treatments.

It will also serve as a reminder of the dire need for truly effective approaches against a devastating disease that has reminded the world how the discovery of the first effective drug for any neurological disorder has continued to elude science.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Outrage over video of police’s rough handling of man with Huntington’s disease spurs calls for justice, awareness

Amateur video has proven crucial to holding police officers accountable around the country.

Now such video of a police encounter with a man suffering from Huntington’s disease – held down for nearly ten minutes as he struggled to breathe and pleaded for help – shockingly reveals  how rare disease communities must fight against profound ignorance, discrimination, and hostile treatment.

In the small town of Westover, WV, police on September 6 arrested Jeffrey Bane, a 39-year-old father of two from nearby Morgantown, WV, and charged him with disorderly conduct, obstructing an officer, and battery on an officer. At least one officer and a cruiser from the neighboring Granville, WV, police department were also at the scene.

From their actions and attitude, the officers seemed to have no inkling that Bane was ill.

It’s a reminder that police should all be exposed to the Law Enforcement Training Guide produced by the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA), and that those afflicted by the disease would be wise to carry the “I Have Huntington’s Disease” cards recommended by HDSA.

Behind the incident

Bane has HD, which has left him unemployed. He comes from a family with a long history of Huntington’s and has suffered from the disorder for about five years, though he can still accomplish many daily activities. His symptoms include chorea, the involuntary, often jerky movements typical of the disorder.

Bane had been walking down the street with his toddler daughter in a stroller and carrying his infant son when, in response to two 911 calls alleging concern for the children, police accosted him.

According to a local newspaper that had access to the official police report, the police said that Bane “appeared to be under the influence of narcotics, handled the children roughly and became agitated as officers spoke with him about the children.” The police said the children seemed to be “overheated.”

Jeffrey Bane's police mug shot

When asked what “provisions” he carried for the children, “Bane struck the stroller violently with his hand, pushing it forward abruptly while his infant son was still seated inside,” the official complaint stated. When the officers attempted to restrain Bane, he began to fight. He allegedly kicked one officer and tried to spit on others.

Sara Bostonia, a Grafton, WV, resident and healthcare worker who was driving to her mother’s home in Westover, saw Bane on the ground and started filming the scene with her smartphone. She had not previously known Bane.

“The first thing I saw was blood,” Bostonia said in a phone interview on September 13. “That’s why I stopped. I saw a man with a bunch of other men on top of him. There were no [police] lights on. I just thought there was something wrong about the whole way he was moving.”

Bostonia said that she rolled down her window to get a clearer view.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” she said. She then started filming.

I’ve never done that, never,” she continued. “Once he started the gurgling and screaming for help, I could tell he was completely pinned to the ground. I said ‘stop it’ while I was getting out of my car.”

In the video, as the officers hold Bane to the ground, he displays frequent episodes of chorea.

“Stop it!” the officer holding Bane’s head to the ground shouts. Another says: “Stop fighting us.

I cant breathe, goddamit,” Bane says desperately. “Help me. I can’t breathe…. Help me, sir, please help me.”

As Bane appears to choke, one of the officers orders him to “stop spitting.

“Help me, please,” Bane pleads again. “I’m not trying to fight you guys.”

The officers misinterpret involuntary movements in Bane’s legs as attempts to kick them. They clearly had not been trained to assess the possibility that such actions resulted from HD (or any other condition).

“The scene portrayed on the video is tremendously upsetting and sad to anyone who recognizes the chorea and erratic gait that Huntington's disease causes, that could have been largely or solely responsible for the behavior that led the police to the scene,” Martha Nance, M.D., the director of the HDSA Center of Excellence at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, MN, and the author of the preface to the Law Enforcement Training Guide, wrote in an e-mail. “In the courts, we assume that people are innocent until proven guilty, but on the street, there may be an assumption of the worst until the situation defuses.”

During the incident, the children lost contact with their father. They do not appear in the video. Contacted by the police, Bane’s girlfriend Delsie Stup, the children’s mother, came to the scene to pick them up.

Without knowing Bane nor his HD status, Bostonia put the video on her YouTube channel on September 7. To date it has had nearly 120,000 views.

Bostonia said she posted the video because she wants all the facts “out there. Public scrutiny of the facts is paramount. It is our job. We shouldn’t have to police the police, is how I feel about that. As citizens, we do a pretty good job of policing ourselves.”

You can watch an enhanced version of the video on another YouTube channel below.

After receiving medical treatment and posting bail, Bane was released about 48 hours after his arrest.

“Unfortunately, situations like what happened to Mr. Bane happen far too often in America and around the globe,” HDSA CEO Louise Vetter said in a phone interview on September 12. “They are heartbreaking and tragic and they’re why we work so hard to educate the community at large about Huntington’s disease. That’s why it takes all of us sharing our outrage but also committing to educating about Huntington’s disease so that circumstances like this aren’t repeated.”

According to Dr. Nance, no statistics exist on arrests or incidents with the police involving HD-affected individuals. However, difficulties with the police and/or misunderstanding of symptoms – usually mistaken for drunkenness or drug usage – have occurred in many HD families. In 2007 I myself visited a San Diego HD man in jail improperly charged with public drunkenness. HD-affected individuals can appear drunk because of their chorea and also slurred speech.

Outrage in the community

The Bane incident has received newspaper, television, and blog coverage in the U.S. The London Daily Mail also ran an article.

The video has also stirred controversy in the greater Morgantown area of West Virginia, home to small towns dependent on the coal-mining and natural gas industries as well as intellectual life at West Virginia University (WVU), with nearly 30,000 students.

“The arrest video on YouTube of Granville man Jeffrey Bane has caused outrage and accusations of police brutality from those who feel Westover and Granville Police were unfair to a man suffering from Huntington's disease,” observed a report on WDTV, a Bridgeport, WV, TV station.

According to that report, the city of Westover views the incident as a “non-issue.”

"The outrage of anything even close to police brutality in the case of Jeff Bane is totally unwarranted,” Westover Mayor Dave Johnson said in a statement released to the station. “If I had any doubt whatsoever I would be the first to bring the officers involved to the carpet, so to speak.… The City of Westover has moved on."

According to Bostonia, the community was indeed “in an uproar” over the incident. In the wake of intense national discussion following this summer’s police shooting of Michael Brown and riots in Ferguson, MO, “people are trying to get a protest together,” she said. “A couple weeks ago they held a protest for Ferguson with about 20 people down at the courthouse. This one hits closer to home. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens here, too.”

Sara Bostonia (personal photo)

At the same time, people are worried about the community’s security, she said.

“Everyone in town is invested in this incident in some way,” she explained. “Maybe their brother’s a cop and they’re afraid. Everyone is connected in some way to one another.

“I didn’t want to take that video. I wanted them to detain him properly.”

‘Justice for Jeffrey’

Bane and Stup have issued no public statements, but Bane’s nephew Josh Bane, 22, emerged as the family spokesperson, setting up a public Justice for Jeffrey Bane page on Facebook.

As the son of a father (Jeffrey’s brother) who has already developed HD symptoms, Josh has a 50-50 chance of inheriting HD.

Josh Bane (personal photo)

Josh alleges that the police violated his uncle’s rights. In the search for truth about the incident, he has sought to obtain and release all related information. The extended Bane family is also considering the possibility of legal action and may seek donations to help cover the cost.

“At the end of the day, someone was detained unlawfully for ten minutes and he was held down and choked on his own blood as he begged for help from anybody,” Josh Bane said in a phone interview on September 13. “It doesn’t take that long to detain a 160-pound man with three officers. They mistook his involuntary movements for resisting, when in reality he suffers from Huntington’s – all of this in front of his two children, who were unattended.

“They could have easily cuffed him and put him in the car in 30 seconds and continued on as if it were routine. For some reason, they wanted to punish him for ten minutes. It was a brutal timeout, if you want to be sarcastic about it.”

According to Josh, the police sprayed mace on his uncle and punched him in the face. In the video, blood covers Jeffrey’s face. The Justice for Jeffrey Bane page includes photographs showing the injuries allegedly suffered by Jeffrey in the incident.

View of some of Jeffrey Bane's injuries allegedly suffered in police incident (photo from Justice for Jeffrey Bane Facebook page)

Going to the park

Josh emphasized that, despite suspicions of child abuse and drug usage, the police did not charge Jeffrey with those crimes. He described as false one media report asserting that Stup told police Jeffrey had an “opiate dependency” and that the couple had fought and she was planning to leave Jeffrey. He added that when the officers questioned him about drugs, Jeffrey became “agitated,” offering immediately to take a urine test.

“She wasn’t even home when Jeff left with the kids,” he said, adding that the couple has strived to “hold it together and deal with everything they have to go through.”

“Uncle Jeff was just going to the park with his kids,” Josh said, explaining why Jeffrey was walking down the street with his children.

Josh, who lived in the same home with Jeffrey for several years and has watched him decline because of HD, recognized that his uncle’s symptoms have diminished his life.

He’s not wheelchair-bound by any means, but the jerking is bad,” Josh said. He’s not to the point where he’s bedridden. He can’t work. He can’t have a normal life by any means.”

However, Josh also asserted that having HD does not prevent Jeffrey from enjoying his family and exercising his rights as a parent.

Josh asserted that the police misunderstood the HD-caused jerky movement of the stroller as lack of concern for the children.

“Who would deny any person the right to their children regardless of how sick they are?” he said. The children represent the one thing that brings Jeffrey and Stup “joy in the world.”

As part of its report, WDTV showed footage of a surveillance video of Jeffrey walking down the street with his children moments before his arrest.

Josh posted the video on the Justice for Jeffrey Bane with a comment: “My uncle walking just prior to his arrest. Does this look like child abuse? He's simply walking to the store with his kids. You tell me if this warranted him being detained in the manner that he was.”

You can watch the video below.

Seeking to educate the police, society

Serious questions linger about this incident.

In particular, why did the officers simply not put Bane into a police vehicle immediately after handcuffing him? Why did they not respond to his pleas for help? Did the officers have crisis intervention training?

Westover Police Chief Ken Fike did not respond to my request for an interview to discuss the incident. Nor could I reach the Granville chief. I had hoped to raise awareness about HD. I will send both departments a copy of this article and tell them how to obtain HDSA’s above-mentioned Law Enforcement Training Guide.

Other HD advocates focused on the incident are also working on awareness efforts.

We’ve got to spread awareness,” said Josh. “This is a disease that’s so unknown. People think it’s Parkinson’s. This is different. It completely disrupts the mind. If all that comes out of this is awareness for that, I’ll be happy.”

Be brave about your HD

Josh confirmed that Jeff did not tell the police he had HD. Nor was Jeff carrying the HDSA “I Have Huntington’s Disease” card.

“People with HD need to be brave enough to say ‘I have Huntington's disease,’” wrote Dr. Nance, who was recently invited to write a book chapter on HD in the criminal justice system. “It is up to the people around them, including law enforcement officers, to understand what that means.”

Dr. Nance also pointed out that HD-affected individuals can be extremely “impulsive,” sometimes causing the line between intent and symptom-driven behavior to become blurry.

“And some people with HD do get into drugs and alcohol, so just saying ‘don't hurt me, I've got HD’ may underestimate the danger of HD to self or others,” she observed.

Like Josh and Vetter, Dr. Nance concluded that people should channel their outrage about the Jeffrey Bane incident into proactive, public advocacy.

“Let us all use this opportunity, as citizens, or members of HD chapters, to speak to our local law enforcement – police, fire, emergency – about HD, and to provide them with the HDSA Law Enforcement Training Guide.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Moving toward a potential treatment: Isis, CHDI researchers outline upcoming Huntington’s disease gene-silencing trial

Scientific research and clinical trials aren’t glamorous, but they are the meat and potatoes of effective treatments and perhaps ultimately a cure for Huntington’s disease. The gene-silencing approach like the Isis-Roche initiative reported here August 23 has great promise.

In a two-hour interview with me at company headquarters in Carlsbad, CA, on August 22, Isis Pharmaceuticals, Inc., officials and researchers provided details about the Phase I trial of the antisense oligonucleotide (ASO) ISIS-HTTRx. Isis and Roche, the Swiss drug maker, plan to start the trial in Canada and Europe by mid-2015. If successful, the trial could result in a drug in five or six years, by 2021.

By attacking the disease near its genetic roots, ISIS-HTTRx could potentially reduce, partly reverse, and even prevent the symptoms of Huntington’s. If it works as intended, this synthetic strand of DNA will turn off the huntingtin gene messenger RNA that contains the instructions to make the huntingtin protein in brain cells.

The huntingtin gene is essential for development very early in life, but some people inherit it with an expanded length, leading to the production of faulty huntingtin messenger RNA and huntingtin protein. Carriers of genes expanded beyond a certain length develop Huntington’s disease. The most recent evidence suggests that not only the faulty protein, but also the faulty messenger RNA damages the brain.

ISIS-HTTRx will later receive a generic scientific name and, if marketed, a trade name from Roche. HTT stands for huntingtin, and Rx for medical treatment. Founded in 1989, Isis based its name on the Egyptian goddess known for her healing powers.

“We have a drug that is going forward into clinical development,” said Frank Bennett, Ph.D., Isis’s senior vice president for research, who has led the development of the HD project. “Assuming all goes well, our plan is to start clinical trials towards the first half of next year…. We’re very enthusiastic about the drug.”

Dr. Bennett said that Isis is currently conducting standard toxicology studies of the drug primarily in non-human primates, but also in rodents, to assure that it will not cause harm to humans. A Phase I trial tests primarily for safety and tolerability.

Dr. Frank Bennett (photo by Dr. Ed Wild)

If the toxicology studies are successful, in the first quarter of 2015 Isis and Roche will request formal authorization to start the Phase I trial from the Canadian and European country equivalents of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Asked about previous delays in the clinical trial timeline and the certainty of a 2015 start, Dr. Bennett affirmed that “we’re on track.”

“What’s really different is that we now have the drug,” he said. “The rest of this is really kind of operational where we have to do additional important work, but it’s not the necessarily the same kind of research we were doing before, where there were a lot of unknowns that impacted timelines. We have to do some experiments, but we … have a lot of experience doing these toxicology studies. We aren’t anticipating any major issues associated with them.”

“It’s never been more close,” said Douglas Macdonald, Ph.D., a long-time contributor to the project. The director of drug discovery and development for CHDI Management, Inc., which carries out the day-to-day mission of the non-profit, HD drug-discovery biotech CHDI Foundation, Inc., Dr. Macdonald was its point man during the foundation’s collaboration with Isis from 2007-2013 and, along with others from CHDI, continues to advise on the project.

With a $30 million investment in Isis’s preparations for the clinical trial and the prospect of additional future payments, Roche last year acquired the rights to the drug. The deal allowed CHDI to switch to an advisory role as intended and enabled Roche to bring to bear its expertise in developing drugs and bringing them to the market. Because of the high cost of drug development, a small biotech firm such as Isis must partner with a drug manufacturer to get its remedies to patients.

Gene Veritas (aka Kenneth Serbin) at Isis headquarters in Carlsbad, CA (photo by Alex Chambers, Isis intern)

Safety and tolerability

The trial of ISIS-HTTRx will involve approximately 36 early-stage Huntington’s patients at four to six clinical trial sites (institutions, clinics, and/or hospitals) in Canada and Europe, said Roger Lane, M.D., M.P.H., Isis vice president of clinical development and neurology and the company’s lead organizer of the HD trial. Isis will announce the sites next year after contract signings and approval from regulators. Isis and Roche are focusing on sites with considerable experience in clinical trials in Huntington’s disease.

Dr. Lane joined Isis in January 2014 in large part to help it ramp up the ISIS-HTTRx trial.

He explained that the site clinical trial investigators will seek to recruit individuals who have received a medical diagnosis of HD due to their high level of motor symptoms (involuntary movements) but still in the early stages of the illness. The trial will require people with a “very high level of functioning”  with Total Functional Capacity score of 11-13 (on a rising scale of 1-13).

The patients need to be “fully capable of informed consent and able to make a determination whether they want to be in the study or not,” he said.

Although it’s widely recognized that cognitive loss and/or mood and behavioral disorders can precede motor symptoms in HD, the ISIS-HTTRx Phase I criteria will hone to the classic definition of motor onset, Dr. Lane indicated. The patients without a lot of motor symptoms might qualify for the eventual Phases II and III, depending on the observations made in Phase I, he said.

Recruitment will take place through physicians, without public advertisements. Patients will receive reimbursement for expenses associated with the trial.

Dr. Roger Lane (photo by Dr. Gene Hung, Isis)

“We want patients that are going to be fairly local to the site, so we don’t want patients to come from a long way,” he explained. “If there’s any complication, obviously we want them to be admitted very rapidly to the clinical facility.”

Because a Phase I study focuses on safety and tolerability, patients will receive one of four ascending doses of ISIS-HTTRx over three months. Although ISIS-HTTRx might be able to reduce the amount of huntingtin messenger RNA and protein as much as 90%, the highest dose is anticipated to achieve a reduction of 50-70%, Dr. Lane explained.

The study will help determine the frequency and size of dosages for eventual Phase II and Phase III trials. In line with the research done in animals, a successful ISIS-HTTRx drug in humans might require dosage only a few times per year, Dr. Lane said.

One in four patients will receive a placebo and therefore become a comparison group, a standard practice in clinical trials to allow for a more accurate understanding of the actual effect of a drug.

After the first dose, patients will undergo monitoring for at least 24 hours before heading home.

Participants will undergo periodic neurological and neuropsychiatric evaluation. The first evaluation will take place on the eve of the first dose. After the last dose, researchers will continue to evaluate the patients for six months. “We’ll be keeping a close eye on them,” Dr. Lane noted.

A spinal tap

Patients will receive the drug through a routine lumbar puncture, that is, a needle inserted into the lower spine. Experienced neurologists will first withdraw a small amount of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF), to be analyzed as part of the clinical trial research. (See more on this research below.)

Next, without withdrawing the needle, the doctors will inject a few milliliters of a solution containing ISIS-HTTRx.

In technical terms, introducing the drug into the spinal canal is known as an intrathecal injection. The CSF naturally travels to the brain. As in tests with rodents and non-human primates, the ISIS-HTTRx should flow with the CSF to the brain.

As Isis and Roche prepare for the trial, they will decide on the best position for the patients – lying on their side or drooped over a chair, for instance – to get as much of the drug as possible into the brain and minimizing complications such as post-procedure headaches.

Dr. Lane explained that the doctors will use a so-called atraumatic needle, which has a slightly more blunt point than other types of needles and produces fewer post-procedural headaches.

In all, the actual procedure will last several minutes, with patients spending no more than half an hour on this part of the trial, Dr. Lane said. A local anesthetic can be used but is avoided by doctors because it can cause swelling and make it harder to see under the skin, he added. Each trial participant will undergo the procedure five times over the course of the treatment period.

“I’ve had lumbar punctures myself, and I’ve given many lumbar punctures to other people,” Dr. Lane continued. “If you’re in the hands of a very experienced clinician who’s done them many times and who does not impart any anxiety to the patient, then it’s not an inconvenient or painful procedure. You feel a little bit of pressure perhaps in the back. If you do not have any headache after the procedure, then it’s not really that inconvenient. There is a psychological component to the thought of having a needle put into your back. It’s not an agreeable thought to people. But it’s not a painful procedure.”

Children undergoing spinal taps in an Isis clinical trial for a drug to treat spinal muscular atrophy have not suffered any serious consequences, Dr. Bennett pointed out.

For more on spinal taps and Huntington’s disease research, see Dr. Ed Wild’s account of his own lumbar puncture by clicking here.

Isis and Roche are conducting joint research on the latter’s so-called brain shuttle technology, which in the future might allow patients to take a drug such as ISIS-HTTRx via an intravenous or subcutaneous (under the skin) injection, Dr. Bennett said. The companies are not currently offering public comment on that research, he added.

Timeline and study sites

Depending on the pace of recruitment, Phase I most likely will end in 2017, Dr. Lane said. If Phase I is successful, Phase II could follow no sooner than nine months later. All three phases of a clinical trial program typically take at least five years.

With its large HD population and high-level medical facilities, why won’t the U.S. host the Phase I trial?

“This trial is very small,” explained Dr. Lane. “So we only need a few sites. We could have run the study in the U.S., but it didn’t make sense to run it in both the U.S. and Europe. We chose Europe.”

Dr. Lane said that the FDA’s clinical trial guidelines did not lead to the decision to conduct the experiment abroad.

Aimed at demonstrating the efficacy of ISIS-HTTRx, Phase II would recruit a much larger number of people and will certainly include the U.S., Dr. Lane said.

Measuring the results

The trial investigators will check for the safety and tolerability of ISIS-HTTRx by putting the patients through several tests and measurements, including clinical observations, behavioral and neuropsychiatric testing, cognitive testing, a motor function examination, and neuroimaging (putting the participants in a structural MRI machine and taking measures of brain volume).

The measurements will also allow the researchers to make “assessments of the disease itself,” Dr. Lane said.

“On the flip side, we can actually explore if we’re actually improving those parameters [the patients’ condition],” he added.

However, Dr. Lane warned that the short duration of the study would limit the use of such observations.

“We might not see much change, even if the drug was capable of inducing change,” he said.

Key biomarkers: CSF and PET-ligands

A key set of observations on the disease will come from the CSF. Researchers will also measure the ASO concentration in the fluid to determine the amount of drug remaining in the brain.

They will also seek to identify and study biomarkers, that is, markers of the disease and disease progression. Biomarkers can also indicate the effect of a drug.

Because ISIS-HTTRx  should reduce or “knock down” the huntingtin messenger RNA and protein, the scientists want to measure and interpret the amount of both normal and mutant huntingtin in the CSF. (Both types exist in HD patients because they inherit a copy of the huntingtin gene from each parent, one healthy, the other HD-affected.)

“There’s good news on that front in that we can measure huntingtin in the CSF, but we don’t know yet what that means,” Dr. Lane explained. “Where is it coming from? Is it coming from the blood? Is it coming from the brain? If it’s coming from the brain, where in the brain is it coming from?”

(For a recent scientific discussion of mutant huntingtin in the CSF and other bodily fluids, please click here.)

Isis and CHDI are collaborating to help answer these and other questions about the CSF, said Holly Kordasiewicz, Ph.D., an Isis HD team member. By studying rodents genetically modified to develop HD-like symptoms and treated with ASOs, they aim to establish a correlation between the amount of both normal and mutant huntingtin in the CSF and the brain. That will help the researchers determine the frequency and quantity of the drug’s dosage.

Dr. Holly Kordasiewicz (photo by Dr. Gene Hung, Isis)

They are also gathering data on these questions from the above-mentioned toxicology studies.

In addition to huntingtin protein, the researchers will observe other markers in the CSF such as markers of neuronal damage, inflammation, and transcriptional dysfunction (incorrect formation of proteins), Dr. Lane added.

In collaboration with Dr. Macdonald and others at CHDI, the Isis HD team is working to validate huntingtin lowering biomarkers. Beside the development of assays (investigative procedures) to measure the huntingtin protein in CSF, CHDI is also looking at PET-ligands to measure the effects of ISIS-HTTRx in the brain. The ligand, sometimes called a PET tracer, binds to a target or receptor in the brain, which can be measured in people using PET scan imaging.  The team has selected ligands to targets that are altered in HD; the hope is that when huntingtin is lowered the level of these targets will be restored, indicating that ISIS-HTTRx has a desired effect.

Dr. Macdonald offered the example of dopamine receptors. “It is well established that there is less of a receptor called the dopamine subtype 2 receptor in the brains of HD patients and animal models.  This can be measured using a specific PET tracer and we will look to see if that signal is increased after huntingin-lowering with ISIS-HTTRx. If that occurs this would be an indication that the drug is having the expected effect in the brain.” The procedure is non-invasive, he added.

Dr. Lane said that the PET-ligand most likely will be ready only for Phase II.

From these observations of the CSF and the PET-ligand signals, the researchers hope to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the drug, if not in Phase I, certainly in Phases II and III.

“Biomarkers are an important aspect of any drug development program,” said Dr. Macdonald. “The fact that the Isis and Roche teams are seriously looking at what biomarkers they can use in the clinic is a very positive sign”.

Of course, the ultimate biomarker will be a healthy patient.

Dr. Douglas Macdonald (photo by Gene Veritas)

Completing the missile: ISIS-HTTRx  

Isis’s choice of ISIS-HTTRx in the first quarter of this year came after seven years of engineering and the testing of some 2,000 ASOs.

As Dr. Bennett put it in 2008, Isis technology is like a “laser-guided missile” that targets a specific, disease-causing messenger RNA and destroys it or takes it out of the body “so that you don’t produce that messenger RNA.”

In 2012, Dr. Kordasiewicz, Dr. Bennett, and other researchers published an article in the important journal Neuron demonstrating how the experimental ASOs produced stunning improvement in the health of HD-affected mice.

Some researchers referred to the improvements in symptoms and signs that persisted for a long time after the ASO treatment had finished working in the affected animals as a “Huntington’s holiday.”

Throughout 2013 and into 2014, Isis has tweaked the drug formula, aiming to improve safety and efficacy.

“It’s like you’re turning two different knobs, safety and efficacy, and sometimes they go in different directions,” Dr. Bennett explained. “You have to sort of adjust both knobs by screening a lot of different drugs that ultimately give you what you’re hoping is the candidate.

“We’re very pleased that screening shows that it’s potentially a well-tolerated drug. We wanted to make sure that it’s the most potent, most efficacious and safest drug that we could identify. This candidate fits that description.”

Isis designed ISIS-HTTRx to knock down both the mutant form of the huntingtin gene messenger RNA and the normal form. So far, research has not shown any negative effects of knocking down the normal gene in animals. Isis also has the technology to make mutant-gene messenger-RNA-specific ASOs, that is, types that reduce only the bad huntingtin protein.

“One of the big challenges for us was to decide whether we only inhibited the mutant gene that expresses the expanded CAG repeat or we targeted both the wild type [normal] as well as the mutant gene,” Dr. Bennett said. “There are a lot of pros and cons for doing both. Ultimately we decided that the technology with the mutant-specific compound wasn’t ready to go.”

The HD team “felt it was important to get a drug into clinical trials as quickly as we are comfortable with” in order to start evaluating the effects on the disease of knocking down the huntingtin messenger RNA and protein, he continued.

If ISIS-HTTRx works, the company may develop the mutant-specific ASOs as second-generation drugs. As Dr. Bennett explained, this version would require at least five different ASOs because of variations on the huntingtin gene among individuals.

(You can learn more about mutant-specific ASOs by participating in a Huntington’s Disease Society of America webinar 12-1 p.m. EDT on September 24 with Amber Southwell, Ph.D., of the University of British Columbia.)

The million-dollar question

At the close of the interview the Isis scientists assessed the clinical trial’s potential impact on patients.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Dr. Kordasiewicz. “We’re all very hopeful that it will work, but you just don’t know until you try it.”

“We’re going into the unknown territory now, because nobody’s really developed a therapy to treat Huntington’s disease that’s really targeting the huntingtin gene,” said Dr. Bennett. The hope is to stop disease progression and potentially reverse some symptoms. “The science would suggest we minimally could prevent the disease from progressing any further.”

Dr. Lane said that ASO technology “has a lower likelihood of failing” than traditional pharmaceutical products (so-called small molecules).

“With small molecules it’s not always clear exactly how they’re working,” he explained. “The mechanism here [ASOs targeting the messenger RNA of a specific gene] is so clear and so tied into the pathogenesis [cause] of the disorder that there’s more chance at being successful.”

(Small molecule drugs make up 90 percent of the drugs currently on the market. They are traditional, chemically manufactured drugs. Large molecules, also called biologics, are a new class of drug that is becoming increasingly important. They are proteins. ASOs represent another new technology distinct from these other two classes of drugs.)

Dr. Lane added that even though HD has been well studied, not all of the pathways of the disease – that is, the downstream biological processes flowing from the mutant gene – have been described and understood. Researchers still don’t “know for certain which are the important pathways of the disease.”

With ASOs, the downstream pathways are irrelevant, he said. “We go so early in the pathway that we should help everything.”

Asymptomatic gene carriers cannot participate in the ISIS-HTTRx trial.

“Obviously this mechanism has great potential to be used in individuals who have the mutant gene and are not yet symptomatic,” said Dr. Lane said.

Members of the Isis team: (from left to right) Alex Chambers, intern; Kristina Bowyer, director of communications and advocacy relations; Dr. Roger Lane; Dr. Gene Hung; and Dr. Holly Kordasiewicz (photo by Gene Veritas)

A transformation of medicine?

Isis has been making medical history.

In January 2013, the FDA approved Kynamro, a drug developed by Isis to treat a rare type of extremely high cholesterol. It was the very first systemic ASO drug to reach the market.

Shortly before that, Isis also made history with a clinical trial for an ASO drug to treat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The program was paused after Phase I because Isis is improving the drug for its ongoing development program using the latest ASO technology.

“The ALS trial was the first time that anybody had put an oligonucleotide drug into the intrathecal space [spinal cord], and so there were a lot of safety concerns,” Dr. Bennett said. “The ALS experience showed that intrathecal administration was very well tolerated.”

ISIS-HTTRx is an even more advanced ASO than the one used in the ALS trial, he added.

A gene-silencing HD treatment would not only make history but could transform medicine as the world prepares to care for tens of millions of people affected by Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, and other neurological conditions.

Said Gene Hung, Ph.D., a long-time member of the Isis HD team: “To date I don’t think there are any disease-modifying drugs out there in CNS [central nervous system] and neurodegenerative diseases, period.”

ISIS-HTTRx could be the first. But it will take several years before progress can be assessed.

See below links to previous reports on Isis.