Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Roche restarts redesigned Phase 3 Huntington’s disease trial

Three months after announcing it would reduce dosing in its historic Phase 3 Huntington’s disease clinical trial – and pausing for a reset – pharma giant Roche announced on June 20 that it has reopened recruitment for the study, known as GENERATION HD1.

GENERATION HD1 aims to measure whether Roche’s gene-silencing drug, RG6042, will slow, halt, or perhaps even reverse HD symptoms. In late January, Roche announced that it had enrolled the first participant in the trial, which will include a total of 660 volunteers at more than 90 sites in at least 18 countries around the world.

In the original trial design, participants would undergo monthly spinal tap (lumbar puncture) procedures over 25 months. One third of participants would receive RG6042 each month and one third every other month. A third would get a placebo.

However, with new, promising data in hand from an open-label extension (OLE) of the Phase 1/2a trial, on March 21 Roche announced that it would decrease lumbar punctures to once every other month over the same period of time (click here to read more). In this revised design, one third of participants will receive RG6042 every other month and one third every four months. One third will receive a placebo every other month.

The change in dosing required Roche to stop the trial to obtain updated approval from regulatory agencies in the respective countries where the program is operating. Recruitment had to start from scratch, with all new volunteers. Roche completed the necessary details for resuming the trial in just a few months, as it had hoped.

“In March we announced our plan to amend the dosing frequency and study design, which will make study participation less demanding for patients, their families and HD centers,” Mai-Lise Nguyen, Roche’s HD patient partnership director, wrote to the HD community in a June 20 e-mail update on the trial. “Since then, our team has been working to implement study changes and obtain approvals from clinical trial review boards and authorities around the world. Today I am pleased to share that we have reopened the study for recruitment of new patients.”

Mai-Lise Nguyen (photo by Gene Veritas)

Initial authorizations received

With the lumbar punctures, GENERATION HD1 clinicians introduce RG6042 into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which circulates along the spine and bathes the brain. The researchers hope that the drug will penetrate the brain sufficiently and, as a result, stop progression of HD. 

Lumbar punctures are routine and generally safe procedures, although they can sometimes cause side effects such as headaches and bleeding. In GENERATION HD1, the dosing will be a 20-minute outpatient procedure.

Roche changed the dosing based on new data taken from the OLE of the Phase 1/2a clinical trial of RG6042. Phase 1/2a was run by Ionis Pharmaceuticals, Inc., the original developer of the drug. Involving 46 volunteers in Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom, that trial ended successfully in December 2017: the drug substantially lowered the amount of mutant huntingtin protein, the purported cause of the disease, in the patients’ CSF, which could be an indication of what’s happening in the brain – again, something to be studied in Phase 3.

All 46 participants took part in the 15-month OLE, which is run in support of the overall RG6042 research program. Nine months into the OLE, Roche had data indicating that it could reduce dosing in the larger Phase 3 study. Whereas 25 percent of the Phase 1/2a volunteers got a placebo, all 46 received the drug in the OLE.

“Initial clinical trial authorizations to start the amended GENERATION HD1 study have been received, and we expect to receive the remaining approvals soon,” Nguyen stated. “Recruitment timing will be different at each participating HD clinic/center, because the protocol amendment must be fully approved and in place at each study site before local recruitment may open. Our team is working to rapidly activate the updated study protocol at each site.”

An updated country list

Nguyen provided an updated list of countries currently hosting the GENERATION HD1 sites: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, Chile, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States.

Roche recommends that those interested in participating contact their local HD specialists. Individual site information will also be posted at and

Individuals who had already started GENERATION HD1 before the announcement of the changes in dosing will be eligible to switch to GEN-EXTEND, an OLE study in which everybody receives RG6042 (no placebo).

Publication of the first data

The resumption of GENERATION HD1 comes in the wake of the first official publication of Phase 1/2a data. That article underscores the impressive results of the trial but also the need for careful study of RG6042 in Phase 3.

Co-authored by 22 scientists, including leaders of the Roche and Ionis HD teams, the article “Targeting Huntingtin Expression in Patients with Huntington’s Disease” appeared in the online edition of The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) on May 6 and in print on June 13.

The article confirmed that Phase 1/2a met its primary goal of demonstrating no serious adverse effects of RG6042.

The article also provided details demonstrating the extent to which RG6042 reduced the mutant protein in the CSF. However, it added that researchers still do not yet know whether that reduction in the CSF corresponds to a reduction in the human brain.

A ‘big leap forward,’ but with a critical need for Phase 3

The NEJM article also revealed that two tests showed results that could prove worrisome: temporary increases in the size of the ventricles (fluid-filled spaces) of the brain and in a biomarker (sign of disease) known as neurofilament light.

“Getting to the bottom of these potentially concerning lab tests requires a larger group of people, followed for a longer time,” commented HD researcher Jeff Carroll, Ph.D., in a May 7 article

In Huntington’s, the ventricles “appear to grow, as the [brain] tissue around them shrinks,” Dr. Carroll explained. This is “the opposite effect one would hope for if the drug was slowing brain shrinkage,” he added.

Regarding neurofilament light, Dr. Carroll observed that “this marker is released by sick and damaged brain cells called neurons, and researchers have previously demonstrated that it increases slowly and predictably in HD mutation carriers.”

The need to understand these test results is “exactly why Roche and Ionis are conducting a new, larger, study called the GENERATION-HD1 study,” Dr. Carroll continued.

Dr. Carroll concluded that “the now published results of the first study with a drug targeting the root cause of HD are a big leap forward for the community. They point towards refinements and cautions we should consider as we test the drug in larger groups of HD patients over a longer time.”

(Disclosure: I hold a symbolic amount of Ionis shares.)

Click on the links below for previous articles on RG6042.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Are pre-existing conditions returning, and Obamacare ending?

Nine years ago, with passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) under Democratic President Barack Obama, I celebrated with an article titled “Good-bye, pre-existing conditions!”

Widely known as Obamacare, the ACA prohibited insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, a widespread practice that severely endangered the genetically unlucky. It also made health insurance available to millions of people previously unable to obtain it, and it extended family coverage for children up to age 26.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Obamacare by a 5-4 decision, with conservative Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joining the court’s four more liberal judges. However, with the long political fight over the ACA heating up again, and a more conservative Supreme Court, Obamacare could be abolished if the court agrees with right-wing challenges to it.

Along with many other disease groups, the Huntington’s disease community could face declining quality of care, increased costs, and renewed discrimination and stigma.

Hiding the central fact of my health

I am an HD gene carrier.

In my 2010 article on the ACA, I wrote that, because of the insurance restrictions for pre-existing conditions, I had “never used my health coverage to help me deal with the central fact of my health: my gene-positive test for this horrible brain disease.” I described the complicated and expensive lengths I went to in securing alternative assistance with HD.

Concealing my HD status from my health plan had produced “an absolutely absurd situation,” I observed in a 2019 HD Awareness Month podcast. People like me used to hide our conditions because we feared losing our coverage.

“Thank goodness for the Affordable Care Act,” I commented. The ACA “got rid of this nonsense about pre-existing conditions.”

Indeed, the enactment of the ACA had helped convince me to go fully public about my HD status in 2012 and inform my health plan of my HD status (click here to read more).

In all, this has made me a more effective HD advocate – and more organized and confident regarding my daily fight to stave off symptoms.

New attacks on the ACA

The Republican Party has officially opposed Obamacare, but – because of its popularity – failed to repeal it even when the party controlled both houses of Congress under President Donald Trump in 2017 and 2018. (The 2017 major tax bill signed by Trump did eliminate, starting this year, the ACA penalty for not having insurance.)

However, the Trump administration has carried out a multi-front attack on the ACA. Among other things, it has promoted insurance plans that do not comply with the protection for pre-existing conditions, and it has allowed states to impose work requirements for Medicaid recipients. America’s number of uninsured had fallen to record lows by the end of the Obama administration in early 2017, but the number has started to rise again.

Then, on March 25, Trump’s Department of Justice filed a brief supporting a Texas federal judge’s December 2018 ruling that the entire ACA was unconstitutional.

On May 22, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat and one of the lead defenders of the ACA, joined 20 other attorneys general in filing a brief in defense of the ACA in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans.

“The Trump Administration has made clear that it will not defend Americans’ healthcare and the law that tens of millions of Americans across the country depend on – so our fight continues,” Becerra stated in a press release.

The appeal will be heard on July 9. Depending on the ruling, the case could go to the Supreme Court. With two Trump appointees, the Supreme Court has become potentially more hostile to the ACA.

HDSA’s support

The Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA) supports the ACA.

“HDSA believes that any attempts to repeal or dismantle the ACA without providing a replacement plan that maintains [the] protections and benefits for Americans impacted by complex and chronic diseases like HD is unacceptable,” the HDSA national office wrote me in a June 10 e-mail. “HDSA is committed to protecting access to healthcare for individuals impacted by HD.”

According to HDSA, the ACA “has created safeguards for vulnerable Americans who are impacted by chronic, complex diseases like HD from being denied healthcare coverage or being purposefully priced out of the healthcare market.” The ACA has “provided important avenues to access care for families with HD and we believe that they need to be protected.”

Thus, without the ACA or a robust equivalent, HD families could face greater difficulties in finding quality, affordable care.

We must not return to the ‘HD closet’

In addition to supporting HDSA and other advocacy organizations, HD family members can contact their state attorney general to support or join the appeal of the anti-ACA Texas ruling.

In California, where I reside, Becerra has sent several recent e-mails to political supporters asking them to sign a petition in support of the ACA. The e-mails have also asked for donations to help support the defense of the ACA.

According to Becerra, 133 million Americans have pre-existing conditions. He calls the ACA a “life-saving law.”

(The debate over the ACA has also helped stimulate calls by many of the 20-plus 2020 Democratic presidential contenders for a “Medicare for All” program. The debate is also related to the anti-science agenda of the Trump administration. I hope to address these issues in future articles.)

As I wrote in 2010, the passage of the ACA “brought a new beginning for the Huntington’s disease community – and for everybody in America.”

We must not regress to a system that forces people to hide in the "terrible and lonely HD closet," as so many of us did in the past.

Friday, May 24, 2019

My Huntington’s disease sister – and a hero who strives for the unthinkable

Sharon Shaffer is my Huntington’s disease sister – and my hero.

Afflicted with progressively worse HD symptoms the past 15 years, San Diego area resident Sharon decided to once again attempt the unthinkable for someone heading into the final years of the fatal, incurable disorder: she rowed the equivalent of an aquatic marathon (26.2 miles) on a gym machine in six and a half hours.

The May 10 event, with loved ones and supporters cheering her on, was called “Sharon's Marathon Row for Huntington's Disease Awareness Month.” 

Sharon’s feat was captured in a five-minute video titled Magic on Marathon Row, produced by filmmaker Nathan Apffel, who also directed the feature-length documentary The Longest Journey, about the Shaffer nuclear family’s epic battle against Huntington’s.

A scene from Magic on Marathon Row

“When disease takes your health and mobility and will take your life, you have a choice,” the video’s overlying text says. “Meet Sharon, a real-life super woman. As Sharon’s body gives out, her determination grows. As her world contracts, her commitment to raising awareness intensifies. As her body breaks down, one thing remains consistent: her determination to fight.”

Sharon’s husband Renato told me in an e-mail that, despite her advanced HD symptoms, she did the "marathon" through “sheer perseverance.”

“It is the only exercise she is able to do without assistance,” he added.

“Sharon, you truly are an inspiration to so many,” wrote E.J. Garner, the chair of the board of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, in response to my Facebook posting of the video. “Thank you for being such a beautiful example of persistence to fight and bringing awareness to Huntington's disease.”

“She completed a feat only few in the entire world, even healthy and athletic, would not dare approach, let alone finish,” observed LeeJ Razalan, a friend and the owner of Stay Classy CrossFit, the San Diego gym where the event took place. “Sharon's statement in life and in disease will forever ring: we shall overcome and we will finish this together."

Watch Sharon in the video below.

Advancing symptoms

The “marathon” exhausted Sharon. “She could barely move when we got home and took a good three days for full recovery,” Renato explained.

With her family’s help, Sharon has remained one of the most physically active HD-afflicted individuals I have encountered. The highly demanding CrossFit workouts have been one of her favorite activities.

Renato believes that CrossFit delayed Sharon’s need for a wheelchair.

“I also believe the people she worked out with gave her motivation,” he added. “She always looked forward to working out.”

However, Renato also described CrossFit as a “barometer” of HD progression.

In recent years she has become physically weaker, and the involuntary movements caused by HD have increased.

“We have witnessed a rapid decline in the past twelve months,” Renato wrote. “She is no longer able to walk unassisted, and her speech is becoming more labored every day. We have full-time in-home care and are so fortunate they are doing a really great job taking care of her.”

Sharon still exercises, but “it gets more difficult every week,” Renato added.

Renato allowed Sharon to row in the “marathon,” he wrote, because as symptoms worsen, exercise will become impossible. That moment will be "heartbreaking."

An upbeat family

I met Sharon about two decades ago at the HDSA-San Diego support group. With others in the breakout group for presymptomatic gene carriers like us and also the untested at-risk, we shared our fears about the disease and its consequences for our children and extended families.

The Shaffers became one of the most active supporters of the cause. Between 2005 and 2015, with Sharon, family members, and others following in support vehicles, Renato and three other riders competed four times in the Race Across America, a non-stop coast-to-coast bicycle race. They always completed the race in fewer than the required eight days.

The Longest Journey documentary chronicles the 2015 race. “In contrast with most presentations of HD I’ve witnessed in the two decades since my mother’s diagnosis for the disorder, this often emotionally wrenching film left me, an HD gene carrier, feeling upbeat,” I wrote in a review of a private screening of the film in 2016 (click here to read more)

The closing words of Sharon’s rowing video ask viewers to learn more about Sharon’s story by watching The Longest Journey. (It’s on Amazon and free to Prime members.)

According to Renato, Amazon statistics reveal that the film has been viewed 200,000 times.

The essential goal: treatments

Sadly, I’ve witnessed how HD has overcome Sharon, transforming her from a healthy and vibrant woman into someone now dependent on a wheelchair and the assistance of others.

However, Sharon has demonstrated that, despite the ravages of the "devil of all diseases," the core of her personality has survived.

As we enter the final week of HD Awareness Month, Sharon’s gutsy fight reminds us all that we must not give up in the face of Huntington’s difficult challenges.

For me, Sharon’s devotion to exercise is a cue to spend more time swimming.

At the same time, exercise, although certainly important, has not stopped Sharon’s HD from progressing.

We need effective treatments – urgently.

In the HD movement, advocates create moments that capture the essence of the cause.

In defying seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the Shaffers remind us of the immense scientific, financial, political, and social challenges that the HD community faces in seeking to find the first effective treatment – and perhaps even a cure – for a neurological disorder.

Friday, May 03, 2019

‘Let’s Talk About Huntington’s Disease’: 2019 HD Awareness Month kicks off

May is Huntington’s Disease Awareness Month. As in past years, the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA) is encouraging HD families to share their experiences in a social media campaign, #LetsTalkAboutHD.

Other HD advocacy groups are also marking HD Awareness Month.

As a presymptomatic HD gene carrier who lost his mother to HD in 2006, I kicked off my own participation as a guest May 1 on Help 4 HD International’s podcast Help 4 HD Radio (click here to hear the program.)

I recalled my family’s struggle with HD in an interview with podcast host and HD gene carrier Lauren Holder, the Help 4 HD Radio producer and the 2014 HDSA Person of the Year.

“We need to continue telling our stories,” I said in response to Lauren’s question about how to promote HD Awareness Month, emphasizing the need to attract those unaffected by HD to our cause.

I also highlighted the “real hope” for the first effective HD treatments with clinical trials such as the Ionis-Roche project. These trials are “really unprecedented in the history of HD,” I noted. In the mid-1990s, when my mother was diagnosed, there had been “zero hope,” I recalled.

The next day, I posted HD Awareness Month flyers on my office door at the University of San Diego.

I’m ready for #LetsTalkAboutHD!

Gene Veritas, aka Kenneth P. Serbin, at his office at the University of San Diego (photo by Yi Sun, Ph.D.)

A painful silence

My conversation with Lauren stirred up painful memories – but also provided fresh insight – about my own path from refusing to talk publicly about HD to exiting the “terrible and lonely HD closet” in 2012 with an essay, “Racing Against the Genetic Clock,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Regarding my “coming out” about HD, Lauren wanted to know: “How did it make you feel? Was the process hard? Did you feel a sense of relief?”

“Deep down, I knew that someday I would need to go public, in some way or another, because it’s very hard to be an advocate without telling people about your story,” I said.

I recounted one poignant dilemma – discussed in public for the first time in the podcast – in the early 2000s. Back then, HDSA-San Diego was joining other chapters around the country in hosting the organization’s first fundraising galas.

“I would volunteer for the galas,” I told Lauren. “I was writing the newsletter that we would distribute at the galas. But I would never tell anybody my story.”

I was known in other San Diego circles for my work as a scholar of Brazil, and once I had given a local public talk on that country.

“I had met this one couple [at my Brazil talk],” I explained to Lauren. “And then, a year or two later, they showed up at one of our galas. So it was like, ‘Wow!’ They were wanting to know what I was doing at this gala here. And I said, ‘Well, this is my personal commitment to charity and making a difference.’

“And I didn’t tell them my story,” I explained. “It’s that kind of situation that was very difficult for me, because I was afraid of being outed, because nobody at my work knew my status. I was worried about losing my job and losing my insurance, and, if I were ever to switch jobs, could I get health insurance again? All of the concerns that people in our community, and other communities, have.

“I really just felt bad that I couldn’t – and wouldn’t at that point – share my story.”

Becoming an open, honest advocate

Going public “allowed me to be a much, much better advocate, an honest advocate,” I told Lauren. “I can talk openly about HD and my family situation.”

My essay “Racing Against the Genetic Clock” shocked my colleagues at work and around the country, I recalled.

However, I believed that the article was necessary because I “wanted to take away the fear of talking about Huntington’s disease” for others.

“To this point, I have not, to my knowledge, suffered any discrimination,” I added “And, of course, I’m still asymptomatic. Who knows what will happen if and when I become symptomatic? Things could change.”

However, until now, “I’ve been treated with respect,” I said. Living outside the “HD closet” has “been a very positive experience.”

The prohibition of insurance discrimination for people with pre-existing conditions in the Affordable Care Act and the passage of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act have further encouraged me, I added.


Going public about one’s HD story is a “personal decision,” I observed.

Those unready to tell their stories openly can still participate in #LetsTalkAboutHD by starting with relatives and close friends, I said.

In the HD community, we all have important stories.

As I’ve told Lauren and so many others, “Together we will defeat HD!”

Sadly, HD and juvenile HD patients continue to die. HD Awareness Month provides our community with the opportunity to renew our energies and tell the world of the urgent need for treatments.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Comedian Rod Man’s heartfelt speech, Ramona Johnston’s death remind us of urgent need to cure Huntington’s disease

In his raw, heartfelt speech in February about the devastation of Huntington’s disease in his extended family, comedian Rod “Rod Man” Thompson reminded his audience of the HD community’s urgent need for help: “We’ve got to find a cure. Any disease: you want to kick his ass.”

On April 4, the story of yet another fallen “HD warrior” drove home how the condition often strikes in the prime of life and is ultimately fatal. That night, Ramona Johnston, the wife of longtime San Diego Chargers football team public relations director and major HD fundraiser Bill Johnston, succumbed to the disease after more than 20 years of brave struggle. Diagnosed at age 39, Ramona was just 60.

“Ramona passed away last night after fighting unbelievably hard against this horrible disease,” Bill wrote on Facebook on April 5. “As much as I knew this day would come, it hurts so bad that my girl is gone. She’s the strongest, toughest, bravest person I know. One of God’s angels on earth finally has peace and is with Him in heaven.”

Introducing Rod Man

HD affects not just individuals but families. To illustrate that, as promised earlier, I’m now providing a detailed report on Rob’s important and moving February 25 keynote address to several hundred scientists, drug hunters, and advocates at the 14th Annual Huntington’s Disease Therapeutics Conference. Sponsored by CHDI Foundation, Inc., the event took place at the Parker Palm Springs hotel in Palm Springs, CA. 

A standup comedian, Rod Man was the winner of season 8 (2014) of NBC’s Last Comic Standing reality TV talent competition. He has appeared at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, the Apollo Theater in New York City, and the Gibson Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, where he resides. He has also appeared in film and TV roles, and hosts his own YouTube shows.

“That’s my passion,” said the performer known as Rod Man. “Tonight, we’re going to set a different tone. I am Rod Thompson tonight.”

A native of the small Georgia town of Villa Rica, Rod was the first African-American CHDI keynoter. His family’s story underscored the fact that HD affects people of all ethnicities, as well as both sexes.

“As an African-American, I know that sometimes we don’t get the information,” Rob commented. “I’m here as a black man.”

However, he said, he recognized that HD affects his family just as it does others. He said that he aimed to “promote conversation” and awareness about HD, no matter what a person’s personal or educational background.

Rod "Rod Man" Thompson (right) exchanges laughs with leading HD researcher Steven Hersch, M.D., Ph.D., of Voyager Therapeutics, after Rod's keynote speech (photo by Gene Veritas).

The challenges families face

Rod titled his presentation “The Cycle: My Mother’s Story.” Interlacing humor with wrenching stories of HD’s debilitating physical and mental impact on his 66-year-old mother Shirley, Rod captured the many aspects of HD that families struggle with and doctors and scientists seek to alleviate.

His speech reflected once again how, as an inheritable disease, HD affects the extended family. His elder daughter prepared the slides for his talk. It included photos of Shirley and three aunts – all now in nursing homes – and a cousin also stricken with the disease.

Rob recalled how his maternal grandmother was initially misdiagnosed with cerebral palsy. Growing up, he was unaware of HD. “I just knew my grandmama was mean,” he said, referring to HD’s psychiatric and behavioral symptoms.

Before arriving in Palm Springs, Rod interviewed his sister, the primary caregiver for his mother in Villa Rica. She described details of Shirley’s daily struggles with HD, as well as the constraints it imposes on her own life.

“I understand how it affects her life,” Rod said. “She said, ‘Yes, it’s a lot to deal with.’”

Because of her “sacrifice” to care for Shirley, Rob’s sister has for now given up her own career dreams in fashion design, Rob added. “I could see the anger build in her, because she feels like, ‘If I don’t, who else is going to?’”

Rod recognized that other HD families face a similar battle. “It’s like having a child sometimes,” he said of the inability of HD people to care for themselves and the challenges faced by caregivers.

Shirley’s decline

Shirley showed symptoms before her official diagnosis in 2016, Rob explained. 

“Once they told her, she broke down and cried, because she knows from her sisters and her mama what it does,” he said.

Rod described the terrible physical, cognitive, and psychiatric decline that HD has wrought in his mother.

“I see depression and sadness about stuff that can be a misunderstanding to most people, and they’ll let it go, but she still holds on to it and harbors it,” Rod said.

Because of Shirley’s involuntary movements, the family also keeps kitchen utensils away from her to prevent her from injuring herself or others. She can no longer walk normally.

“Now it’s better for her to eat with her hands, because she’s a little shaky,” Rod explained. “Her body’s not the same.”

Inspiring the scientists

Untested, Rod and his two daughters – a college graduate and a high school student – are also at risk.

Rod and members of his extended have candid conversations about testing. However, he added, “Most people in my family are scared to get tested.” That reflects the majority attitude in the HD community. 

However, Rob hopes for a cure, hence his motivation to keynote the conference. “I appreciate what you guys do in your work day to day,” he said. “You all do admirable work. Hopefully, by telling my story, and others like me, you’ll get inspired.”

Rod received a standing ovation.

You can watch Rod’s address in the video below.
Celebrating Ramona’s life

Ramona died at Edgemoor Hospital in Santee, CA. The highly regarded public long-term care facility has cared for dozens of HD patients over the last few decades.

In early 2017, when the Chargers announced their move to Los Angeles, Bill made a gutsy, loving decision: after 38 years with the team, he quit so that Ramona could stay at Edgemoor. He visited her there each morning before heading to work.

“Everybody would make the same decision I am making if they were in my shoes,” Bill said at the time. “It’s just the situation I find myself in.” (Click here to read more.)

Bill now works for the San Diego Padres baseball team, which has supported his advocacy.

Ramona’s son Jared tested negative for HD. Untested, daughter Hayley is the vice president of the San Diego Chapter of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA). She and Bill continue as leading advocates in Southern California. Their efforts have raised almost $3 million for HDSA.

A Celebration of Life will take place at 1 p.m., April 17 at Skyline Church, 11330 Campo Road, La Mesa, CA. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to HDSA or

The Johnston team at the 2014 Rock-n-Roll Marathon raising funds and awareness for HDSA. Bill has his arm around Ramona, in wheelchair. Daughter Hayley stands directly behind Bill (photo by Andrew McClanahan/

Friday, March 22, 2019

Roche: less frequent dosing for Phase 3 Huntington’s clinical trial, easing burden on patients

With preliminary data in hand, the pharmaceutical firm Roche has announced that it will reduce the frequency of dosing in its historic Phase 3 Huntington’s disease gene-silencing clinical trial, thus easing the burden on the participants, their families, and clinics.

In the recently initiated trial, GENERATION HD1, volunteers will now undergo a bi-monthly instead of a monthly spinal tap (lumbar puncture), Roche announced in a letter to the HD community on March 21, 2019. Lumbar punctures are routine and generally safe procedures, although they can cause side effects such as headaches and bleeding. In GENERATION HD1 it will be a 20-minute outpatient procedure.

Roche based the change on new data taken from 46 volunteers after nine months into the 15-month, so-called open-label extension trial (OLE) that it started for its drug RG6042. Those individuals previously participated in the successful Phase 1/2a clinical trial of RG6042, originally developed by Ionis Pharmaceuticals, Inc. The drug substantially lowered the amount of mutant huntingtin protein, the purported cause of the disease, in the patients’ cerebrospinal fluid. All OLE participants received the drug (as opposed to 25 percent getting the placebo in the 1/2a trial).

“The 15-month open-label extension of the Phase1/2a study is evaluating RG6042 treatment in doses every month (every four weeks) and every two months (every eight weeks),” the Roche announcement stated. “Review of nine-month data showed effects on lowering mutant huntingtin protein levels in the cerebral spinal fluid that support the exploration of less frequent dosing. Based on the totality of the data, including safety and tolerability, there appears to be no overall advantage to treatment monthly versus every two months.”

GENERATION HD1 has three cohorts of clinical trial volunteers, known as “arms.” The planned 660 participants at 80-90 sites around the world are randomly assigned to one of the arms. The study is double-blinded: neither the volunteers nor the trial physicians and their staff know which arm the volunteers are assigned to.

As a result of the update to the trial, all participants will undergo bi-monthly punctures over 25 months. In “arm 1” of the study, the dosing schedule will switch from a monthly puncture and administering the drug bi-monthly (with a placebo in between) to a bi-monthly puncture with no placebo at all. Arm 3 will go from getting a monthly puncture with placebo to a bi-monthly puncture with placebo. 

To test the possibility of reducing potential future drug dosing even further, arm 2 will go from a monthly puncture with the drug to a bi-monthly puncture but with the drug given only every four months (with a placebo in between).

“I am delighted by today’s news that the Generation HD1 protocol will be amended to be less burdensome to trial participants, families and HD clinics around the globe,” George Yohrling, Ph.D., the senior director of mission and scientific affairs for the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, commented in an e-mail. “We are all indebted to the 46 trailblazing research heroes participating in the Phase 1/2a and open-label extension studies that showed us we could not only lower huntingtin in humans, but could do so without monthly infusions of RG6042. Their contributions have forever changed the landscape of HD drug development.”

“The amended trial is good news for the HD community,” LaVonne Goodman, M.D., the founder of Huntington’s Disease Drug Works and a physician to many HD patents, wrote in an e-mail. “For the shorter term, it will make for fewer visits and spinal taps for all involved in the trial. And for the longer term, if the trial at completion is successful by clinical measures, it may further establish whether quarterly dosing is adequate and effective. If so, that would make it easier on the larger number of patients who would need to receive this drug life-long.”

Simplifying the study

Dr. Goodman added: “It was fortunate that the Roche analysis and amendment came at the very beginning of the GENERATION HD1 trial, so that changes could be made without a major time disruption.”

A statement on the Ionis website observed that the new trial design “will greatly simplify the operation of the study.”

Although amending the trial will cause a “slight delay” as Roche seeks regulatory approvals, “we don’t expect this delay will change the timing of study completion, and may even accelerate time to study completion,” the Ionis statement concluded.

“Our team is working to rapidly activate the updated study protocol around the world,” the Roche statement said.

Individuals who had already started GENERATION HD1, which began in January, will be eligible to switch to GEN-EXTEND, an OLE study in which everybody receives RG6042 (no placebo). Participants will receive drug every two or four months.

Great news for the HD community

As the Roche statement noted, the data from the Phase 1/2a OLE do not address the efficacy and long-term safety of the RG6042. That is the purpose of GENERATION HD1.

The update from Roche came in the wake of remarks by GENERATION HD1 scientific coordinator Scott Schobel, M.D., that the company is “actively thinking” about when and how to expand research to target groups beyond the current criterion of early- to mid-stage HD patients aged 25-65. That includes asymptomatic gene carriers like me and sufferers of juvenile HD (click here to read more).

The scientist-written site HDBuzz described the amended trial design as a “surprise” but also a “good thing.”

“Clearly Roche and their partners didn’t predict that we’d be able to deliver [the drug] only every four months when they started the GENERATION HD1 study,” its article on the Roche statement observed. “The fact that they’ve seen data convincing them that we can get away with it is great news for the future of this program, and for future HD community members receiving treatment.”

HDBuzz further noted that other companies using the Ionis-Roche approach (antisense oligonucleotides) can now “consider using longer intervals between treatments.”

As an HD gene carrier and also a sufferer of chronic back pain, I was relieved to learn that the number of lumbar punctures for a potential drug could be as few as three per year.

The Roche announcement coincided with the news that the U.S.-based biotech firm Biogen and its Japanese partner Eisai had announced that they were halting two phase 3 clinical trials for an Alzheimer’s disease drug because an interim analysis concluded that the compound was unlikely to benefit patients. The drug was given through intravenous infusions.

The results of that trial once again underscored the extreme difficulty of treating neurological disorders and the need to the need to have realistic expectations about RG6042 (click here to read more). Not just Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s, but also Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s, and other neurological disorders lack effective treatments.

(Disclosure: I hold a symbolic amount of Ionis shares.)