Saturday, August 15, 2015

Reinforcing the global fight against Huntington’s disease: a visit to Brazil and a reminder of our common struggles

The global cooperation necessary to defeat Huntington’s disease requires the bridging of cultural divides. It entails recognition of each country’s unique needs and contributions – but also of the common struggles involved.

With this in mind, last month I embarked on another phase of my own international advocacy by traveling to Brazil, the country I have studied since 1986, to deliver a speech on HD and build new connections for the cause.

The world’s fifth most populous country, with over 190 million people, Brazil occupies a significant place on the world’s HD map. Perhaps 19,000-plus Brazilians suffer from the disease, and tens of thousands are at risk.

Thus, once the global HD clinical trial and research study platform known as Enroll-HD gets under way in Brazil, the country’s potential contributions to the search for effective treatments will increase substantially (click here to read more).

A ‘bi-cultural’ perspective

As I have done almost every year over the past three decades, I visited Brazil primarily to work on my ongoing research in Brazilian history. In all, I have spent nearly seven years there. In 1991, during my Ph.D. research in Rio de Janeiro, I met my wife Regina.

Brazil is my second home. I refer to myself as “bi-cultural.”

Even before I joined the board of the San Diego chapter of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America in 1998, I established contact with Brazilian HD activists who founded the Associação Brasil Huntington (ABH) in 1997.

As a carrier of the HD genetic defect, I spoke in 2013 about my personal strategies for avoiding onset of symptoms at the sixth World Congress on Huntington’s Disease, held in Rio (click here and here to read more).

Gene Veritas (aka Kenneth Serbin) at Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro (photo by Regina Serbin)

Combating genetic discrimination

During this most recent trip, I advocated for HD-related issues in my meetings with political leaders.

In 2005, the Brazilian Senate passed a bill protecting citizens against genetic discrimination. However, the Câmara dos Deputados (the House of Representatives), has yet to take up the matter. Until then, the bill cannot become law.

Senator Aloysio Nunes Ferreira Filho, who ran for vice president in the 2014 election on the losing ticket of the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party, supports the legislation. During my visit to his office in Brasília, the capital, he phoned a colleague in the Câmara to urge action on the bill.

Senator Aloysio Nunes Ferreira Filho (above, photo by Gene Veritas) and Gene Veritas in the chamber of the Senado Federal in Brasília (below, photo by Lucas Souza) 

Defending the rights of the disabled

Later, in São Paulo, South America’s largest industrial and financial hub, I attended a presentation by the famous liberation theologian Leonardo Boff about the geopolitical state of the world, the threat to the global environment, and the current political crisis in Brazil.

The event was moderated by Paulo de Tarso Vannuchi, who served as Minister of the Special Secretariat for Human Rights from 2005-2011 in the government of the ruling Workers’ Party.

Vannuchi briefly introduced me to leaders of the National Council for the Rights of the Disabled. I committed to furnish them with information about HD and put them in touch with the ABH.

Vannuchi told the audience of 60, which included clergy and grassroots social activists, of my HD advocacy and suggested that the reporters present interview me.

Paulo Vannuchi, former Minister of the Special Secretariat for Human Rights (photo by Gene Veritas)

That same day I gave an interview to the TVT television outlet commenting on the importance of Boff’s speech. (You can see the report on the event, including my commentary, by clicking here).

Shortly after my return from Brazil on July 22, one of the reporters present at the event, São Paulo-based radio broadcaster Marilu Cabañas, interviewed me via phone about HD for her program. Shocked to hear of police detentions of HD-affected individuals in both Brazil and the U.S. because of ignorance about the disease, she headlined her report with that fact.

Bioethical challenges

I gave my speech, “Huntington’s Disease, Bioethics, and the Promise of Biotechnology,” on July 20 at the Universidade Candido Mendes (UCAM) in downtown Rio de Janeiro.

I have known the rector, Candido Mendes, for more than 20 years. My friends and colleagues, UCAM Professor Luiz Alberto Gómez de Souza and his wife Lúcia Ribeiro, both leading scholars and grassroots activists of the Catholic Church, organized the event. (Brazil is the world’s largest Catholic country.)

During my hour-long presentation in Portuguese, I recalled my family’s long fight against HD, beginning with my mother’s diagnosis in 1995, followed by positive test for the genetic defect in 1999 and the wrenching experience of testing our daughter Bianca in the womb in early 2000.

I felt deep relief after showing the audience pictures of our HD-free “miracle baby” in action as a youth soccer player. I spoke of the “double luck” we currently savor: Bianca will never face the terrible threat of juvenile HD, and I remain symptom-free despite having long passed my mother’s age of onset.

“At 55, my mother […] could no longer drive, she couldn’t work, she couldn't talk,” I said. “By a huge stroke of luck, I am healthy. Each day is a blessing.”

However, I also pointed to the many other bioethical challenges faced by HD families, including discrimination, family and caregiver stress, financial burden, and the lack of adequate facilities and caregiving personnel for late-stage patients.

The room became very quiet as I related how Carol Carr (of Georgia) in 2002 took a gun to the nursing home where her two HD-stricken sons lay helpless in bed and shot them dead to prevent further suffering. Carr spent nearly two years in prison.

“That was extremely sad for our community,” I recalled. “Huntington’s disease is not something easy to speak about.” 

With no effective treatments, such was the degree of hopelessness that has plagued the HD community, I had pointed out earlier.

The hope of clinical trials

“But I came to Brazil not to speak just about sadness,” I continued. “I also came to speak about hope and the promise of biotechnological research.”

The scenario for the HD community has changing radically in recent years with major advances in research and the advent of clinical trials to test potential remedies, I said.

I spoke of the immense potential revealed in the announcement last year of the gene-silencing clinical trial by Isis Pharmaceuticals, Inc. Citing an e-mail from Isis executive Frank Bennett, Ph.D., received the day before the presentation, I confirmed that the trial would start by year’s end.

(Indeed, the morning after my talk, Isis officially announced that it had commenced the trial.)

You can view my talk in the video below.

A local commitment to the cause

During the Q & A, several Brazilian HD-affected individuals and caregivers spoke of their many struggles with the disease.

They also expressed excitement about the Isis clinical trial.

Carmen Paiva, Ph.D., spoke of her lab’s work in HD genetic and epidemiological research among Brazilian HD families. She told the audience of other local researchers and physicians focusing on the disease.

Recognizing common struggles

At the close of the session, Prof. Gómez de Souza evoked a key point of my presentation: the interconnectedness of neurological disease research and the common struggles of the afflicted.

He spoke with profound emotion about his brother, the renowned actor Paulo José Gómez de Souza, who has suffered from Parkinson’s disease for more than two decades but has successfully strived to continue working.

The struggles are shared among diseases – and among nations.

I look forward to celebrating with my Brazilian relatives and friends the defeat of HD, Parkinson's, and other neurological disorders as a result of a truly global effort.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Isis Pharmaceuticals launches historic clinical trial to silence Huntington’s disease gene

Isis Pharmaceuticals, Inc., based in Carlsbad, CA, has launched its long-awaited clinical trial to test a drug designed to attack Huntington’s disease at its genetic roots.

In a July 21 press release, Isis said it had initiated a Phase I human clinical study of ISIS-HTTRx, its compound aimed at diminishing the symptoms of HD. HTTRx signifies a medication for HD. The disease is caused by a defect in both the huntingtin gene and protein, which are symbolized by the letters htt.

“ISIS- HTTRX is the first therapy to enter clinical development that is designed to directly target the cause of the disease by reducing the production of the protein responsible for HD,” the release stated.

In partnership with Roche, the Switzerland-based pharmaceutical giant sharing costs of the typically expensive clinical trial, Isis thus becomes the first entity to use a gene-silencing technique in the attempt to stop HD.

“Although the toxic protein produced from the huntingtin (HTT) gene in HD patients has been a target of interest for many years, no therapies have advanced to clinical trials to treat the underlying cause of the disease,” Frank Bennett, Ph.D., Isis’s senior vice president of research, stated . “Our antisense technology has enabled us to discover and develop ISIS-HTTRx, the first therapeutic approach designed to treat the genetic cause of HD."

Frank Bennett, Ph.D., of Isis Pharmaceuticals (photo by Dr. Ed Wild)

A ‘significant milestone’

HTTRx is an antisense oligonucleotide, an artificial strand of DNA created by Isis to block the action of the RNA molecules that translate the huntingtin genetic code to make the huntingtin protein.

Involving about 36 early-stage HD patients at about six sites in Europe and Canada, the Phase I trial focuses on the safety and tolerability of HTTRx. According to an Isis spokesperson, the sites will start recruiting participants as early as in a few weeks.

Depending on the pace of recruitment, Phase I most likely will end in 2017. If Phase I is successful, a larger Phase II trial to test efficacy likely would take place in 2018. A successful Phase II trial would be followed by a Phase III trial. Together all three phases of a clinical trial program typically take at least five years.

Last August, scientists from Isis and CHDI Foundation, Inc., the nonprofit virtual biotech firm that funded the early stages of the Isis research starting in 2007, provided extensive details about the plans for the trial. (Click here to read more.).

“The initial development of this antisense drug for Huntington’s disease came out of a longstanding productive partnership between Isis and CHDI, and its advancement now to clinical trial is testament to Isis’ perseverance and scientific expertise,” CHDI president Robi Blumenstein stated in the press release. “It’s exciting that therapeutic candidates grounded in the biology of Huntington’s disease are finally making their way to clinical trial.”

“The initiation of the ISIS-HTTRx study is a significant milestone in the history of Huntington's disease research as this marks the first time a drug designed specifically for Huntington's patients has transitioned into the clinic,” George Yohrling, Ph.D., senior director for mission and scientific affairs for the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA), wrote in an e-mail. “My hope is that this study not only shows that the drug is safe, but serves as an informative beacon for all future huntingtin-lowering trials.”

Martha Nance, M.D., the director of the HDSA Center of Excellence at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and a member of the executive committee of the Huntington Study Group, said that “it would be impossible to overstate the importance of this trial.”

“I am old enough to have grown up in the 1960s, swept up as a young child with the excitement of space exploration, and I remember, almost as clearly and importantly as the Apollo 11 mission that actually LANDED on the moon, the Apollo 8 mission over Christmas 1968, during which William Anders took the iconic picture of the earthrise over the moon,” Dr. Nance wrote in an e-mail. “There were several more steps, several more Apollo missions, before Neil Armstrong could jump off the ladder onto the moon. The ISIS study is the HD equivalent of the Apollo 8 mission.”

LaVonne Goodman, M.D., the founder of Huntington's Disease Drug Works, said that there are "high hopes and expectations" about the trial. "We celebrate those individuals with HD, heroes who are selflessly participating in this trial and all others, 'taking one for the team,'" she wrote in an e-mail.

“We’re very enthusiastic about the drug,” Dr. Bennett said in a 2014 interview.

As he put it previously, 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.”

The Isis-Roche partnership

According to the press release, with the initiation of the clinical trial, Isis – a small company – earned a $22 million milestone payment from Roche. To date, Isis has earned $52 million in upfront and milestone payments from the partnership. It can earn more as the project progresses, as well as royalties on potential sales.

Roche can exercise the option to license ISIS- HTTRx from Isis through the completion of the Phase 1 trial. If so, Roche will assume responsibility for global development, the acquisition of regulatory approvals, and marketing the drug.

The partnership is critical. Isis cannot alone afford to carry out a clinical trial. Drugs usually cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop.

According to the press release, Isis’s drug projects include 38 drugs aimed at treating a wide range of diseases, among them cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, cancer, and severe and rare diseases, including neurological disorders such as HD.

A huge dose of hope

The announcement of the historic trial’s launch provides a huge dose of hope for the HD community.

Since the discovery of the huntingtin gene in 1993, scientists have published thousands of research papers on HD and identified hundreds of potential “targets” for treatments.

In recent years, scientists and drug companies have initiated an increasing number of clinical trials in the quest for effective treatments. However, to date none has proven successful in halting the disease.

A necessary leap

As seen in animal studies, the infusion of HTTRx into the brain has led to the disappearance of the HD-like symptoms.

Scientists warn that it’s a still a huge leap from animals to humans when it comes to testing drugs. Also, only about one in ten clinical trials results in a drug reaching the market.

Earlier this year prominent HD specialist Bernhard Landwehrmeyer, M.D., Ph.D., cautioned that it could still take decades for the gene-silencing approach to play an effective part in managing the disease.

“We should all be extremely excited and hopeful, but remember that there is a lot of work ahead for researchers, doctors, patients, and families before we will get to our moon, and no guarantee of success,” wrote Dr. Nance.

Nevertheless, the Isis-Roche trial is a major step. At a minimum, it will help answer key questions about the gene-silencing approach.

If it is successful in ameliorating symptoms, it could mean the beginning of the end of Huntington’s disease as a threat to the tens of thousands of families affected worldwide.

* * *

Below see links to previous reports on Isis.

Also see coverage at HDBuzz by clicking here.

(Disclaimer: I hold a symbolic number of Isis shares.)

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Unraveling the mysteries of the mitochondria in Huntington’s disease – and getting fast, clear, and useful results from research studies

In the collaborative quest for Huntington’s disease treatments, deepening affected families’ understanding of the key scientific challenges is vital. It can demystify the process of research, inspire involvement in investigative studies and clinical trials, and ultimately bolster the chances of defeating this horrible malady.

Noting the global nature of HD research, last month I highlighted key work on the West Coast of the United States. Andrew F. Leuchter, M.D., and Michael Levine, Ph.D., plan to measure brain energy waves to decipher the signals emitting from HD-affected individuals. Their work could ultimately lead to new drugs (click here to read more).

On the East Coast, at the Magnetic Resonance Research Center (MRRC) of the Yale School of Medicine, Doug Rothman, Ph.D., and his collaborators will conduct two unique studies that seek to unravel long-standing mysteries about Huntington’s and the mitochondria, the complex powerhouses of most of our cells.

“All the brain cells depend on them very heavily,” Dr. Rothman said during an interview at the MRRC on April 12.

Mitochondria came onto the evolutionary path about a billion years ago, he noted. They use oxygen to burn fuels (such as glucose, or common sugar) to provide energy for brain cells. In focusing on the mitochondria, Dr. Rothman’s studies aim to shed light on the serious energy deficits caused in HD and to provide tools for improving clinical trials.

As the Huntington’s community ramps up to a growing number of those trials, the paramount work of these scientists can help insure clear and useful results.

A mitochondrian (Wikipedia diagram by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal)

Novel and unique human studies

In people carrying the HD genetic abnormality, why do so many brain cells become damaged and eventually die, leading to HD symptoms? For decades, scientists researching this question mainly in animals and cell cultures have found much evidence implicating the mitochondria in the cells’ problems. However, they still don’t know exactly what the problem is.

Using the latest brain-scan technology, Dr. Rothman’s studies will involve human participants. They will focus on the mitochondria and the decline in cellular energy production, one of the main characteristics of HD.

“Anything that impairs the energy supply will severely impact brain function and will eventually impact cellular health,” Dr. Rothman said, adding that researchers suspect that mitochondrial dysfunction plays a part in many other neurological disorders.

Doug Rothman, Ph.D. (photo by Gene Veritas)

The first study seeks to identify a mitochondria-linked biomarker (a sign of disease or a disease mechanism) that could lead to a faster, more efficient way of testing potential HD remedies. The second aims to answer a major question: are less active mitochondria a cause or an effect of the disease?

“There’s lots of preclinical studies that suggest mitochondrial alterations,” Dr. Rothman said, referring to animal studies. “What’s nice is that the MR [magnetic resonance] technology allows this aspect of mitochondrial function to be measured non-invasively in vivo.”

These studies are “novel” and “unique” because they will involve “patients who have the gene,” he added. “Before it would have to be done on a preclinical model. There was no way to directly study humans until the development of the MR technology.”

Described below, the specific types of MR scans in Dr. Rothman’s studies will be used on HD-affected individuals for the first time, he said.

Pioneering the technology

Dr. Rothman helped pioneer this technology. It is recognizable to most people in the form of the MRI scanners that became common in medical diagnostics worldwide over the past two decades.

In working toward his Ph.D. at Yale, received in 1987, Dr. Rothman specialized in a technique known as NMR, nuclear magnetic resonance.  When used in humans NMR is now referred to as MRS, magnetic resonance spectroscopy. He and other specialists have applied MRS to the study of disease. In 1989 he was appointed to the Yale Medical School faculty, and in 1995 he became the director of the Magnetic Resonance Research Center.

As researchers refine these techniques, they have become ever more capable of picking up the resonance – literally a radio frequency – of the chemicals that make up living organisms, including humans.

In both MRS and the more familiar MRI, radio pulses are given to subjects inside huge magnets.  The radio pulses excite (stimulate) chemicals in the body while a person lies in the machine, analogous to a bell being struck. Each compound then resonates (again analogous to a bell) at a characteristic radio frequency. By measuring the radio signal from the different resonating chemicals the chemical composition of different brain regions can be determined.

Dr. Rothman stressed that the technology is safe. “You’re not exposed to any radiation at all – literally just radio frequency,” he said of the scanners, which detect the radio frequencies coming out of the body.

“You literally could set up an FM radio and pick these up,” he continued. “Really, the system’s main difference from a standard radio is just the sensitivity and stability, because we’re talking about very small differences of frequency, as opposed to say a megahertz, as you have in FM radio.”

The scanner sends the readings to a computer for analysis.

Understanding brain metabolism

Using MRS, Dr. Rothman and his colleagues at the MRRC contributed to breakthroughs in understanding the biochemistry of type 2 diabetes. He also helped make important discoveries about the biochemistry of the liver and muscles.

At the same time, he and others discovered ways to measure levels of chemicals in the brain. Those chemicals included metabolites, which provide energy, and neurotransmitters, which are involved in signaling between brain cells.

For the first time in human brain scans, Dr. Rothman and his colleagues detected key chemicals such as ethanol and glucose. They also saw the major neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA (gamma aminobutryric acid), substances mentioned frequently in the world of HD research.

This group of scientists made other important advances in the understanding of brain metabolism. Of particular potential importance for HD, they discovered the energy cost for supporting brain glutamate and GABA neurotransmitter activity, providing a direct link between mitochondrial health and brain function.

As a result of their discoveries, Dr. Rothman and a group of colleagues saw how levels of glutamate and GABA are altered in depression, epilepsy, and other psychiatric disorders, and how drugs can impact those levels.

Dysfunction seen in animals

Several years ago, Dr. Rothman added Huntington’s disease to his focus. Funded by CHDI Foundation, Inc., the multi-million-dollar nonprofit virtual biotech dedicated to finding HD treatments, Dr. Rothman and his lab staff conducted research on mitochondria and brain cell metabolism in two types of transgenic HD mice.

Using MRS scans, in both groups of mice the team found a decline in metabolism in three key regions of the brain (cortex, thalamus, and striatum). They also discovered a reduction in brain cell glutamate and GABA signaling activity.

“The changes were much more profound as the models reached the late premanifest or manifest stage,” Dr. Rothman said during a presentation of the research in February at the CHDI-sponsored 10th Annual HD Therapeutics Conference.

These findings suggested that mitochondrial dysfunction plays a role in HD. This and his upcoming studies are part of a larger group of biomarker studies necessitated by the advent of clinical trials.

You can watch Dr. Rothman’s presentation in the video below.

High-powered brain scans

With CHDI support, Dr. Rothman hopes to carry out the human studies in the second half of this year.

Each study will require about 40 volunteers: 20 early-stage HD-affected individuals and 20 gene-negative volunteers to act as a comparison group. Each study will involve a brain scan and take two or three days, including travel time. The study will cover the cost of travel, food, and lodging. Volunteers can take part in both studies, if they wish.

In the first study participants will undergo a so-called proton scan lasting 60-90 minutes. The Rothman team will use Yale’s 7 Tesla scanner. The number of Teslas corresponds to the power of the magnet, with higher Tesla giving greater sensitivity (the ringing discussed above has a higher amplitude and frequency).

“Seven Tesla is about the highest magnetic field that can be used for human studies,” said Dr. Rothman. “Your molecules move around and jitter and release a radio signal that interferes with the measurement, and so we need as about as high a sensitivity as possible. Interestingly, within a chemical, the protons all have different frequencies. So you can actually identify a chemical based on the pattern of resonance frequencies.”

At this level, the scientists can measure more types of metabolites and with greater sensitivity, allowing them to distinguish between glutamate and another neurotransmitter, glutamine. Both are involved in a cycle involving GABA, brain cell signaling, and metabolism. The research team aims to determine whether glutamine or glutamate is most altered by the disease.

Yale's 7 Tesla scanner (photo by Gene Veritas)

Optimizing treatments

The researchers will focus primarily on glutamine, because it is the most sensitive chemical marker in the brain, but it’s not easily measured in humans at 3 Tesla or lower (scanners with less sensitivity), Dr. Rothman explained.

The more sensitive the biomarker, the better the chance of measuring the effects of the disease and potential treatments, he added.

This biological fine-tuning raises the possibility of studying the disease and testing therapies in small groups, perhaps even single subjects – a far more efficient, inexpensive, and faster way to treatments than the traditional, larger studies involving dozens or scores of individuals.

“The hope is that it would be possible to get immediate feedback before any behavioral-motor changes and use that to optimize individual subjects’ therapy,” Dr. Rothman elaborated.

Tracing the journey of sugar

In the second study Dr. Rothman will use 13C (carbon-13) MRS, the same technique used in the HD-mouse mitochondria project (discussed above) and in human scans for a variety of conditions. Carbon-13 is a natural, stable isotope that makes up about 1.1 percent of all the carbon on earth. Researchers use it to label substances so they can be tracked through the body.

Participants will lie in a 4 Tesla scanner for about two hours. They will be continuously injected with 13C-labeled glucose through a catheter in one arm. From a catheter in the other arm small blood samples will be taken to read levels of 13C and glucose. Glucose is used because it is the main fuel that the mitochondria burn to provide the brain with energy.

Lab assistants will monitor participants’ glucose levels to make sure they remain stable. Afterwards, the participants will receive orange juice and lunch in a standard recovery room, where assistants will make sure that their glucose levels have returned to normal.

As Dr. Rothman explained, the 13C MRS technique will allow his team to watch the glucose go through the various stages of the energy cycle in the brain. This metabolic process includes the transformation of glucose into lactate, then into glutamate by way of what is known as the TCA (tricarboxylic acid) cycle in mitochondria. The rate of flow of glucose into the mitochondria is proportional to the amount of energy the mitochondria produce.

“We can also measure the flow from glutamate to glutamine, which gives us the rate of glutamate neurotransmission, a direct measure of brain function,” he added.

As a result, the team can measure the rate of energy production in individual brain cells, as well as the rate of brain signaling (neurotransmission).

Dr. Rothman summarized: “We have a measure of both the energetics of the neuron – how much energy is the mitochondria making – and a measure of the function of the neuron – how much it’s signaling, how much glutamate it’s releasing through the flow into glutamine.”

The team will attempt to answer two questions: whether energy production decreases in early-stage HD individuals, and, if so, whether the drop results from impairments in the mitochondria.

Based on animal studies and previous human studies using other techniques, Dr. Rothman and his team believe they will find diminished energy production in the mitochondria.

“But that doesn’t, by itself, tell us that the mitochondria are causing it,” he said. “It could be many other things.”

Dr. Rothman making an adjustment on Yale's 4 Tesla scanner (above) and standing the in recovery room where 13C study volunteers will have glucose readings monitored afterwards (below) (photos by Gene Veritas)

Verifying the impairment

The 13C experiment will examine the rate of energy production of the mitochondria. To further tease out the questions about the role of the mitochondria in HD, Dr. Rothman and his team want to measure the demand on the mitochondria for energy production. 

To do so, they will run a second experiment during the 13C scans. Using phosphorous magnetic resonance spectroscopy, they will analyze the level of other compounds used for brain cell energy. Specifically, they will measure the synthesis of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) from ADP (adenosine diphosphate) (click here to learn about this process). The breakdown of ATP back into ADP by the mitochondria releases energy to fuel cellular processes, he said.

“In the muscle it fuels contraction,” Dr. Rothman said. “In the brain it fuels neurotransmission. If the mitochondria have a defect or have a low number or activity, they have to be driven harder for the same amount of energy production.”

For this measurement to occur, the participants must have their brains stimulated. “So both people with HD and control subjects will be given visual scenes in the magnet that will force the visual cortex we’re measuring to be active,” Dr. Rothman explained.

If the HD subjects have a mitochondrial impairment, the team will be able to determine whether the mitochondria “are being forced to work harder, because their capacity is less,” he said.

In combination with the 13C MRS readings, this experiment will help the scientists conclude whether “the problem is at the mitochondria,” Dr. Rothman said. This knowledge will help in the design of potential remedies and the clinical trials to test them.

The 13C study will measure energetics and signaling, as shown in this rendition of the glutamatergic synapse (image courtesy of Dr. Rothman)

Gratitude for the scientists’ work

Dr. Rothman said he expects the proton study to take about 18 months and the 13C study about 24 months. Once the studies commence, a call for volunteers will go out from the MRRC. If recruitment goes well, the studies may finish sooner, he said.

Upon the completion of the proton study, CHDI will evaluate the feasibility of glutamine as a treatment biomarker in comparison with glutamate and other MRS biomarkers under study, he added. Later Dr. Rothman’s team will file a report on the studies with CHDI, and they aim to submit their work to a scientific journal.

The engagement of Dr. Rothman and Yale Medical School in HD science exemplifies the seriousness of CHDI and HD researchers in the quest for treatments.

With the goal of unraveling the mysteries of the mitochondria, Dr. Rothman’s experiments can potentially complete key parts of the HD treatment puzzle. The search for effective biomarkers and increased knowledge about the role of the mitochondria can speed the movement of discoveries from scientific bench to patient’s bedside.

As a Yale graduate and carrier of the HD genetic defect, I was especially thrilled to interview Dr. Rothman. My alma mater may very well be helping to save me and thousands of others from the ravages of HD.

I am grateful each day for the commitment of Dr. Rothman and scientists around the globe to defeat HD.

Gene Veritas (aka Kenneth P. Serbin) at Yale University in New Haven, CT, April 2015 (photo by Gene Veritas)

Friday, May 29, 2015

Overcoming the Fear of the Lion: A Courageous Film About Genetic Testing and Huntington's Disease

A new documentary, The Lion’s Mouth Opens, poignantly captures the precarious journey into genetic self-knowledge by Marianna Palka, a 33-year-old filmmaker-actress. She has decided to test for Huntington's disease (HD), which has been referred to as the "devil of all diseases."

The film premieres on HBO on June 1 at 9 p.m. ET.

Read my preview of the film in The Huffington Post.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The search for Huntington's disease treatments is indeed ‘rocket science’ – and we can all help build the rocket

For people facing Huntington’s disease and other devastating, untreatable conditions, the powerful wish for a cure can conjure up the image of an elated scientist bursting from a laboratory and declaring “Eureka!”

However, it is unlikely a treatment for HD will emerge in this way.

We often misunderstand scientific progress, as explained in an essay in the May 16, 2015, edition of The New York Times by prominent physicist Leonard Mlodinow, Ph.D.

“Why do we reduce great discoveries to epiphany myths?” asked the sub-headline for Dr. Mlodinow’s online article, which was titled “It Is, in Fact, Rocket Science.”

“The mythical stories we tell about our heroes are always more romantic and often more palatable than the truth,” Dr. Mlodinow writes. “But in science, at least, they are destructive, in that they promote false conceptions of the evolution of scientific thought.”

From Isaac Newton to Charles Darwin to Stephen Hawking, we have oversimplified the process of discovery, Dr. Mlodinow explains. Rather than the eureka moments popularized in books and the media – like the apple falling on Newton’s head – these scientists’ discoveries involved years of hard work and questioning of assumptions, including their own.

Thus, Dr. Mlodinow reminds us that breakthroughs result from the cumulative build-up of many moments of discovery by scientists past and present.

He thus underscores a crucial point for the Huntington’s disease community: finding treatments will necessarily involve a collective effort by scientists and volunteers in research studies and clinical trials.

“Even if we are not scientists, every day we are challenged to make judgments and decisions about technical matters like vaccinations, financial investments, diet supplements and, of course, global warming,” Dr. Mlodinow points out. “The myths can seduce one into believing there is an easier path, one that doesn’t require such hard work.”

We in the HD community must all play our part in the quest for treatments.

A eureka moment deflated

As a carrier of the deadly HD mutation who watched his mother succumb to the disease, I have sometimes fallen prey to the seductive scenario described by Dr. Mlodinow, and even done so in this blog.

Four years ago this month, I was so excited about Alnylam Pharmaceuticals’ progress towards a remedy that I posted a picture of myself holding an Alnylam compound designed to attack HD at its genetic roots. I wrote that the compound, “the potential cure in my hand,” seemed magical.

I later made the image my Facebook profile photo.

(See the photo below and click here to read more.)

Gene Veritas holding the Alnylam compound in 2011 (photo by Dr. Matthias Kretschmer, Alnylam)

I had perhaps become overconfident about the Alnylam project.

In collaboration with its partners Medtronic and CHDI Foundation, Inc., the nonprofit virtual biotech focused on HD treatments, Alnylam was planning to apply in 2012 for permission to start a clinical trial.

In early 2012, however, Alnylam cut a third of its work force in order to reduce costs. In May of that year, less than a year after my 2011 visit, the company shifted its business strategy. It downgraded the HD project and fired the scientific director in charge

Alnylam chose instead to concentrate on less complex – and perhaps more profitable – projects to find drugs for other conditions. Alnylam passed on the responsibility for testing the compound in a human clinical trial to Medtronic.

To date, Medtronic has announced no plans for a human clinical trial of the Alnylam compound.

“Medtronic believes the siRNA [gene-silencing] drug-device program continues to represent an exciting opportunity to combine an innovative therapeutic strategy with state-of-the-art drug device delivery technology for Huntington’s disease,” Jack Lemmon, Ph.D., a Medtronic program manager, responded in an e-mail to my request for an update on the project. “Pre-clinical work has generated promising results; however the therapy research program has been paused since 2013 until partnerships can be established allowing us to sustain the research. At this time, it is premature to discuss timeframes, but we hope to continue work to find a treatment for this devastating neurodegenerative disease.”

Shots on goal

I am concerned that the project runs the risk of entering a not uncommon limbo, which one former director of the National Institutes of Health calls the “valley of death,” the increasingly difficult transition between laboratories and clinical trials.

Devising the Alnylam compound involved a significant investment of time, money, and expertise. In my extensive interviews with Alnylam scientists in 2011, and even in a conference call with some of those same researchers after the announcement of the 2012 cutback, they expressed enthusiasm about the promise of the compound.

The Alnylam compound may – or may not – ultimately play a role in the search for treatments.

Without the Alnylam compound, the HD community would have one less shot on goal in the critical gene-silencing field.

I am disappointed at the lack of action – much less progress – regarding the Alnylam compound.

Fortunately for the HD community, one of those shots is scheduled to take place this year: Isis Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and Roche will start a historic gene-silencing clinical trial using a different type of drug technology. Other companies and labs are also focusing on the development of gene-silencing approaches for HD.

The Alnylam project didn’t meet the expectations of many in the community. However, it has still provided valuable data from which other researchers can benefit. I am grateful for Alnylam’s contributions to the quest for treatments, and I’m crossing my fingers that Medtronic can resume the project.

I indeed recognize that the path to treatments is not easy. Nor is it straight.

One example of a potentially fortuitous outcome of the Alnylam decision: the dismissed HD project director, Dinah Sah, Ph.D., now works as the senior vice president of neuroscience for Voyager Therapeutics, one of the new companies exploring gene-silencing for HD.

Dinah Sah, Ph.D., of Voyager Therapeutics (photo by Gene Veritas)

A road paved with cooperation

Enthusiasm is essential, but it must be tempered with the recognition that scientists need time – and money – to test hypotheses.

It took some two decades to discover the huntingtin gene. At the time of this breakthrough in 1993, people in the HD community celebrated.

Rightfully so, hope for treatments increased significantly.

Since then, hundreds of researchers from around the globe have published thousands of scientific papers on HD. Along the way they have identified hundreds of potential HD drug targets (biological pathways).

From the 1970s until today, thousands of individuals from HD-affected families have participated in research studies and, more recently, a growing number of clinical trials.

While many of us are disappointed that successful treatments have not emerged, we must recognize that the enormous amount of scientific work regarding HD should contribute – perhaps in ways no one yet knows – to future progress.

The road to treatments is paved with cooperation, and with the recognition that multiple drugs may be needed to manage this complex genetic disorder. (Thus, scientists don’t say “cure” when referring to HD.)

Cooperation: the HD community out in force at an HDSA Team Hope Walk (photo by Gene Veritas)

Something larger than ourselves

Our society worships individual “heroes.

However, in the fight to defeat HD, each participant contributes with his or her talents and resources: financial donations, scientific expertise, caregiving, and daily dedication to the cause.

In this long-term commitment, we strive for the well-being of those beyond ourselves: the children who have yet to develop symptoms, the future generations of HD families, and other disease communities such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and many conditions even rarer than HD like dentatorubral-pallidoluysian atrophy, known as DRPLA.

For now, I’ll keep my Facebook profile photo as a symbol of hope governed by caution.

Yes, defeating HD is rocket science. When, collectively, we have completed that rocket, we can all ride it together.

(Please remember during HD Awareness Month to donate generously to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America or the HD cause of your choice!)