After presiding over a “terrific” research conference, CHDI Foundation Chief Scientific Officer Robert Pacifici, Ph.D., declared that the Huntington’s disease community will “get there” in the search for long-awaited therapies.
Dr. Pacifici commented in an interview with me on March 1, after the CHDI-sponsored 19th Annual HD Therapeutics Conference, held in Palm Springs, CA, from February 26-29.
“They’ve solved some unbelievably difficult problems,” Dr. Pacifici said of Vertex, noting that it found a cure for hepatitis C.
Vertex has also developed therapies for three tough diseases that, like HD, are genetic: cystic fibrosis, sickle cell disease, and transfusion-dependent beta thalassemia.
At future therapeutics conferences, “we would love for the last talk” to focus on a new drug that is “now going to be approved,’” Dr. Pacifici told me.
“We’re going to get there,” he continued. Dr. Altshuler, who Dr. Pacifici said carefully calibrates his optimism, “was very complimentary and very confident that if we stay on this path, we’ll actually achieve that. He felt that the collective efforts that CHDI is trying to catalyze throughout the community are going to be successful.”
Dr. Pacifici pointed out how CHDI has adhered to another key principle of drug discovery emphasized by Dr. Althsuler: studying HD in human cells, tissues, and postmortem samples.
Dr. Pacifici said he expects the HD field will hear more from Dr. Altshuler and welcomed Vertex’s possible revived involvement.
Dr. David Altshuler presenting a timeline of Huntington's disease scientific landmarks at the 19th Annual Therapeutics Conference, February 28, 2024. Pictured in the slide is James Gusella, Ph.D., whose lab discovered the huntingtin genetic marker in 1983 and the gene in 1993 (photo by Gene Veritas, aka Kenneth P. Serbin, and posted with permission of CHDI Foundation). (Click on the image to make it larger.)
The need to celebrate milestones
“But I think what you will see is incremental successes,” Dr. Pacifici continued. “We’re going to have these new findings, these critical milestones and stepping stones along the way that we should embrace and celebrate and use those as a source of hope that, even though it never moves as fast as we would like, we’re making very real, tangible progress”
Dr. Pacifici described the 19th conference as “terrific,” noting that more than 450 people – a record – 50 companies, and 70 academic institutions took part. He recalled how no biopharma firms attended the first few conferences. Now such companies “come to a conference because they think an area is ripe for discovery,” he observed.
“Everybody commented on how quickly the conference went this year,” Dr. Pacifici said. “There was just so much information and so much happening and actually people were sad when it was over.”
I found this, my twelfth CHDI conference, particularly exhilarating because of the amount of new data and the high quality of the presentations.
A virtual nonprofit biotech, CHDI is the largest private funder of HD research. As in our interviews at past therapeutics conferences, Dr. Pacifici summarized the key findings of the scientists’ presentations. Watch our 39-minute interview in the video below.
Dr. Pacifici explained several key developments.
The session on new data and insights into the basic biology of HD included presentations that help “to understand exactly how we can custom craft the profile of candidate drugs to make sure that they hit the right things and are as safe as possible,” Dr. Pacifici said. Such crafting would mean that drugs could effectively address the numerous specific problems in HD, he added.
Another session “shined a bright light” on DNA repair, modifier genes, and somatic instability, the tendency of the deleterious expansion of the DNA to worsen with age and therefore trigger disease onset, Dr. Pacifici said. The new findings can contribute to the ongoing effort to “manipulate” these processes to slow or stop instability and therefore prevent the disease, he explained.
Including talks detailing HD at the cellular and molecular level, the session titled “It’s a Brain Disease” was “unbelievably informative” about specifying how HD harms the brain, Dr. Pacifici said.
Clinical trial news and the importance of participation in research
Referring to the 2021 results of Roche’s first attempt at a Phase 3 trial, Dr. Pacifici noted that the firm’s scientists “have really gone to town and reanalyzed the samples, reanalyzed the data in a way that is hopefully going to teach us not only why that particular trial didn’t meet its endpoints” but also “what we can do differently.” Roche’s reassessment of its drug, tominersen, in a Phase 2 trial, GENERATION HD2, is in progress.
Ultimately, the field needs a “conveyor belt” of new drug possibilities to develop the multiple kinds of drugs necessary for treating different aspects of HD, Dr. Pacifici concluded. Not all those new drugs will be successful, he said, but the more produced, the greater likelihood for successful therapies.
Dr. Pacifici pointed out that many of the discoveries discussed at the meeting resulted from the human data collected from tens of thousands of research volunteers.
Future projects and breakthroughs will continue to rely on large numbers of participants, he said. Some individuals may carry unique genetic characteristics revealing new kinds of therapies.
“Hang in there,” Dr. Pacifici said in his closing comment for the HD community. “I hope that next year at the 20th [conference] we’ll have some more good news to communicate.”
Stay tuned for further news from the conference!