“The most obvious thing that has improved after the operation is that in the evenings I see much more light. It’s safer to walk alone and travel to town by bus. I also read magazines now and can see lines in my darker shirts that I had never seen,” Cannata says. “When I was returning home from Philadelphia and still wore the bandage over my eye, I was at a restaurant and wanted to order but could not see the waiter, so I removed the bandage and it was as if someone had turned on a light!”
These results are especially remarkable given that Cannata was participating in a Phase I safety trial that delivered the therapy at a relatively low dose. The original three patients, written up in The New England Journal of Medicine, were given the lowest doses. The next six patients, of whom Cannata was one, were given a higher, but still small, dose. Yet even at modest exposure to the gene therapy, each patient improved. “The results are better than anything I could have dreamed of,” Bennett says. “I met one of our patients again a month ago and the first thing he said was ‘Jean, Jean, look at my sweater. I wore this for you because it has stripes on it.’” Before his treatment, the patient could not see stripes.
Yet Bennett and her team had been anxious as their study unfolded because AAV (like the early versions of engineered AdV) had previously failed to cure hemophilia in a trial conducted by their Children’s Hospital colleague, hematologist Kathy High. Hemophilia is a hereditary blood disorder in which the blood does not clot properly due to a gene mutation that leads to lack of a key protein, either clotting Factor 8 or clotting Factor 9. High’s gene therapy had cured hemophilia in mice and dogs and had caused rhesus monkeys to express clotting factors. Her trial in humans was highly anticipated, and almost everybody expected it to work.
High used AAV to deliver the gene because the virus is considered benign; although it infects human cells, it is not known to cause any symptomatic infection. High’s experiment ran into trouble nevertheless. Her hemophilia patients, like most of us, carried antibodies to AAV, and their immune systems flew into high gear when they received the engineered virus. Although the correct gene did manufacture Factor 9 in the patients for a few weeks, soon their immune systems had wiped out the new cells containing AAV—and the precious gene for Factor 9.
It was High herself who approached Bennett with the insight that what had failed to work for hemophiliacs just might succeed in diseases of the eye. “The eye is an immune-privileged site,” Bennett says. “It tends not to mount a strong immune response. It’s also a great target organ because it’s small and enclosed. Only a tiny amount of the vector is needed, and we only need to treat a region the size of the head on a dime. Even so, we did eliminate several patients from studies because we felt their preexisting antibodies to AAV were too high.” The results showed that AAV was in fact useful for gene therapy; it just had to be applied the right way.
Other researchers may soon use the AAV virus to transport genes as well. Wilson’s laboratory has isolated 120 types of AAV, each with different talents and tissue affinities, from the heart to skeletal muscle. Wilson found that AAV is incredibly prevalent—it exists in 40 percent of all human livers, for instance. “Once we had discovered 120 new variants, we started testing them and, lo and behold, some were significantly better in terms of gene transfer efficiency to specific tissues and organs,” Wilson says. “We have sent these vectors to investigators in 30 countries around the world.”
Brian Kaspar of Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, is one of those investigators. He recently found that a variant of AAV, called AAV9, has a striking affinity for the spinal cord and for astrocytes in the brain. “Someday AAV9 may help us treat spinal cord injury as well as diseases of the spinal cord and brain by carting genes right to the place they’re needed,” Kaspar says.
Meanwhile, a collaboration between David Schaffer of the University of California at Berkeley and pulmonologist Joseph Zabner of the University of Iowa has scientists excited about the possibility of curing cystic fibrosis using another variant of the virus to deliver healthy genes to lung tissue. Cystic fibrosis is a lung disorder caused by a mutation in a gene that makes a protein regulating the flow of salt and water into and out of the cells. Because the mutant gene does not work well, the lungs develop a thick, sticky mucus that leads to breathing difficulties and lung infections, among other symptoms. The virus was able to shuttle the correct gene into lung tissue in the laboratory and restore its function. “We are now studying pigs, which turn out to be a very good model for human cystic fibrosis,” Schaffer says. “Ten years ago this kind of vector and delivery technology just wasn’t there.”
THE CANCER CONNECTION
The technical advances emerging from gene therapy have fueled the larger fields of cell and immune therapy, where DNA, immune molecules, and viruses are all elements to be manipulated, in concert or one at a time. Although AdV proved too destructive for regular gene therapy, for instance, it turns out to be supremely useful in treating cancer, where you want to rouse the immune system. The very virus that may have killed Jesse Gelsinger and temporarily cratered the field of gene therapy is now being recruited to help cure terminal cancer patients.
At the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, director Malcolm Brenner, a geneticist, says he has turned “AdV from poacher into gamekeeper.” He is using the virus to cure a rare form of blood cancer called EBV lymphoma, caused when B lymphocyte immune cells get infected with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Best known as the cause of mononucleosis, EBV is so widespread that most of us have been exposed and still carry small quantities of the virus in our B cells—generally in a form so benign it fails to stimulate the T cells, immune cells crucial to pathogen search-and-destroy. In EBV lymphoma patients, however, things take a sinister turn. The virus causes B cells to proliferate and expand, and they do so unimpeded because the immune system fails to recognize or destroy the weak but dangerous virus that is driving the disease.
The black bag of tricks mastered through gene therapy now offers a clever cure. To work his magic, Brenner takes ordinary T cells and tweaks them into cancer killers extraordinaire. First he extracts a diseased patient’s T cells and exposes them to the highly stimulating AdV virus. To T cells, AdV is like an alarm ringing at the firehouse, dispatching the fire trucks of the immune system. AdV turns on genes that rev the patient’s T cells to a heightened state of alert. Into this hopped-up brew Brenner adds weak EBV—the same virus that the immune system could not recognize before, allowing cancer to spread.?The vigilant T cells now notice and target weak EBV. Built to annihilate any cell carrying weak EBV, the T cells are injected back into the patient’s body, where they efficiently kill the cancer with nary a side effect.
“We have had a complete response in eight out of twelve patients,” says Brenner, who did the work in collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine hematologists Catherine Bollard and Helen Heslop. “We hope that one or two injections will be sufficient, but there will probably be some patients who may need an injection every month to keep cancer at bay. Some cancers will be cured this way, and others will be turned into chronic disease.” Brenner has already begun to apply this approach to other types of cancer, including neuroblastoma, a deadly childhood cancer. Melanoma and lung cancer may be next.
“We used to think it was too dangerous to use viruses that cause a raging infection,” NIH’s David Bodine says, “but we’ve now realized that this incredible immune response can be turned very specifically against cancer. Think of cancer as living a quiet life—like those proverbial ladies who keep so many cats in their house. You don’t know there’s a huge cat problem until you simply can’t hide it anymore. The fact that the immune system is as aggressive as it is against common viruses is now being used to catch those cats early on.”
Bodine marvels at how completely gene therapy has rebounded. “Fifty-six years ago James Watson and Francis Crick proposed the structure of the DNA molecule,” he says. “The things that have happened since then are astounding.”
In the end, it is Alessandro Cannata, the 18-year-old who now walks the streets of his city unassisted at night, who says it best in the language of hope: “I was fascinated by the beauty of New York. I still have the chills from what is so beautiful! I will come back soon. Maybe when they treat my other eye in Philadelphia.”