This week Austrian biotech firm, AFFiRiS AG, made an announcement regarding their experimental immunotherapy/’vaccine’ approach for Parkinson’s.
In their press release, the company provided the results of a long-term Phase I clinical trial testing the tolerability and safety of their treatment AFFITOPE® PD01A.
The treatment was found to be safe and well-tolerated in people with Parkinson’s. But there was one sentence which was particularly intriguing in the press release regarding clinical symptoms.
In today’s post, we will discuss what is meant by ‘immunotherapy’, outline what this particular clinical trial involved, review the results, and explore what this could mean for the Parkinson’s community.
I have previously mentioned on this website that any ‘cure for Parkinson’s’ is going to require three components:
- A disease halting mechanism
- A neuroprotective agent
- Some form of cell replacement therapy
This week we got some interesting clinical news regarding the one of these components: A disease halting mechanism
Clinical trial results from Austria suggest that a new immunotherapy approach in people with Parkinson’s is both safe and well tolerated over long periods of time.
What is immunotherapy?
The great ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky once said “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be” (the original quote actually came from his father, Walter).
At the start of each year, it is a useful practise to layout what is planned for the next 12 months. This can help us better anticipate where ‘the puck’ will be, and allow us to prepare for things further ahead.
2017 was an incredible year for Parkinson’s research, and there is a lot already in place to suggest that 2018 is going to be just as good (if not better).
In this post, we will lay out what we can expect over the next 12 months with regards to the Parkinson’s-related clinical trials research of new therapies.
Charlie Munger (left) and Warren Buffett. Source: Youtube
Many readers will be familiar with the name Warren Buffett.
The charming, folksy “Oracle of Omaha” is one of the wealthiest men in the world. And he is well known for his witticisms about investing, business and life in general.
Warren Buffett. Source: Quickmeme
He regularly provides great one liners like:
“We look for three things [in good business leaders]: intelligence, energy, and integrity. If they don’t have the latter, then you should hope they don’t have the first two either. If someone doesn’t have integrity, then you want them to be dumb and lazy”
“Work for an organisation of people you admire, because it will turn you on. I always worry about people who say, ‘I’m going to do this for ten years; and if I really don’t like it very much, then I’ll do something else….’ That’s a little like saving up sex for your old age. Not a very good idea”
“Choosing your heroes is very important. Associate well, marry up and hope you find someone who doesn’t mind marrying down. It was a huge help to me”
Mr Buffett is wise and a very likeable chap.
Few people, however, are familiar with his business partner, Charlie Munger. And Charlie is my favourite of the pair.
Interest press release from the biotech company AFFiRiS last week (Click here for the press release) regarding their clinical trial of a vaccine for Parkinson’s disease. We have previously outlined the idea behind the trial (Click here for that post) and the team at Michael J Fox foundation also provide a great overview (Click here for that – MJF are partly funding the trial). In today’s post we will briefly review what results AFFiRiS has shared.
Vaccination. Source: WebMD
Vaccination represents an efficient way of boosting the immune system in the targeting of foreign or problematic agents in the body. For a long time it has been believed that the protein Alpha Synuclein is the ‘problematic agent’ involved in the spread of Parkinson’s disease inside the brain. Alpha synuclein is required inside brain cells for various normal functions. In Parkinson’s disease, however, this protein aggregates for some reason and forms circular clusters inside cells called Lewy bodies.
A lewy body (brown with a black arrow) inside a cell. Source: Cure Dementia
It has been hypothesized (and there is a lot of experimental evidence available to support the idea) that released alpha synuclein – freely floating between brain cells – may be one method by which Parkinson’s disease spread through the brain. With this in mind, groups of scientists (like those at AFFiRiS) are attempting to halt the spread of the condition, by training the immune system to target free-floating alpha synuclein. Vaccination is one method by which this is being attempted.
AFFiRiS is a small biotech company in Vienna (Austria) that has an ongoing clinical trial program for a vaccine (called ‘AFFITOPE® PD01A’) against alpha synuclein. The subjects in the study (22 people with Parkinson’s disease) received four vaccinations – each injection given four-weeks apart – and then the subjects were observed for 2-3 years (6 additional subjects were included in the study for comparative sake, but they did not receive the vaccine.
Last week the company issued a press release regarding a phase 1 trial (AFF008), which indicated that PD01A is safe and well tolerated, and causing an immune response (which is a good thing) in 19 of 22 (86%) of vaccinated subjects. In 12 of those 19 (63%) participants with and immune response, the researchers found alpha-synuclein antibodies in the blood, suggesting that the body was reacting to the injected vaccine and producing antibodies against alpha synuclein (for more on what antibodies are, click here).
The scientists also conducted some exploratory efficacy assessments – to determine if they could see if the vaccine was working clinically and slowing down the disease. Eight of the 19 (42%) subjects with an immune response, had no increase of their dopaminergic medication (eg. L-Dopa) over the course of the observational period (average three years per subject). And five of those eight subjects had stable clinical motor scores at the end of the study.
The company also conducted parallel laboratory-based experiments which indicate that AFFITOPE® PD01A-induced antibodies are binding to alpha-synuclein in various models of Parkinson’s disease.
The company will be presenting the results on a poster at the 4th World Parkinson Congress in Portland, Oregon, USA on September 21.
So this is a good result right?
It is easy to get excited by the results announced in the press release, but they must be taken with a grain of salt. This is a Phase I trial which is only designed to test the safety of a new therapeutic agent in humans. From this point of view: Yes, the study produced a good result – the vaccine was well tolerated by the trial subjects.
Drawing any other conclusions, however, is not really possible – the study was not double-blind and the assignment of subjects to the treatment groups was not randomize. In addition, the small sample size makes it very difficult to make any definitive conclusions. It must be noted that of the 22 people with Parkinson’s disease that started the study, only five exhibited stabilized clinical motor scores at the end of the study. It may be too soon to tell if the vaccine is having an effect in most of the people involved in the study. Thus longer observation periods are required – which the company is currently undertaking with their follow-up study, AFF008AA. The results of that study are expected in middle-late 2017.
We shall keep you posted.
The banner for today’s post was sourced from AFFiRiS
There has never been a more exciting time in Parkinson’s disease research. At no point in the past has the progress been made at such a frenetic pace. New week, new discoveries. And it has to be said that none of this would be possible without the advocacy and fundraising efforts of groups such as the Michael J Fox foundation, the Cure PD Trust, and Parkinson’s UK.
In addition to learning a great deal about the basic science of Parkinson’s disease – a better understanding of the biology underlying the disease – we are also making tremendous gains in new areas of treatment. Until now, the basic treatment has been dopamine replacement with L-dopa. But now, like never before, novel therapeutic approaches are being tested in the clinic.
One of these new approaches, however, is based on a very old idea: Vaccination.
Edward Jenner (1749 – 1823). Source: Wikipedia
While Edward Jenner is considered to be the pioneer of the world’s first vaccine (for Smallpox), the idea of vaccination/inoculation actually originated in India in 1000 BC, where it was briefly mentioned in Sact’eya Grantham, an Ayurvedic text. The first really credible mention of inoculation, however, was in China where it was described in the book Yuyi cao (寓意草 or Notes on My Judgment) by Yu Chang, published in 1643.
Vaccination. Source: WebMD
The basic idea of vaccination is to deliberately introduce an individual to a small component of a disease-causing agent so that the body can build up an immune response to the disease prior to being attacked by the full disease. That fragment of the disease-causing agent becomes what is known as an an ‘antigen’ (this comes from a French word, antigène, derived from the Greek anti- or “against”, and the word-forming suffix -gen, “thing that produces or causes”), and it will serve as the target for the immune system. In response to the antigen, the body produces beacons that bind to the antigen for the immune system to look out for – these beacons are called ‘antibodies’, and they tell the immune system that what they have bound to is ‘not of this body – get rid of it’!
Vaccines will sometimes be made of an empty virus – the surface of the virus will be present, but the internal disease-causing mechanisms have been destroyed or removed. Think of it as training the immune system for some big event. In this way, by exposing and thus priming the body against a particular part of s disease-causing agent, if the body is ever attacked by the full agent, the immune system will be ready to deal with it.
So what does this have to do with Parkinson’s disease?
The AFFiRiS drug (called PD01A in the AFF008 trial) is an vaccine that targets the Parkinson’s disease-related protein ‘Alpha-synuclein’. The vaccine causes the body to produce Alpha-synuclein-specific antibodies. These antibodies allow the immune system to then attack and remove this protein from the blood and fluid surrounding the brain. Any loose alpha-synuclein floating around should be removed.
Alpha-synuclein is a very common protein in the brain – it makes up about 1% of the material in neurons. It is also one of the proteins that is present in the ‘Lewy bodies’ that are associated with Parkinson’s disease.
A cartoon of a neuron, with the Lewy body indicated within the cell body. Source: Alzheimer’s news
Lewy bodies are one of the defining characteristic features of the Parkinsonian brain (having said that, it is interesting to note that approx. 30% of the population over the age of 70 will have Lewy bodies but no clinical symptoms/problems). They are densely packed, spherical shaped, clusters of protein inside the cell body. We are not entirely sure if they are causing cells to die, but they should not be there so it is assumed that if we get rid of them, the cells will be healthier.
An actual photo of a Lewy body (brown) within a neuron. Source: Medicalia
Given that Alpha-synuclein is one of the major components of Lewy bodies, it is the first protein to be targeted by a vaccine for Parkinson’s disease. Some researchers believe that the passing of Alpha synuclein from one cell to another may be the mechanism by which the disease spreads. By removing any Alpha-synuclein that floating around outside of cells, companies like Affiris hope that they will be able to slow down or even halt the spread of Parkinson’s disease within the brain.
The results from the first Affiris trial look rather promising.
The phase one trial run by Affiris was very small (just 12 subjects received the vaccine) and lasted only 12 months. The primary endpoint of any phase one trial is ‘safety and tolerability’ – that is to say, the study is a test of whether the drug is ok for humans use and can be well tolerated (e.g. it has no hidden/unknown side effects). Two different doses of the PD01A vaccine were given in the study and both were well tolerated by the participants in the study.
The Affiris researchers, however, were also looking at a second endpoint in their trial: whether the vaccine caused Alpha Synuclein-specific antibodies to be produced. Thankfully, Affiris found measurable levels of alpha-synuclein-specific antibodies in serum samples (a component of blood) and cerebrospinal fluid (the liquid surrounding the brain) collected from their participants, suggesting that the vaccine is doing it’s job and causing the immune system to react to the antigen being introduced.
Obviously a larger study is now required to determine if the vaccine will actually slow or halt Parkinson’s disease, but when the Affiris researchers compared the subjects in their first trial that received the vaccine with a group of control subjects at the end of the 12 months, they claim that they found PD01A subjects ‘functionally stabilised compared to the control group’.
And Affiris is not the only biotech company trialling the vaccine approach for Parkinson’s disease. In March 2015, an Irish company called ‘Prothena‘ announced that their vaccine reduced Alpha synuclein levels in the serum by 96%! And again the vaccine was well tolerated, with few side effects. 40 subjects were used in the Prothena study and the company will continue to follow them. They expect to release follow-up data – with clinical and imaging results – in early to mid 2016.
We will be watching this area of research very closely. Fingers crossed!