This week a biotech company called Voyager Therapeutics provided an update regarding a gene therapy approach for people with severe Parkinson’s.
Gene therapy is an experimental therapeutic approach that involves inserting new DNA into cells using a virus. The introduced DNA can help a cell to produce proteins that it usually wouldn’t produce, and this can help to alleviate the motor features of Parkinson’s.
In today’s post we will discuss what gene therapy is, what Voyager Therapeutics is trying to do, and outline what their update reported.
There are 4 phases to the clinical trial process of testing new treatment for use in humans:
- Phase I determines if a treatment is safe in humans (this is conducted in an ‘open label’ manner)
- Phase II ‘double blindly’ assesses in a small cohort of subjects if the treatment is effective
- Phase III involves randomly and blindly testing the treatment in a very large cohort of patients
- Phase IV (often called Post Marketing Surveillance Trials) are studies conducted after the treatment has been approved for clinical use
(‘Open label’ refers to both the investigator and the participants in a study knowing what treatment is being administered; while ‘double blind’ testing refers to studies in which the participants and the investigators do not know whether the participant is receiving the active treatment or an inert control treatment until the end of the study).
Based on the successful completion of their Phase I clinical trials for their gene therapy treatment called VY-AADC (Click here to read more about this), Boston-based biotech firm Voyager Therapeutics approached the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with the goal of shifting their clinical trial programme into Phase II testing.
What is gene therapy?
This week a biotech company called Voyager Therapeutics announced the results of their ongoing phase Ib clinical trial. The trial is investigating a gene therapy approach for people with severe Parkinson’s disease.
Gene therapy is a technique that involves inserting new DNA into a cell using a virus. The DNA can help the cell to produce beneficial proteins that go on help to alleviate the motor features of Parkinson’s disease.
In today’s post we will discuss gene therapy, review the new results and consider what they mean for the Parkinson’s community.
On 25th August 2012, the Voyager 1 space craft became the first human-made object to exit our solar system.
After 35 years and 11 billion miles of travel, this explorer has finally left the heliosphere (which encompasses our solar system) and it has crossed into the a region of space called the heliosheath – the boundary area that separates our solar system from interstellar space. Next stop on the journey of Voyager 1 will be the Oort cloud, which it will reach in approximately 300 years and it will take the tiny craft about 30,000 years to pass through it.
Where is Voyager 1? Source: Tampabay
Where is Voyager actually going? Well, eventually it will pass within 1 light year of a star called AC +79 3888 (also known as Gliese 445), which lies 17.6 light-years from Earth. It will achieve this goal on a Tuesday afternoon in 40,000 years time.
Gliese 445 (circled). Source: Wikipedia
Remarkably, the Gliese 445 star itself is actually coming towards us. Rather rapidly as well. It is approaching with a current velocity of 119 km/sec – nearly 7 times as fast as Voyager 1 is travelling towards it (the current speed of the craft is 38,000 mph (61,000 km/h).
Interesting, but what does any of that have to do with Parkinson’s disease?
Well closer to home, another ‘Voyager’ is also ‘going boldly where no man has gone before’ (sort of).
In December, we highlighted the results of a phase 1 clinical trial for Parkinson’s disease being run by a company called Voyager Therapeutics (Click here for that post). In that post we also explained that the company is attempting to take a gene therapy product (VY-AADC01) to the clinic.
VY-AADC01 is a virus that is injected into a particular part of the brain (called the putamen), where it infects cells in that area and causes them to produce a lot of a particular protein, called Aromatic L-amino acid decarboxylase (or AADC). AADC is required for turning L-dopa (one of the primary treatments for Parkinson’s disease) into dopamine – which helps to ease the motor features of the condition.
Today, while most people were focused on President Trump’s inauguration, Voyager Therapeutics provided an update on their ongoing trials. Specifically, the company reported an increase in viral infection coverage of the putamen was achieved by VY-AADC01 in their third group (‘cohort’) of subjects. They infected 42% of the putamen compared to 34% in group 2 and 21% in group 1.
In the press release, the company stated:
“The five patients enrolled in Cohort 3 received similar infusion volumes of VY-AADC01 compared to Cohort 2 (up to 900 µL per putamen), but three-fold higher vector genome concentrations, representing up to a three-fold higher total dose of up to 4.5×1012 vector genomes (vg) of VY-AADC01 compared to patients in Cohort 2 (1.5 × 1012 vg). Patients enrolled in Cohort 3 were similar in baseline characteristics to Cohort 1 and 2. The use of real-time, intra-operative MRI-guided delivery allowed the surgical teams to visualize the delivery of VY-AADC01 and continue to achieve greater average coverage of the putamen in Cohort 3 (42%) compared to Cohort 2 (34%) with similar infusion volumes and Cohort 1 (21%) with a lower infusion volume (Figure 1). The surgical procedure was successfully completed in all five patients. Infusions of VY-AADC01 have been well-tolerated with no vector-related serious adverse events (SAEs) or surgical complications in Cohort 3, and all five patients were discharged from the hospital within two days following surgery. The Phase 1b trial remains on track to deliver six-month safety, motor function, and biomarker data from Cohort 3, as well as longer-term safety and motor function data from Cohorts 1 and 2, in mid-2017.”
This update demonstrates that the company is proceeding with increased concentrations of their virus, resulting in a wider area of the putamen being infected and producing AADC. Whether this increased area of AADC producing cells results in significant improvements to motor features of Parkinson’s disease, we shall hopefully begin to find out later this year.
As always, watch this space.
In today’s post we are going to review the results of a phase 1 trial for new kind of drug being oriented at Parkinson’s disease. The results were announced in late September, and they indicate that the drug was well tolerated by subjects taking part in the study.
Here at the Science of Parkinson’s disease we are always on the look out for novel drug therapies. Many of the treatments currently being tested in the clinic are simply different versions of L-dopa or a dopamine agonist.
So when Prexton Therapeutics recently announced the results of their phase 1 clinical trial for their lead drug, PXT002331, we sat up and took notes. PXT002331 (formerly called DT1687) is the first drug of its kind to be tested in Parkinson’s disease.
It is a mGluR4 positive allosteric modulator.
What on earth is mGluR4 positive allosteric modulator?
The metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGluR) are an abundant family of receptors in the brain. Proteins bind to these receptors and activate (or block) an associated function. There are many different types of these receptors and mGluR4 is simply a small subset. The mGluR4s, however, are present in the areas affected by Parkinson’s disease, and this is why this particular family of receptors has been the focus of much research attention.
But what about the positive allosteric modulator part of ‘mGluR4 positive allosteric modulator’
Yes, good question.
This is the key part of this new approach. Allosteric modulators are a new class of orally available small molecule therapeutic agents. Traditionally, most marketed drugs bind directly to the same part of receptors that the body’s own natural occurring proteins attach to. This means that those drugs are competing with those endogenous proteins, thus limiting the potential effect of the drug.
Allosteric modulators get around this problem by binding different parts of the receptor. And instead of simply turning on or off the receptor, allosteric modulators can either turn up the volume of the signal being sent by the receptor or decrease the signals. This means that when the body’s naturally occurring protein binds in the receptor, allosteric modulators can either amplify the effect or reduce it depending on which type of allosteric modulators is being administered.
How Allosteric modulators work. Source: Addrex Thereapeutics
There are two different types of allosteric modulators: positive and negative. And as the label suggests, positive allosteric modulators (or PAMs) increase the signal from the receptor while negative allosteric modulators (or NAMs) reduce the signal. Thus, mGluR4 PAMS are amplifying the signal of the mGluR4 receptors.
Why do we want an amplification of a particular signal?
That is a hard question to answer.
Here’s the short explanation:
When you are planning to make a movement with your body, the process of actually initiating that movement begins in the cortex, specifically the primary motor cortex:
A cross section of the human brain illustrating the primary motor cortex. Source: Droso4schools
The primary motor cortex receives information from other regions of the brain (such as the prefrontal cortex where you make a lot of your decisions), and it will then send a signal down into the brain and down the spinal cord telling the limbs to move. On the way down through the brain, the signal will pass through a series of check points that will filter the signal and determine the final strength of it.
A schematic of the feedback loop of check points. Source: Parkinson’s Biology
EDITOR’S NOTE: We have borrowed this image from the Parkinson’s biology blog, which we are huge fans of. We highly recommend people visit that site as well as our lovely site. They also provide easy to understand explanations of the biology of Parkinson’s disease.
These checkpoints represent a large feedback loop. The critical step in this process is the processing being conducted in the basal ganglia, which can be broken down into different subregions:
A schematic of the components of the basal ganglia. Source: Parkinson’s Biology
The globus pallidus (GPi) is the last area of the basal ganglia that the signal will pass through on it’s way to the thalamus (the ultimate decider of whether you will move or not), so if there is anything going wrong between these two structures the initiation of movement will be disrupted.
In a normal brain, the chemical dopamine is being produced in an area called the substantia nigra pars compacta (say that three times really fast). That dopamine is released in the striatum and other areas of the basal ganglia, and it has a mediating effect on the signal passing through these structures.
A schematic of the source of dopamine. Source: Parkinson’s Biology
In Parkinson’s disease, however, the dopamine producing cells of the pars compacta are loss – 60% by the time a person starts to have the clinical motor features appearing. The loss of this dopamine leaves the whole system ‘unmediated’. The feedback loop becomes extremely inhibited, resulting in problems initiating movement.
Deep brain stimulation can un-inhibit the globus pallidus, by mediating the signal passing through that structure. But this requires surgery and the implanting of probes deep inside the brain.
A schematic of deep brain stimulation of the globus pallidus. Source: Parkinson’s Biology (great website!)
A better way of reducing the inhibition in this feedback loop is the replacement of dopamine (which we do via the taking of treatments like L-dopa). This has been the standard approach for more than 50 years.
A new method of reducing the inhibition in the feedback loop would be to chemically targeting the globus pallidus, and this is what scientists are trying to do with the mGluR4 PAMS. By amplifying the signal of mGluR4s in the globus pallidus, the scientists believe that they can reduce the level of inhibition in the feedback loop.
The hope is that this approach is a less Parkinson’s disease-affected treatment. That is to say, the globus pallidus is structurally less affected by Parkinson’s disease than the substantia nigra pars compacta, and thus any treatment of the globus pallidus should be more stable over time (as the disease progresses).
That said, it is acknowledged that mGluR4 PAMS are NOT a potential cure for Parkinson’s disease, but rather a better way of treating the condition.
What research has been done on mGluR4 PAMS and Parkinson’s disease?
In August of 2003, some researchers at the pharmaceutical company Merck published a study which indicated that activation of mGluR4 could decrease the excessive levels of inhibition in the globus pallidus.
Title: Group III metabotropic glutamate receptor-mediated modulation of the striatopallidal synapse.
Authors: Valenti O, Marino MJ, Wittmann M, Lis E, DiLella AG, Kinney GG, Conn PJ.
Journal: Journal of Neuroscience. 2003 Aug 6;23(18):7218-26.
PMID: 12904482 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
The researchers found that an mGluR4 agonist (a protein that binds to the receptor directly, encouraging the associated action) reduced inhibitory signal being produced in the globus pallidus (through a presynaptic mechanism of action). They next demonstrated that the effect did not happen in mice which do not have mGluR4s, illustrating the specificity of the effect. They finished the study by injecting the mGluR4 agonist into a rodent model of Parkinson’s disease and found beneficial effects – that were equivalent to L-dopa.
Based on this research, the scientists at Merck next turned their attention to modulating the mGluR4s in the globus pallidus using allosteric modulators:
Title: Allosteric modulation of group III metabotropic glutamate receptor 4: a potential approach to Parkinson’s disease treatment.
Authors: Marino MJ, Williams DL Jr, O’Brien JA, Valenti O, McDonald TP, Clements MK, Wang R, DiLella AG, Hess JF, Kinney GG, Conn PJ.
Journal: Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003 Nov 11;100(23):13668-73.
PMID: 14593202 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
In this article, the same researchers introduce a positive allosteric modulator called ‘PHCCC’ which has a preference for binding to mGluR4. They found that when they put PHCCC – in combination with the mGluR4 agonist used in the previous study – onto cells in petri dishes, they got an amplification of the reduction in inhibition in the cells. Administered alone, PHCCC also produced a marked reversal of the motor deficit observed in a rodent model of Parkinson’s disease.
With these results, the scientists could begin building the justification for taking mGluR4 PAMs to the clinic. They were interested, however, in what impact mGluR4 PAMs could have on the involuntary motor problems associated with long-term L-dopa use, called dyskinesias (we have previously written about these – click here to read that post). So they decided to investigate whether mGluR4 PAMs may have an impact on dyskinesias:
Title: Pharmacological stimulation of metabotropic glutamate receptor type 4 in a rat model of Parkinson’s disease and L-DOPA-induced dyskinesia: Comparison between a positive allosteric modulator and an orthosteric agonist.
Authors: Iderberg H, Maslava N, Thompson AD, Bubser M, Niswender CM, Hopkins CR, Lindsley CW, Conn PJ, Jones CK, Cenci MA.
Journal: Neuropharmacology. 2015 Aug;95:121-9.
PMID: 25749357 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
In this study, the investigators compared a mGluR4 PAM with a mGluR4 agonist (similar to that used in the previous studies) in rodent models of L-dopa induced dyskinesias. They found that the neither of the two drugs modified the development of dyskinetic behaviours, nor could they modify the behaviours when given together with L-dopa. In fact, when a low dose of L-dopa was given to the animals (resulting in only mild dyskinesias), the researchers found that by adding mGluR4 PAM the dyskinetic behaviours became more exaggerated. The investigators concluded that stimulation of mGluR4 does not have anti-dyskinetic activity. This is an important characteristic to determine before taking a drug to the clinic for Parkinson’s disease.
So what were the results of the phase 1 clinical trial?
In July of 2012, Merck spun off the research into a new company called Prexton Therapeutics. The company almost immediately started setting up a phase 1 safety clinical trial for its lead compound, the mGluR4 PAM: PXT002331. A total of 64 healthy volunteers were enrolled to evaluate the safety and tolerability of several different doses of orally taken PXT002331. The study was completed on time and demonstrated that PXT002331 is safe and well tolerated (at doses well above those that produce robust effects in Parkinson’s disease animal models).
Very positive news.
The planning of a phase 2 clinical trial in people with Parkinson’s disease is now underway. It will take place in the first half of 2017, and this study will provide the first indications as to whether this new treatment approach will be effective in human at treating the features of Parkinson’s disease. We will keep you posted on the success of that study when the results become available.
Are other biotech companies using this approach?
Yes, PAM-based therapies for Parkinson’s disease are very much in vogue at the moment.
Just this month, the biotech company Asceneuron received a grant from The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research for the development of positive allosteric modulators of the M1 muscarinic acetylcholine receptor (M1 PAMs). So we can hopefully expect more from this approach to therapies.
Interesting times. And hopefully positive results to come.
EDITOR’S NOTE: It is important to remember that any clinical trial research discussed on this blog is of an educational nature. Nothing written here can or should be mistaken as medical advice. All of these drugs are still experimental and require extensive testing before being offered to the general population. Please speak with a certified clinician before attempting any change to your current medical treatment regime.
The image used in the banner of today’s post was sourced from MedTechBoston
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