Gene therapy for hemophilia—an update

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Allan B. Haberman, Ph.D
photo of Tsarevich Alexei of Russia

Tsarevich Alexei of Russia

The boy pictured above is Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich of Russia, who lived between 1904 and 1918, and was the heir to the throne of Imperial Russia. He is arguably the most famous hemophiliac in history.

Alexei suffered from hemophilia B, a form of hemophilia that was passed from Queen Victoria of Britain through two of her five daughters to the royal families of Spain, Germany, and Russia. He inherited the disease—which is X-linked and recessive—from his mother, the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

During Alexei’s lifetime, there was no good treatment for hemophilia. So Empress Alexandra turned to the charlatan Grigori Rasputin, a supposed “holy man” whom she thought had the power to heal the boy. The relationship between the Empress and Rasputin, and the disastrous rule by the two during September 1915—February 1917, led to the fall of the Romanov dynasty and the eventual rise of Bolshevism. In July 1918, the Bolsheviks murdered Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family, including Tsarevich Alexei, who was one month shy of his 14th birthday.

Current treatments for hemophilia

In 2016, there are much better approved therapies for hemophilia than in Alexei’s day. Hemophilias include hemophilia A and B. Both are X-linked recessive disorders, which thus affect mainly males. Hemophilia A involves a deficiency in factor VIII (FVIII),  and hemophilia B involves a deficiency in factor IX (FIX). Both of these are clotting factors made in the liver. Hemophilia occurs in approximately one in 5,000 live births, and hemophilia A is four times as common as hemophilia B.

Management of hemophilia—from the early 1990s to today—is based on the use of recombinant FVIII or recombinant FIX, for the treatment of hemophilia A and B, respectively. Examples of these products include Baxalta’s Advate and Pfizer’s Xyntha (both recombinant FVIII products), and Pfizer’s BeneFix and Biogen’s Alprolix (both recombinant FIX products). (Baxalta was spun off from Baxter International in July 2015, and then acquired by Shire in January 2016.)

To avoid joint damage and other complications, patients with severe hemophilia need regular infusions, lasting 30 minutes or more, of relatively short-acting and expensive recombinant clotting factors. The cost of these products per patient could total more than $300,000 in 2014.

In recent decades, clotting factor replacement therapy has reduced the morbidity and mortality of hemophilia. However, compared with individuals with normal coagulation, deaths still occur at higher rates due to bleeding episodes. Prophylactic therapy via regular intravenous infusions of factor two to three times per week is now the standard of care for children and increasingly for adults, especially for patients with severe hemophilia. With the expense of current therapies, and the need for frequent infusions, compliance is difficult. Moreover, convenient access to peripheral veins is often a problem. Many children require use of central venous access devices, with the risks of infection and thrombosis.

As a result, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have been attempting to develop longer-acting recombinant clotting factor products, with some success. Example of recently-developed products include Biogen/Swedish Orphan Biovitrum’s Alprolix (recombinant factor IX Fc fusion protein, approved by the FDA in March 2014 for treatment of hemophilia B) and Biogen/Swedish Orphan Biovitrum’s Eloctate (recombinant factor VIII Fc fusion protein, approved by the FDA in June 2014 for treatment of hemophilia A). Both of these products are fusion proteins between recombinant clotting factors and Fc immunoglobulin domains. The use of Fc domains is designed to prolong the half-life of the recombinant fusion proteins in the circulation. Other companies that have been active in developing longer-acting recombinant FIX and FVIIII products include Bayer and Novo Nordisk.

The new longer-acting recombinant clotting factors can reduce the frequency of infusion needed for control of a patient’s hemophilia. However, some patients, especially children under 12, may require higher doses or more frequent infusions than most adults.

Gene therapies for hemophilia under development

The ideal therapies for hemophilia A and/or B would be gene therapies. Gene therapies would potentially eliminate the need for lifelong, frequent infusions of clotting factors, with improved quality of life and reduced risk of death due to bleeding episodes.

As discussed in our recently published book-length report, Gene Therapy: Moving Toward Commercialization (published by Cambridge Healthtech Institute), hemophilia A and B have been extensive researched as candidates for gene therapy. This research has included development and use of animal models, development of coagulation assays that can be used in quantitating the results of treatment, and development of actual candidate gene therapies, especially in the case of hemophilia B.

Development of gene therapies for hemophilia B (the disease that afflicted Tsarevich Alexei and other European royals) enjoys the advantage of the relatively small size of the coding region of the gene for FIX. It is approximately 1.4 kB of cDNA (complementary DNA) coding sequence. This allows researchers to insert this coding element into many different gene transfer vectors, especially adeno-associated virus (AAV) vectors. (AAV is the most commonly used vector in gene therapy today.) The small size of the FIX coding region also allows for the addition of transcriptional regulatory elements to modulate the expression of an FIX transgene into small vectors such as those based on AAV.

In contrast, FVIII cDNA is over 8kB in size. Thus, it is not as readily accommodated in small gene transfer vectors such as AAV.  Researchers and companies have been employing several strategies to overcome this difficulty. Although R&D efforts aimed at making gene therapy for hemophilia A possible are underway, commercial development of gene therapy for hemophilia B is far ahead of that for hemophilia A.

As discussed in our report, an important factor that favors the use of gene therapy in treatment of hemophilias is that there is a relatively low threshold for success. In a hemophilia patient, If long-term expression of 2-3% of wild-type (or normal) levels of a functional clotting factor (FIX for hemophilia B or FVIII for hemophilia A) could be achieved, then a substantial reduction in the clinical manifestations of the disease could be attained. Expression of over 30 percent of the wild-type level of the clotting factor could restore a patient to phenotypic normality, although higher levels may be required in the case of hemostatic challenge.

Preliminary results of uniQure’s clinical trial of its hemophilia B gene therapy, AMT-060

In our report, we discuss four programs for development of hemophilia B gene therapies that have reached the clinic. All are based on AAV vectors. One of these four therapies, AMT-060, is being developed by uniQure (Amsterdam, The Netherlands). uniQure has the distinction of having developed the first, and currently (as of January 2016) the only, gene therapy product that has received regulatory approval in a regulated market. This is Glybera (alipogene tiparvovec), a treatment for the ultra-rare genetic disease lipoprotein lipase deficiency (LPLD). uniQure’s hemophilia B gene therapy candidate, AMT-060, is being developed in Europe in collaboration with Chiesi (Parma, Italy).

On January 7, 2016 uniQure announced preliminary results from the low-dose cohort of an ongoing Phase 1/2 clinical trial (clinical trial number NCT02396342) being conducted in adult hemophilia B patients treated with uniQure’s novel AAV5-FIX gene therapy, AMT-060. At the time of their enrollment in the trial, all five patients in the low-dose cohort had FIX levels of less than 1-2% of normal levels, and required chronic treatment with prophylactic recombinant FIX (rFIX) therapy.

The first two patients out of the five have completed 20 and 12 weeks of follow-up and had FIX expression levels of 5.5% and 4.5% of normal, respectively, as of the cutoff date of December 16th, 2015. The three other patients have been dosed, but had not achieved the full 12 weeks of follow-up at the cutoff date. However, as of January 6, 2016, four of the five patients, including the first two patients enrolled in the study, have been able to fully discontinue prophylactic rFIX. The first patient in the low-dose cohort experienced a mild, transient and asymptomatic elevation of liver transaminase levels in serum at 10 weeks after treatment; this was easily resolved by treatment with prednisolone. No elevated transaminase levels have been observed in the other four patients so far.

As outlined in our report, AMT-060 consists of an AAV5 vector carrying a gene cassette encoding a codon-optimized (i.e., using codons most frequently found in highly expressed eukaryotic genes) wild-type human FIX (hFIX), under the control of a liver-specific promoter. The gene cassette has been exclusively licensed by uniQure from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (Memphis, Tenn.). It is the same gene cassette that has been successfully tested in published Phase 1 trials. AMT-060 is manufactured using uniQure’s proprietary insect cell based technology. The therapy is administered, without the use of immunosuppressants, through a peripheral vein in one treatment session for approximately 30 minutes. The study includes a low-dose and a high-dose cohort. So far, there have been no issues with pre-existing neutralizing antibodies against AAV5 or with development of inhibitory FIX antibodies.

This early data suggests that AMT-060 is well-tolerated, and is able to successfully transduce the liver, and thus to produce clinically meaningful levels of serum FIX.

uniQure and its collaborators are continuing the study. The investigators intend to present a more complete analysis of the data from the low-dose cohort at a scientific conference in the second quarter of 2016. uniQure also anticipates initiating enrollment of the high-dose cohort in the first quarter of 2016.

The hemophilia gene therapy field will be competitive

Among the clinical-stage hemophilia B programs covered in our report, Spark Therapeutics expects to report initial efficacy data in mid-2016 for its Phase 1/2 clinical trial of SPK-FIX, which it is developing in collaboration with Pfizer. As discussed in our report, only Baxalta has reported early clinical trials for its therapy, AskBio009/BAX335. These results were reported in July 2015. As in many early studies of hemophilia gene therapies, there were issues with neutralizing antibodies that led to decreased FIX expression. Baxalta continues to work to address the observed immune responses, while maintaining target levels of FIX expression. As uniQure continues with its clinical trial of AMT-060 and treats more patients with higher doses, it remains to be seen to what extent immune reactions might affect results with its hemophilia B gene therapy.

The other hemophilia B program discussed in our report is at Dimension Therapeutics. At the time of our report’s publication, Dimension’s first clinical trial was to commence in the second half of 2015. As reported by Dimension, the Phase 1/2 study for its AAVrh10-FIX product DTX101 was actually initiated on January 7, 2016.

Other companies that are entering the hemophilia B or A gene therapy field include Biogen, Sangamo in collaboration with Shire, and Biomarin. Biomarin’s program is in hemophilia A, and all the companies mentioned in this article and in our report that have hemophilia B programs also are developing hemophilia A gene therapies. At least some commentators believe that “hemophilia could prove to be the most competitive gene therapy race to date.”

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As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

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