Conference Coverage

BCL11A-directed gene therapy advances in sickle cell disease



– A gene therapy approach that targets a major repressor of fetal hemoglobin appears to be acceptably safe and to mitigate the pathology of sickle cell disease among the five patients infused so far, an investigator reported at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology.

Dr. Erica B. Esrick of Boston Children's Hospital Andrew D. Bowser/MDedge News

Dr. Erica B. Esrick

Knocking down BCL11A using a lentiviral vector-based approach resulted in effective induction of fetal hemoglobin and significant attenuation of the sickling phenotype, with no vector-related adverse events, investigator Erica B. Esrick, MD, of Children’s Hospital Boston, said during the meeting’s late-breaking abstracts session.

The single-center pilot and feasibility study, originally designed to include a total of seven patients, now has an expanded enrollment goal of 15 patients, and a multicenter phase 2/3 study is planned that will enroll a larger group of patients with sickle cell disease, according to Dr. Esrick.

BCL11A represents a promising target in sickle cell disease because of its regulation of the fetal-adult hemoglobin switch at the gamma-globin locus, investigators said in their late-breaking study abstract.

Dr. Esrick described BCH-BB694, a lentiviral vector encoding a BCL11A-targeting small hairpin RNA embedded in a microRNA scaffold (shmiR). “The advantage of this approach is that it harnesses the physiologic switch machinery, simultaneously increasing fetal hemoglobin and decreasing sickle hemoglobin, thus maintaining the alpha to beta globin ratio in the cell,” she said.

The results of the pilot study of the shmiR vector approach, although preliminary and in need of longer follow-up, contribute to a larger body of research showing that multiple gene therapy approaches hold promise in this disease, said Robert Brodsky, MD, professor of medicine and director of the division of hematology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore.

“The exciting thing is that there are now multiple ways of going at this previously incurable disease,” Dr. Brodsky, who was not involved in the research, said during a press conference.

Development of the gene therapy described by Dr. Esrick involves mobilization of the patient’s peripheral stem cells using plerixafor, followed by selection of CD34+ cells that were transduced with the shmiR lentiviral vector, followed by infusion of gene modified cells into the patient after a busulfan conditioning regimen.

“In our treated patients, we’ve seen a consistent and substantial induction in fetal hemoglobin,” Dr. Esrick said, noting that the longest follow-up to date for the five treated patients is now 18 months.

The patients, who range in age from 12 to 26 years, are producing and maintaining very high numbers of F cells, or erythrocytes with measurable fetal hemoglobin, she said.

Total fetal hemoglobin has increased and remained stable at between 23% and 43% for the five patients, who are producing “stably high” average amounts of fetal hemoglobin per F cell, at 10 to 16 picograms of fetal hemoglobin per cell, while 37% to 62% of the F cells’ total hemoglobin is fetal hemoglobin, she added.

Following gene therapy, treated patients have had no instances of vaso-occlusive pain crises, respiratory events, or neurologic events. No patients have required transfusion, except one with severe underlying vascular disease for whom post–gene therapy transfusions were planned, she said.

Validated assays at the single-cell level are needed to better understand the effect of this gene therapy and eventually compare it to other therapeutic approaches in sickle cell disease, according to Dr. Esrick.

“We’re collaborating with several colleagues on exploratory assays to accomplish this,” she said, adding that the work is ongoing.

Dr. Esrick reported having no disclosures. Her coauthors reported disclosures related to Alerion Biosciences, Novartis, Orchard Therapeutics, Roche, AstraZeneca, and bluebird bio, among others.

SOURCE: Esrick EB et al. ASH 2019. Abstract LBA-5.

Next Article: