Rare Diseases Report 2022

Spinal muscular atrophy: Patient care in the age of genetically targeted therapy


What’s needed next

Despite the advances in treatment and patient care, Dr. Brandsema, Dr. Schroth, and Dr. Glascock note that there remain unmet needs in the SMA community in a variety of areas.

Increased focus on adults with SMA. Before nusinersen, treatment of SMA mainly involved treating its symptoms. Many patients stopped seeing their neurologist, relying more heavily on pulmonary care specialists and/or primary care providers to address breathing, nutrition, and mobility problems. “Now with the approval of these treatments, they’re coming back to see their neurologists and are becoming more visible in the SMA community,” Dr. Schroth said.

Despite this re-emergence, a 2020 meta-analysis of studies on adults with SMA found a paucity of data on physical and occupational therapy, respiratory management, mental health care, and palliative care.18

“There is just so much work we need to do in the area of adult clinical care of SMA.”

Treatment algorithms. While the development of the newborn screening algorithm and revised patient care guidelines are helpful resources, clinicians still face uncertainty when choosing which therapy will work best for their patients. Treatment algorithms that help clinicians figure out what therapy or combination of therapies will offer the best outcomes for individual patients are desperately needed, Dr. Brandsema said.

“Each person’s experience of this disease is so unique to the individual based partly on their genetics and partly on the factors about what got them into care and how compliant they are with everything we’re trying to do to help them,” he said. “Biomarkers would help clinicians create personalized treatment plans for each patient.”

More basic science. While scientists have a good understanding of the SMN gene, there are many unanswered questions about the function of the SMN protein and its relationship to motor neuron loss. SMN is a ubiquitously expressed protein, and its function in other cell types is largely unknown. Despite all of the research advances, there is much basic science left to be done.

“We are strongly advocating to regulatory authorities that these aren’t cures and we need to continue to invest in the basic research,” Dr. Glascock said. “These biological questions that pertain to SMN and its function and expression really drive drug development. I really think that understanding those pathways better will lead us to more druggable targets.”

Two deaths from liver failure linked to spinal muscular atrophy drug

Two children taking the gene therapy drug onasemnogene abeparvovec (Zolgensma, Novartis) for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) have died from acute liver failure, according to a statement issued by the drug’s manufacturer.

The patients were 4 months and 28 months of age and lived in Russia and Kazakhstan. They died 5-6 weeks after infusion with Zolgensma and approximately 1-10 days after the initiation of a corticosteroid taper.

These are the first known fatal cases of acute liver failure associated with the drug, which the company notes was a known side effect included in the product label and in a boxed warning in the United States.

“Following two recent patient fatalities, and in alignment with health authorities, we will be updating the labeling to specify that fatal acute liver failure has been reported,” the statement reads.

“While this is important safety information, it is not a new safety signal,” it adds.

Rare genetic disorder

SMA is a rare genetic disorder that affects about 1 in 10,000 newborns. Patients with SMA lack a working copy of the survival motor neuron 1 (SMN1) gene, which encodes a protein called SMN that is critical for the maintenance and function of motor neurons.

Without this protein, motor neurons eventually die, causing debilitating and progressive muscle weakness that affects the ability to walk, eat, and breathe.

Zolgensma, a one-time gene replacement therapy delivered via intravenous infusion, replaces the function of the missing or nonworking SMN1 gene with a new, working copy of the SMN1 gene.

The first gene therapy treatment for SMA, it was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2019 for patients with SMA up to 2 years of age. It is also the most expensive drug in the world, costing about $2.1 million for a one-time treatment.

“We have notified health authorities in all markets where Zolgensma is used, including the FDA, and are communicating to relevant healthcare professionals as an additional step in markets where this action is supported by health authorities,” the manufacturer’s statement says.

Studies have suggested that the treatment’s effects persist more than 5 years after infusion.

Clinical trials currently underway by Novartis are studying the drug’s long-term efficacy and safety and its potential use in older patients.

The company is also leading the phase 3 clinical trial STEER to test intrathecal (IT) administration of the drug in patients ages 2-18 years who have type 2 SMA.

That trial began late last year after the FDA lifted a 2-year partial hold on an earlier study. The FDA halted the STRONG trial in 2019, citing concerns from animal studies that IT administration may result in dorsal root ganglia injury. The partial hold was released last fall following positive study results in nonhuman primates.

None of the current trials will be affected by the two deaths reported, according to a Novartis spokesperson.

Kelli Whitlock Burton is a staff writer/reporter for Medscape Neurology and MDedge Neurology.


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