Adapted from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine
Born with a retinal disease that made him legally blind, and would eventually leave him totally sightless, the nine-year-old boy used to sit in the back of the classroom, relying on the large print on an electronic screen and assisted by teacher aides. Now, after a single injection of genes that produce light-sensitive pigments in the back of his eye, he sits in front with classmates and participates in class without extra help. In the playground, he joins his classmates in playing his first game of softball.
His treatment represents the next step toward medical science's goal of using gene therapy to cure disease. Extending a preliminary study published last year on three young adults, the full study reports successful, sustained results that showed notable improvement in children with congenital blindness.
The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Center for Cellular and Molecular Therapeutics at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, used gene therapy to safely improve vision in five children and seven adults with Leber's congenital amaurosis (LCA). The greatest improvements occurred in the children, all of whom are now able to navigate a low-light obstacle course—one result that the researchers call “spectacular.”
“This result is an exciting one for the entire field of gene therapy,” said Katherine A. High, M.D., co-first author of the study and the director of the Center for Cellular and Molecular Therapeutics, the facility that sponsored the clinical trial at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. High, an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a past president of the American Society of Gene Therapy, has been a pioneer in translational and clinical studies of gene therapy for genetic disease. “This study reports dramatic results in restoring vision to patients who previously had no options for treatment,” said High. “These findings may expedite development of gene therapy for more common retinal diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration.”
Although the patients did not attain normal eyesight, half of them (six of 12) improved enough that they may no longer be classified as legally blind. “The clinical benefits have persisted for nearly two years since the first subjects were treated with injections of therapeutic genes into their retinas,” said senior author Jean Bennett, M.D., Ph.D., F.M. Kirby professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. For Bennett, the results build on nearly 20 years of gene studies on hereditary blindness, starting with pioneering work in mice and dogs. “These remarkable results,” she added, “have laid a foundation for applying gene therapy not only to other forms of childhood-onset retinal disease, but also to more common retinal degenerations.”
In all, 12 patients received the gene therapy via a surgical procedure at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Each patient was injected with the therapeutic genes into the eye with poorer function. There were three patient cohorts, receiving low, middle and high doses. No serious adverse events occurred in any of the test subjects.
Starting two weeks after the injections, all 12 subjects reported improved vision in dimly lit environments in the injected eye. An objective measurement, which measures how the eye's pupil constricts, showed that all the subjects were able to detect significantly more light after treatment and also showed greater light sensitivity in each patient's treated eye compared to the untreated eye. In addition, before treatment, nine patients had nystagmus, an involuntary movement of the eyes that is common in LCA. After treatment, seven of them had significant improvements in nystagmus.
Some of the most dramatic results, captured on video by the researchers, are apparent as subjects traverse a standardized obstacle course. Before the treatment, the patients had great difficulty avoiding barriers, especially in dim light. After treatment, the children navigated the course more quickly, with fewer errors than before, even at the lowest light levels. Not all the adults performed better on the mobility course, and for those who did, the improvements were more modest compared to the children's.
The researchers will continue to monitor the patients to see if the treatment stops the progression of the disease, and in the future they also hope to investigate whether other diseases that impact the retina will be amenable to this type of gene therapy.
The study team reported their findings in The Lancet.
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