Major breakthroughs in ‘cure’ for cancer
*How keto diet helps treat condition, boost efficacy of chemotherapy
*Vigorous exercise benefits patients with advanced colorectal tumour
*Gene editing enters first human clinical trials to treat ailment, others
*Two-pronged gene therapy for glioblastoma proves safe in phase 1 test
Scientists have recorded four major breakthroughs in their search for a cure for cancers. First is the discovery of how keto diet helps to treat cancers and boost efficacy of chemotherapy. They found that regular exercise benefits patients with advanced colorectal cancer
Also, gene editing has entered first human clinical trials to treat cancers, blood disorders and blindness. Fourthly, a two-pronged gene therapy for glioblastoma has been demonstrated to be safe in phase 1 trial.
Glioblastoma, also known as glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), is the most aggressive cancer that begins within the brain. Initially, signs and symptoms of glioblastoma are non-specific. They may include headaches, personality changes, nausea, and symptoms similar to those of a stroke.
A new research in mice suggests that keeping blood sugar under control using either the ketogenic diet or a diabetes drug could help treat certain cancers by boosting the efficacy of standard chemotherapy.
The ketogenic diet consists of high fat foods, foods that contain an adequate amount of protein, and a very low amount of carbohydrates. Normally, the human body gets its main source of energy (sugar) from carbs.
However, the ketogenic diet deprives the body of glucose, inducing a state of “ketosis.” During ketosis, the body is forced to break down stored fat instead of sugar to produce an alternative source of energy.
The ketogenic, or “keto,” diet has been around for centuries. Traditionally, some have used it as a therapy for conditions such as diabetes and epilepsy.
Newer studies have started to examine the therapeutic potential of the keto diet for other conditions, such as cancer, polycystic ovary syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disorder that causes brain cells to waste away (degenerate) and die. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia — a continuous decline in thinking, behavioral and social skills that disrupts a person’s ability to function independently.
For instance, recent research has suggested that the keto diet could complement standard cancer therapies such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
The diet could boost the power of conventional cancer treatment by selectively inducing metabolic oxidative stress in cancer cells, but not in normal ones.
Interfering with cancer cells’ ability to metabolize sugar could make oncolytic viruses more effective at killing them.
Other studies have also suggested that certain cancers are heavily reliant on glucose for energy. So, restricting cancer cells’ access to sugar may be a valid way of sensitizing them to chemotherapy.
New research explores the keto diet as a potential avenue for cancer treatment. Jung-Whan Kim, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, is the corresponding author of the new study.
Using a mouse model of lung and esophageal cancer, Kim and colleagues restricted the rodents’ levels of circulating glucose by feeding them a ketogenic diet and administering them a diabetes drug that stops the kidneys from reabsorbing blood sugar.
The researchers have published their paper in the journal Cell Reports. Meng-Hsiung Hsieh is the first author.
Also, patients with metastatic colorectal cancer who engaged in moderate exercise while undergoing chemotherapy tended to have delayed progression of their disease and fewer severe side effects from treatment, according to the results of a new study. Even low-intensity exercise, such as walking four or more hours a week, was associated with a nearly 20 percent reduction in cancer progression or death over the course of the six-year study, said researchers from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, reporting in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The analysis hinted at a possible lengthening of survival in patients who reported greater physical activity, but the data were not statistically significant.
“What we found was that people who engaged in some type of physical activity had a statistically significant improvement in progression-free survival (PFS),” said Jeffrey A. Meyerhardt, MD, MPH, of Dana-Farber, senior author of the study. “While there may also be an impact on overall survival, it was not statistically significant — and should be studied further.”
“Physically active patients in our study also appeared to tolerate chemotherapy better,” said Brendan Guercio, MD, first author of the study which was conducted while he was working as a hospitalist at Brigham and Women’s. “Total physical activity equivalent to 30 or more minutes of moderate daily activity was associated with a 27 percent reduction in severe treatment-related toxicities.”
Previous studies have found that regular exercise can reduce the risk of disease recurrence and death from colon cancer that has not metastasized to other parts of the body.
Researchers say this is the first study to examine associations of physical activity with survival in advanced, metastatic colorectal cancer.
Meanwhile, since its debut in 2012, CRISPR gene editing has held the promise of curing most of the over 6,000 known genetic diseases. Now it is being put to the test.
In the first spate of clinical trials, scientists are using CRISPR/Cas9 to combat cancer and blood disorders in people. In these tests, researchers remove some of a person’s cells, edit the DNA and then inject the cells back in, now hopefully armed to fight disease. Researchers are also set to see how CRISPR/Cas9 works inside the human body. In an upcoming trial, people with an inherited blindness will have the molecular scissors injected into their eyes.
Those tests, if successful, could spur future trials for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis and a wide variety of other genetic diseases, affecting millions of people worldwide.
“CRISPR is so intriguing,” said Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at the University of Chicago Divinity School, “and so elegant.”
But big questions remain about whether CRISPR/Cas9 can live up to the hype. Other previously promising technologies have fallen short. For instance, stem cell injections helped paralyzed rats walk again. But they didn’t work so well for people, Zoloth said.
Conventional gene therapies, which insert healthy copies of genes to replace or counteract disease-causing versions, also suffered severe setbacks, says Ronald Conlon, a geneticist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Some kids who had therapy for immune defects developed cancers; a blindness therapy worked temporarily, but couldn’t halt disease progression; and, most devastatingly, participants died — including 18-year-old Jesse Gelsinger in 1999 — while taking part in gene therapy trials.
Meanwhile, a phase 1 clinical trial has demonstrated that a two-step gene therapy treatment was safe and effective in 31 patients with recurrent glioblastoma – a stubborn form of brain cancer – potentially overcoming a major hurdle that has hindered the use of systemically administered interleukin 12 (IL-12)-based regimens.
The therapy boosted the infiltration of immune cells into tumors and showed encouraging preliminary benefits, indicating it has promise as a treatment for patients with this usually fatal disease. Glioblastoma has several approved treatments, but there are currently no curative options.
Studies have found that interleukin 12 (IL-12) – an antitumor molecule – has beneficial effects against cancer, but IL-12 cannot be administered systemically due to its unfavorable safety profile. In search of a much-needed treatment alternative, E. Antonio Chiocca and colleagues developed an approach that leverages the anticancer benefits of IL-12, while limiting its toxicity. Their two-step approach (conducted after surgical removal of the tumor) involves injecting the tumor site with a viral vector that delivers the gene for IL-12, followed by oral administration of a drug candidate named veledimex that triggers the production of IL-12.
In a multicenter phase 1 trial, the regimen boosted IL-12 production in the brains of 31 patients with recurrent glioblastoma while limiting the amount of IL-12 that entered systemic circulation. Although some patients exhibited serious side effects, they were easily reversed after discontinuing the treatment and were less severe in patients receiving lower doses of veledimex.
Antitumor immune cells penetrated the tumor more effectively after treatment, and the scientists saw signs that the therapy may have boosted overall survival. Patients who received restricted doses of the corticosteroid dexamethasone throughout IL-12 treatment showed greater survival benefits, hinting that limiting corticosteroid use could maximize the benefits of IL-12 treatment and similar immunotherapies.
Meanwhile, CRISPR’s reputation was tarnished last year after a researcher in China edited a gene in embryos that went on to develop into two baby girls in 2018. The current CRISPR trials don’t have the same ethical challenges — the therapies are being tested in adults and children, and won’t lead to DNA changes that can be inherited, says Alan Regenberg, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Still, he said, there is reason for caution when working with humans.
CRISPR/Cas9 is a re-engineered virus-hunter, originally developed by bacteria. In 2012 and 2013, scientists described how the system could be tweaked to cut DNA in precise locations, and then demonstrated how it could be deployed in human and animal cells. A piece of RNA — a single-stranded genetic molecule similar to DNA — is the CRISPR part and guides an enzyme called Cas9 to particular spots in the genetic instruction book, or genome. The enzyme slices through both strands of the DNA double helix. Cuts can be used to disable certain genes, snip out troublesome DNA or even repair a problem.
But CRISPR sometimes goes to the wrong spot, resulting in unwanted edits, or “off-target effects”. Even with intended cuts, unwanted errors can arise. “We don’t always fully understand the changes we’re making,” Regenberg said. “Even if we do make the changes we want to make, there’s still question about whether it will do what we want and not do things we don’t want.”
Still, CRISPR is more precise than conventional gene therapy and therefore may have the power to treat some diseases for which gene therapy hasn’t worked well, says Conlon, who discussed challenges to gene editing for cystic fibrosis in the June Genes & Diseases. But another big hurdle, he said, is getting CRISPR into the cells where it is needed.
Delivery is less of a problem for the gene-editing therapies in trials to treat cancer and blood disorders, Conlon says. That’s because, for those trials, researchers don’t have to set CRISPR/Cas9 loose in the body. Instead, they take blood-forming stem cells out of participants and edit those cells in lab dishes, where the scientists can check for problems.
University of Pennsylvania researchers have given two people with recurring cancers a CRISPR/Cas9 therapy, a university spokesperson said. One person has multiple myeloma; the other, sarcoma. As part of an ongoing trial, both received T cells, a type of immune cell, programmed with CRISPR to go after cancer cells.
Trials are also under way for two blood disorders: sickle-cell disease and beta-thalassemia. Both result from defects in the gene for hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells. The therapy is designed to mimic a fix that nature has already devised, said David Altshuler, chief scientist at Vertex Pharmaceuticals. Usually, a form of hemoglobin that helps fetuses in the womb grab more oxygen from their mother’s blood stops being produced after birth. But some people have a harmless genetic variant that causes fetal hemoglobin to be produced throughout life. “People like that who also inherited a sickle-cell mutation or a beta-thalassemia mutation weren’t sick,” Altshuler said.
The foetal hemoglobin compensates for the disease-causing defect, something Vertex, a cystic fibrosis drugmaker headquartered in Boston and London, hopes to use to sickle-cell sufferers’ advantage. Vertex and CRISPR Therapeutics, a company in Cambridge, Mass., are testing whether CRISPR/Cas9 cuts can mimic the genetic variant that keeps fetal hemoglobin turned on for life and ease symptoms in people with the blood disorders. “We’re very confident that the edits that are being made in the cells are translating into clear and reproducible increases in fetal hemoglobin,” Altshuler said.
Researchers check for both off-target cuts and mutations at the desired cutting site before giving cells back to the study volunteers via a bone marrow transplant, Altshuler said.
The companies announced in February that they had treated one person for beta-thalassemia. Another person has undergone the same type of therapy for sickle-cell disease, researchers said in July. The scientists have not yet announced results from these trials.
Still, many genetic diseases affect the whole body or organs that can’t be removed and edited in a lab. No one knows whether CRISPR can work well in the human body. But a clinical trial using the gene editor to treat an inherited type of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis 10 may help answer the question. The disorder is caused by a mutation in the CEP290 gene that leads to a nonfunctional protein. When the protein doesn’t work, rod cells in the retina die and light-gathering photoreceptors can’t renew themselves, resulting in blindness.
There is a gene therapy, approved in 2017 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for a type of Leber congenital amaurosis caused by a mutation in the RPE65 gene. But CEP290 is too big to pack into a virus to do conventional gene therapy, says Charles Albright, chief scientist of Editas Medicine, a company based in Cambridge, Mass., that develops CRISPR gene editing for various genetic diseases.
In July, Editas and global pharmaceutical company Allergan opened recruitment for a blindness gene-editing trial. In the trial, two guide RNAs will lead Cas9 to make two cuts that will snip out the troublesome piece of DNA.
The first people to get the experimental therapy will be adults who are nearly blind, Albright said. Small amounts of the CRISPR editor will be injected under the retina to test for safety. It’s uncertain whether the low doses will improve vision. If the doses prove safe, later volunteers will get higher doses. The researchers may also test the therapy in children.
“We’re going into arguably the most difficult patients to start with and we’re going to improve from there,” Albright said.
Editing as few as 10 percent of retinal cells may help restore some sight, he says. In animal tests, CRISPR edited up to about 60 percent of cells in mice and almost 28 percent in monkeys, scientists reported in the February Nature Medicine.
Even if these first trials don’t pan out as hoped, CRISPR won’t be shelved, Albright thinks. “This is a technology that’s here to stay,” he says. “If this doesn’t work, it’s going to be more about the underlying biology or our ability to deliver the editing machinery.”
There’s precedence that perseverance — and choosing the right disease to target — can eventually pay off. After setbacks, conventional gene therapy has recently had a big success.
In May, the FDA approved a gene therapy for children with spinal muscular atrophy, a debilitating and deadly genetic disease caused by a mutation that disables the SMN1 gene. That gene is needed for specialized nerve cells called motor neurons to survive and function properly. Children with the genetic disease often die because the muscles that control breathing fail. The FDA said August 6 that it had been alerted to problems with data manipulation from animal testing of the therapy. But the agency says that the therapy is working well in humans and should stay on the market.
“These kids with SMA who otherwise would have died are up and running and talking and learning and progressing,” Conlon said. “It is just mind-blowing.”
When it comes to gene editing, researchers are banking on similar happy endings. “People are so optimistic and so hopeful again,” Zoloth said. “I want it to work. Everyone who thinks seriously about human suffering should really be wanting this to happen and should be optimistic … about medicine’s capacity and its power.”