HIV therapy today and motivation for gene-based stem cell therapies
The treatment of HIV has made tremendous progress. Once a certain death sentence, for those with access it has instead largely become a chronic infection that can be kept in check with cocktails of small molecules targeting a variety of stages in the viral life-cycle (highly active antiretroviral therapies or hAART). Nevertheless, the need for taking daily pills for life comes at the cost of side effects, generally reduced quality of life, and the emergence of viral resistances. There is no cure yet for HIVAIDS.
Actually, there might be one example of a cure for HIV. In 2006, an AIDS leukemia patient, aka the
In hindsight, this result did not come totally as a surprise. CCR5 had been known to be an important entry receptor for the common CCR5-tropic HIV isolates. Epidemiologic evidence gathered in the mid 90s indicated that people with certain CCR5 deletions on both chromosomes were protected from HIV infection, and those with a CCR5 defect on only one chromosome had, on average, delayed disease progression and improved life expectancies. In fact, this research led to the development and recent approval of a class of drugs blocking the CCR5 protein (e.g. Maraviroc by Pfizer).
There remains, however, great interest in developing gene-based stem cell medicines against CCR5 (and other HIV viral and host targets) in the hope of generating HIV medicines with less side effects, reduced chance of viral resistance (one way of HIV resistance to drugs targeting the CCR5 protein is to bind to CCR5 in the presence of drug), and maybe even a cure. The
Two possible mechanisms by which such a strategy may succeed are based on eradication of HIV-permissive cells as they are killed off by the virus while the CCR5-impaired cells persist, or by improving the immune function of CCR5-impaired cells thereby allowing them to fight HIV infection in other places.
City of Hope/Benitec and the first DNA-directed RNAi Therapeutic for HIV
Calimmune’s ddRNAi candidate is not the first one for HIV. The City of
The expression cassettes were placed in a shared lentiviral vector and thus introduced ex vivo, i.e. outside the body, into hematopoietic stem cells isolated from the enrolled AIDS lymphoma patients. Because hematopoietic stem cell transplantation with full bone marrow ablation is associated with risks, but is standard second-line therapy for AIDS-related lymphoma, this patient population was chosen so that the trial participants would simultaneously receive a treatment benefit for their lymphoma while participating in this experimental trial. As an added measure of precaution, the majority of hematopoietic stem cells were left untreated and given together with the modified stem cells to ensure that the immune system would be reconstituted even if something went wrong with the gene therapy.
Four patients were treated per protocol in the phase I trial. Unfortunately, while there was no obvious significant adverse event as a result of the gene therapy, the molecular analyses indicated that rHIV-shl-TAR-CCR5RZ may not be the most promising RNA therapeutics candidate for HIV. Specifically, while the initial transduction efficiency was in line with what would have been expected for lentiviral delivery (~20%, see X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy trial here), the transduced cell population declined rapidly and the ones that persisted were just about detectable- too few to be therapeutically promising.
If this candidate were to be further developed, an important goal would be to increase the fraction of stem cells that are modified. This could either be by improving the transduction efficiency, by only providing stem cells that were treated with lentivirus instead of providing the untreated stem cells as a backup, or by using a protocol that chemically selects for the modified stem cells after their re-infusion. Still, I am skeptical that this would solve the problem as in light of other lentiviral and retroviral clinical experiences the observed decline in transduced cells seemed to be specific to rHIV-shl-TAR-CCR5RZ. It is therefore possible that some inherent toxicity of the expression cassette itself, possibly due to the use of U6 promoters, accounted for the poor long-term persistence of modified stem cells.
The Calimmune approach: A non-toxic, H1-driven shRNA targeting CCR5
The reason why I feel that Calimmune’s approach may have better prospects is that it has fully accounted for the U6-related shRNA toxicities and selected an H1 promoter-based RNAi expression cassette that was shown to be both safe/stable and, equally important, highly efficient in CCR5 knockdown in human and rhesus HSC-derived cells. Also, I like the fact that it is an RNAi trigger, and not a ribozyme, that is targeting CCR5, as I believe this to be the more efficient knockdown modality.
While Calimmune has yet to fully disclose their eventual clinical candidate, the one reservation that I have about the putative candidate at this time is that they may have failed to take advantage of the combinatorial potential of RNAi Therapeutics. With combinatorial potential I do not necessarily mean here combining ddRNAi with other RNA (like CoH/Benitec) or protein expression modalities- in fact, it may be scientifically 'cleaner' to use just RNAi for now- but targeting at least two HIV-related genes instead of one to minimize the emergence of viral resistance.
The panels on the left depict what in my mind have been the most impressive dataset from the development program. It shows the results from a rhesus monkey model in which the ddRNAi trigger was introduced into blood stem cells from two monkeys (RQ3570 and RQ5427 for those with good eyes) which (panel A) led to solid, long-term (!) 6-20% cell marking in the various cell lineages of the blood. Moreover, when the cells were sorted into those that were transduced (black bars, panel B) versus those that were not (grey bars, panel B) and the CCR5 levels measured in the respective cell populations, the CCR5 was found to be down-regulated by 80-90% in the transduced cells. And since your experiment is only as good as your negative controls, data from a control animal that received a lentivirus without the RNAi trigger (2RC003) show no differences in CCR5 levels between the two cell populations.
While I have yet to see the obligatory HIV in vivo challenge studies with this putative candidate, based on CCR5 genetics, a candidate with such transduction levels and knockdown potencies should stand a good chance at improving CD4+ T-cell counts for enhanced immune system vigor and delaying or maybe even eradicating HIV over time.
It is debatable to what degree a full CCR5 knockout compared to a highly potent CCR5 knockdown would bring additional benefits. Sangamo Biosciences for example has made tremendous progress in increasing the efficiency of gene disruption using their Zinc Finger Nuclease technology. Not surprisingly, this company also has a CCR5 hematopoietic stem cell candidate in the early pipeline. In a 2010 Nature Biotechnology paper, Sangamo reported an estimated frequency of 5-7% homozygous CCR5 gene disruption in human hematopoietic stem cells, and another 10% heterozygous gene disruptions.
Simplistically, taking upper estimates, ddRNAi may provide for 90% CCR5 knockdown in 20% of cells whereas ZFN technology may delete CCR5 altogether in 7% of cells and knockdown CCR5 by half in another 10%. Because these numbers are close and a clean knockout in some cells may make up for the slightly decreased overall knockdown levels, I would be even more excited to see Calimmune's current lead candidate paired with at least another shRNAi trigger, thereby exploiting said combinatorial potential of ddRNAi Therapeutics which ZFNs cannot provide as easily.
Benitec, of course, will follow Calimmune’s developments with great interest as the company has rights to critical ddRNAi trigger patents. Curiously, both companies are based in
License or not, it will be good for the entire field of RNAi Therapeutics, and ddRNAi Therapeutics in particular, for this trial to get underway in 2012 as it should attract significant general interest to a what looks like a solid RNAi Therapeutics candidate.
Acknowledgement: The idea for this blog came from a reader that alerted me to this interesting RNAi Therapeutics candidate that had flown below my radar, and maybe also to placate another reader that complained that the Tekmira-Alnylam feud was taking up too much space and there were other interesting things happening, especially in ddRNAi Therapeutics. So if you know of exciting RNAi Therapeutics developments that you believe I may be missing, please let me know by email (first name dot last name at gmail dot com). In most cases, I won’t be able to write about it immediately, but it won’t be forgotten either.
Update: On March 5, 2012, Calimmune acquired a global, non-exclusive license from Benitec to use ddRNAi in HIV/AIDS.