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New research: testing gene therapy

With extra large vectors on mini retinas 

Prof. Dr. Jan Wijnholds and promovendus Rossella Valenzano

Stichting Ushersyndroom [ Dutch Usher Syndrome Foundation] is funding the majority of the new research “Genetic drugs preventing blindness due to loss of USH2A function” which has recently started. The research team led by Jan Wijnholds, who works at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), will test two treatment methods on ‘mini-retinas’ made from human stem cells. The researchers want to determine if the light sensitive cells in the mini-retinas can be activated by the light-sensitive cells after administration of gene therapy. Can the USH2a gene in the retina be replaced or is it also possible to repair the defective gene at the same time?

 

Gene therapy looks very promising and developments in this area are moving very quickly. It is a treatment method for hereditary disorders where healthy copies of genes, with errors (= mutations) have been found, in patients are replaced or repaired in the cells of an organ.

Research shows that after gene therapy, the retina can make normal connections with other cells, which can lead to a light response again. After delivering a healthy copy of the gene or repairing the gene, the retina makes the proteins it needs to see properly. With gene therapy you treat the entire gene so that it does not matter what kind of mutations you have.

Means of transport for the large USH2A gene
In gene therapy, a healthy copy of the gene is delivered to a specific location in the retina of the eye using a molecular truck, or a means of transport. This is usually done using a virus that has first been rendered harmless so that a vector remains, a kind of ‘packaging’. The most commonly used vector is the adeno-associated viral vector (AAV).
However, there is a problem. The USH2A gene is much too large for a normal AAV vector, so another alternative must be sought to deliver the large healthy copy of the USH2A gene into a patient’s eye.

Large trucks as vector
Previously, in collaboration with Dr Manuel A.F.V Gonçalves (Department of Chemical Cell Biology), the researchers in Jan Wijnholds’ lab at the LUMC, have developed new vectors into which very large genes fit, the so-called High-Capacity Adenoviral Vectors (HcAdV).
The large USH2A gene fits completely into this vector. As a result, this vector can serve as a molecular truck and can be used as a vector for gene therapy.

Mini retinas
In the research project “Genetic drugs preventing blindness due to USH2A function”, human mutant USH2A iPSC retinal organoids are used to test several new high-DNA capacity gene therapy vectors. These USH2A ‘organoids’ are ‘mini-retinas’ made from cell lines derived from USH2A patients.

These ‘mini-retinas’ are used because they allow to study the effect of loss of USH2A protein (Usherin) in the cilium of the photoreceptor. The cilium transports the essential proteins in the retina. These ‘organoids’, made from patient cell lines, could also be used in the future to test gene therapy for retinal disorders due to mutations in other Usher genes.

Replace gene and/or edit gene
In the research project of Jan Wijnholds, two types of gene therapy are being tested on the ‘mini retinas’. The first type of therapy candidate is an HcAdV vector containing a healthy copy of the USH2A gene that, after delivery, replaces the defective USH2A gene in the retina. We call this gene replacement therapy. The healthy copy of the gene must activate the gene in the photoreceptors of the ‘mini retinas’, the ‘organoids’.

The second type of therapy candidate is an HcAdV vector containing ‘a repair kit’ and, after delivery into the retina, repairs the defective USH2A gene in the eye itself. This is also known as gene editing therapy, CRISPR-Cas9 is used for this. CRISPR are pieces of DNA with codes that can detect the defective gene. The Cas9 is an enzyme that ‘cuts’ out the defective gene and ‘sticks’ a new healthy piece of DNA in it.

Both the CRISPR and Cas9 are transported in a cassette and delivered into the retina by an HcAdV vector. The USH2A gene is edited and repaired at its destination.

Promises for large groups of patients
Both technologies for genetherapeutic application are not dependent on the type of mutations in the USH2A gene. If the USH2A gene is found to be expressed in the light-sensitive cells of the mini-retinas thanks to one or both techniques, the treatment may become available to all patients with USH2A. When more money becomes available for research for these two techniques , the research team of Jan Wijnholds could also test these for other Usher genes, and could possibly also be a solution for patients with mutations in Usher genes other than USH2A.

The mission of Stichting Ushersyndroom
Annouk van Nunen, secretary of Stichting Ushersyndroom, is very pleased with the start of this research. Stichting Ushersyndroom’s mission is “In 2025, Usher Syndrome will be treatable!”.Annouk: “We want all patients to have a realistic prospect in 2025 of a treatment that can slow down, stop or even restore the further deterioration of their hearing and vision”.

The big challenge for scientists is to explore multiple research routes in order to eventually develop a treatment for all people with Usher syndrome. Stichting Ushersyndroom therefore stimulates as many lines of research as possible, so that people with Usher Syndrome can make their dreams come true. “It is fantastic that so much research is being done into Usher Syndrome in the Netherlands. This type of research is hopeful for all USH2A patients. But if it works, it could also be a solution for patients with mutations in other Usher genes, Annouk van Nunen.

This four-year study, which started in November, has been budgeted at € 250.000. Stichting Ushersyndroom is contributing € 85.000 to this research. Other funds that have contributed are: Rotterdamse Stichting Blindenbelangen, LSBS, Stichting Blindenhulp and a partial contribution from the LUMC Ophthalmology Departmen