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New type of Usher Syndrome discovered: USH IV   

The team of the Hearing & Genes Expert Centre of Radboudumc lately made a discovery: Usher Syndrome includes four different clinical types. The researchers, with Hedwig Velde as principal author, recently published their study and findings in the leading Human Genetics. With the identification of minor faults (mutations) in the ARSG gene and the description of a new clinical picture, they confirm the discovery of a fourth type of Usher Syndrome. 

This really is an important discovery, which gives more clarity about a number of patients with atypical Usher complaints without a genetic diagnosis. In the meantime, following the identification of ARSG as Usher gene, globally fifteen people have still been diagnosed, now that they all appear to have mutations in the ARSG gene. As it has been demonstrated that these patients have a common pattern of symptoms, this is no longer an atypical picture, but it makes up a new clinical type.       

A patient with an atypical clinical picture
Very rarely a patients visits the outpatients’ clinic showing symptoms that correspond with the clinical picture of Usher Syndrome (loss of hearing combined with retinitis pigmentosa), but which picture deviates from the familiar Usher types. This is called an atypical clinical picture. In some cases no generic cause is found in the Usher genes that are known so far. Consequentially, these patients are unfortunately sent home again without having been diagnosed (and without any clarity). 

Hedwig velde

 Hedwig Velde is researcher and doctoral candidate at the ENT section Hearing & Genes of the Radboudumc. She is studying patients who suffer from loss of hearing but who have not been genetically diagnosed. With her research team she confirmed a new Usher Syndrome type, which is caused by minor faults in the ARSG gene.  

A publication from the year 2018 written by a group of scientists in Israel described the discovery of the ARSG gene with Arylsulfatase G as a protein that might be involved with Usher Syndrome. The researchers from Israel described five persons from three families who all had the same minor fault in the ARSG gene. Such a publication may give other researchers ideas for their studies.  

Studying the DNA of several people within one family sharing the same symptoms is a big help for scientists. Hedwig Velde: “There is a big chance that all patients within the family share the same genetic cause. When outside the family that has been studied another patient is found with the same atypical clinical picture and a minor fault in the same gene, this may confirm the relation between the gene and the clinical picture. Of course, the chance of coming across this patient is really small. Usher Syndrome is very rare.”  

Until the national Expert Centre in the Radboud UMC saw a patient with this atypical clinical picture of Usher Syndrome and Hedwig Velde and other researchers in the Radboud UMC continued the study that was started by the team in Israel in 2018.    

New type now confirmed
With the publication of Hedwig Velde c.s. the researchers confirmed this new type. The researchers found minor faults in the same gene (the ARSG gene), which creates the codes for the Arylsulfatase G protein. This protein is involved in the degradation of another protein and the idea is that malfunctioning of Arylsulfatase G will lead to an adverse accumulation of the protein that normally should be destroyed. With this study the research team also demonstrated that the minor faults in the ARSG gene that have been found really result in a non-functioning protein.  

The clinical picture of the type does not fit in with the already known Usher types I, II and III. Apart from a later starting age of both the loss of hearing and the retinitis pigmentosa, the ophthalmic defects are more centrally located. This means that the vision problems with these patients rather occur in the central part of the field of vision as opposed to the other Usher types, which usually show problems in the outer part of the field of vision (the periphery). As the clinical picture is consistent with all USH IV patients, researchers of the Radboud UMC are of the opinion that this is not atypical Usher, but a new clinical type: Usher Syndrome type 4.   

Hedwig: “By publishing these findings, we as researchers hope to start up a discussion in the scientific world. Various studies may together lead to the confirmation that the findings are correct or, in some cases, rebut these findings. In case of USH IV it is the accumulation of evidence in several publications that enables us to confirm that this clinical type really is a new Usher type.”    

By now, globally several patients have been diagnosed for this Usher Syndrome type and for minor faults in the same ARSG gene. Previously, these patients used to be categorised in the group ‘diagnosis unknown with atypical Usher symptoms’.    

The course of Usher Syndrome type IV
Both the loss of hearing and the complaints related to retinitis pigmentosa start at a later age with people suffering from USH IV. Patients started to develop complaints concerning hardness of hearing between the ages of 20 and 40 and the retinitis pigmentosa between the ages of 40 and 60. Based on the audiograms of USH IV patients, the research team has been able to calculate that the loss of hearing starts about the age of 17.  

The course and the progressiveness are not necessarily milder than with the other Usher types. “We still have little insight into the course of USH IV, because only fifteen patients have been described and we therefore have to base our findings on this small group.” 

Genetic tests or not?
With this discovery the researchers of the Radboudumc have managed to fit in yet another piece of the ‘Usher puzzle’.” Thanks to this, a part of the patients with an unknown diagnosis will eventually be given clarity and this is really important to this group of patients.  

Unfortunately, there still are people for whom the Usher-related symptoms cannot be confirmed by a diagnosis. This makes genetic tests so important!    

The physicians indicate that, of course, the choice is still to be made by the patient. One patient attaches a lot of value to a confirmation by means of genetic tests, while another does not.  
Hedwig: “There are various reasons to have genetic tests done or not. An advantage of a genetic diagnosis is that with this the development of a disorder can better be predicted and that this may help the patient to adapt to the situation. Imagine that you are hard of hearing at a young age and that there is a small chance of becoming visually impaired. However, if you know that you will be visually impaired, then you had better concentrate on the kind of care that will help you both early and later in life. For instance, in this case learning sign language will not be a long-term solution for your loss of hearing, but good hearing aids may make a substantial contribution.”  

Genetic tests will also help the scientific world to get further. For example, as scientific research allows for comparing the DNA of various patients, new genetic causes can be discovered. Besides, this offers a possibility for meticulously mapping out the relation between a minor fault in a gene and the corresponding complaints.
Hedwig: “Because of this, future patients can be better informed about their diagnoses. On the other hand, it is also important for any future genetic treatments to know the exact underlying deviations in the DNA.”    

Usher Syndrome: 4 types and 11 genes involved
In 2022, type IV and the ARSG gene will be added to the list of Usher types and genes involved in the development of Usher Syndrome. So at this moment, Usher Syndrome distinguishes 4 types with 11 different genes involved. [Ed.: This evidence is not entirely conclusive for USH1J (CIB2) yet]
For all these genes scientific evidence has been provided that minor faults (mutations) in these genes will result in Usher Syndrome.    

The Knowledge Portal of the Usher Syndrome Foundation provides a complete overview of the genes with the names of the ‘protein involved’.     

Here you can read the publication of the article by Hedwig Velde c.s. in Human Genetics.  

 

Moon-Rocket Grant

Usher Syndrome Foundation Grant Call:
The Moon-Rocket Grant

The use of the word ‘Ushers’ for people with Usher syndrome is meant with a wink and refers to the meaning of the English word ‘Ushers’. People with Usher syndrome are the messengers of an important story or message.

The ‘Ushers’ tell what they need, what kind of help they need, what they find important and how they experience their life with Usher syndrome.

Currently, there is no treatment available for 400.000 ‘Ushers’ in the world. What is needed for the ‘Ushers’ is more knowledge and research into the Usher Syndrome. That is why Stichting Ushersyndroom [Dutch Usher Syndrome Foundation] awards the Moon-Rocked Grant: € 100,000 for research into Usher Syndrome.

The Moon-Rocket Grant
The goal of the Moon-Rocket Grant of the Usher Syndrome Foundation is to realize our formulated moonshot: “a cure for Usher in 2025!”.

The Moon-Rocket Grant is intended to financially support research into Usher Syndrome (any form or subtype).
All research proposals submitted must fit into one of the four core values ​​the Usher Syndrome Foundation has defined by:

  • Treatment
  • Understanding
  • Diagnostics
  • Impact

The Moon-Rocket Grant will award a maximum of €100,000 per research. If there are several eligible projects, more projects can be funded. A maximum of € 200,000 is available for financing.

For more information click on the buttons below.

MOON-ROCKET GRANT FLYER GRANT CALL APPLICATION FORM

Do you have any questions or would you like to receive the application form in Word version? Mail to research@ushersyndroom.nl

Minigenes USH2A: General status

By Erwin van Wijk, lead researcher Radboudumc

Errors in the code of the USH2A gene explain the development of Usher syndrome in about 50% of all patients.
In addition to Usher syndrome, these errors can also lead to non-syndromic Retinitis Pigmentosa; loss of sight but without the hearing problems.
The USH2A gene contains the code for the protein usherin. After translation, the mistakes in the genetic code of USH2A also end up in the usherin protein, with the result that this protein loses its function and people lose their sight (and hearing). Giving patients a new copy of the USH2A gene that does not contain these errors could be an obvious solution. This is the principle of gene therapy.

However, for USH2A this is not as easy as it sounds.

New copies of genes are delivered with inactivated viruses, into which the genes are packaged. These viruses can be seen as small trucks. However, the loading platforms of the viruses are small. So small, in fact, that the USH2A gene simply doesn’t fit. Developing a classical gene therapy for USH2A is therefore extremely difficult from a technical point of view.

As an alternative, we have the “genetic patch” methodology, also known as exon skipping. The first patch tested is performed on patients tested in clinical trials.

Good news, but only for a limited target audience. QR-421a works for people with errors in a specific part of the USH2A gene: exon 13. This method can be extended to other USH2A genes and even to other Usher genes, but always remains only applicable for a limited number of patients.

Is there no alternative?

A few years ago we started with a new idea: can we not artificially shrink the USH2A gene, so that it fits in the loading platform of a virus and can therefore be delivered to the place where it is needed and can be used by all people with USH2A-related retinitis pigmentosa?

The main advantage is that, if effective, this method may be of value to all patients with USH2A-related retinal problems. The project “Minigenes USH2A” was born and made possible in part by a contribution from the Dutch Usher Syndrome Foundation (Stichting Ushersyndroom).

Four shortened USH2A genes were made and inserted into the retina of the USH2A zebrafish model. The shortened usherin proteins made from these minigenes in the zebrafish eye ended up in the right place in the light-sensitive cells of the retina, rods and cones. Functional tests by measuring electroretinograms (= ERG) indicate that these mini-usherin proteins are indeed (partially) functional. We have patented these results. How well they work remains to be investigated, but it is a promising starting point for further developing this method.

In the meantime, we are also looking into cultured cells to see where these mini-proteins go and whether they do not accumulate in a place where we would not want this. Fish, of course, are not people. It is therefore important to translate these results into models that are closer to humans.

We are currently trying to establish a partnership with a company that can help us take these important next steps.

Read also:

Swim at night and take a nap during the day

Zebrafishes suffering from USH2A have a disturbed sleep rhythm

Are patients suffering from Usher Syndrome so tired because of the huge efforts made in connection with their poor hearing and eyesight or is something else going on? Researchers in the Radboudumc try to find an answers to this question. There are indications that perhaps there is more going on, a genetic cause. The people of the Radboudumc have been busy trying to unravel Usher Syndrome for decades already. This summer, the research into ‘The recognition of sleeping problems with patients with the USH2A gene’ will start. Stichting Ushersyndroom (Dutch Usher Syndrome Foundation) will finance a large part of this study.

Researchers have used the zebrafish model since several years. In the laboratory of the Radboudumc both healthy zebrafishes and fishes suffering from Usher Syndrome are swimming about. Researchers noticed that the sleeping pattern shown by the fishes with a mutated USH2A gene differs from that of their healthy congeners. Actually, they sleep more often during the day and less often at night. According to Erwin, project leader of the zebrafish lab and engaged in research into Usher Syndrome for years already, the sleeping fishes are quite remarkable. It is day, there is sufficient light in the aquarium and the eyesight of the fishes is still good enough to be able to properly see light and dark. Still, they regularly fall asleep during the day.

Sleep-wake rhythm
The sleep-wake rhythm is strongly controlled by light. The retina sends signals to the pineal gland in the brains to make the sleeping hormone melatonin when the light intensity decreases. It is known that a decreasing light perception can disturb this system. However, RP patients regularly mention sleeping problems and fatigue in an early stage already, independent of the seriousness of their visual impairment.

Fatigue
Usher Syndrome is also called ‘fragmentary observation’: both hearing and seeing are done in small fragments that subsequently have to be made into a whole. This is hard work for the brain. Therefore it is not surprising that many people suffering from Usher Syndrome are tired quickly and have a higher chance of getting overstimulated and loosing energy. The energy-absorbing process of continuously compensating the one sense with the other leads to fatigue.

Sleep enables the body to recover, such as replenish energy sources, adjust muscles and other cells and reduce stress. While sleeping, we also process all we have seen, heard and done during the day. The brains are stimulated all day and have to process all this information.

Quality of sleep
The quality of sleep depends on the deep sleep, the so-called REM sleep. This makes the body recover. A good night’s rest means quickly falling asleep and sleeping all night through. In case of insufficient REM sleep, you do not feel refreshed well when you have to get up. Non-optimal REM sleep over a longer period will lead to chronic fatigue with a risk of other physical complaints.

Not tired at all
At the end of the day, when it begins to grow dark and the lights are switched off in the zebrafish lab, the last round is made in the lab. Many fishes have become less active already and are hanging around in the water without moving. They also do not react when Erwin van Wijk is walking along the aquariums.

When visiting the zebrafish lab in the evenings, he tries to make as little noise as possible and the lights are dimmed. When he switches off the lights to close the lab and leaves the lab, some groups of zebrafishes stay awake and active. The zebrafishes with mutations in the USH2A gene are not going to sleep, they are not yet tired at all.

Expression in the pineal gland
The most frequently mutated RP genes (USH2A and EYS) are both highly expressed in the pineal gland of various animal models. Researchers show that the proteins of these genes involved are not only present in large quantities in the eyes and ears, but in the pineal gland as well. This may mean that the proteins concerned also play an important role in the pineal gland and in the regulation of the day and night rhythm.

Zebrafishes with mutations in the USH2A gene show a deviating sleep-wake rhythm, while these test animals hardly show any retina degeneration.
Based on these findings researchers suspect that the sleeping problems of these groups of patients are the cause of the disorder and not just the consequence of a reduced visual function.

Comprehend
A treatment for sleep-related complaints with people who have mutations in the USH2A and EYS genes, may substantially improve their quality of life. In this project clinical and fundamental research are combined in order to comprehend these problems. The common results of these two research lines may give some tools to improve the care of patients suffering from RP and Usher Syndrome together with ophthalmologists and sleep experts.

Various research institutes are involved in this project: the Radboudumc under the leadership of Erwin van Wijk, Slaap/Waakcentrum SEIN, Hospital Gelderse Vallei, Radboud University and the Donders Institute.

This four-year study will start this summer and the costs are estimated to be € 285.000,=.  Stichting Ushersyndroom (Dutch Usher Syndrome Foundation) makes a contribution of € 125.000 with co-financing by the Dutch Dr. Vaillantfonds. Other funds that have contributed are: LSBS, ANVVB, Support Fund UitZicht (Beheer ’t Schild), the Gelderse Blindenstichting, FNWI/IWWR.

Onderzoekers en patiënten met Ushersyndroom overhandigen een cheuq ter warde van €285.000 voor het slaaponderzoek. Ze staan voor de kast met aquaria met zebravissen.

In the zebrafish lab Radboudumc. From left to right: Erik de Vrieze, Thijs Bouwman, Niels Bouwman, Ivonne Bressers. Jessie Hendricks, Devran Braam, Erwin van Wijk and Juriaan Metz.

Stichting Ushersyndroom [Dutch Usher Syndrome Foundation] Awards Grant to Usher III Initiative to Support Patient Database

A global Usher III patient (USH3) database for future clinical trials

This year, the North-American foundation Usher III Initiative has taken preliminary steps towards collecting the information necessary to establish the first comprehensive global USH3 patient database. This resource will be critical to the design of future clinical trials and will significantly advance knowledge of the disease and its impact on patients. Dr Ronald Pennings from the Radboudumc is one of several physicians and experts around the world collaborating with the Initiative in this effort. 

Cindy Elden and her father Richard, co-founders of the Usher III Initiative

Usher III Initiative
Usher III Initiative is a US based non-profit organization dedicated to developing a treatment for Usher Syndrome type 3 a rare genetic disorder characterized by progressive loss of both hearing and vision. It is estimated that over 400.000 people around the world suffer from Usher Syndrome, of which type 1 and 2 are the most common types. Only 2 percent of the patient population suffers from USH3, which is most prevalent among Finnish and Ashkenazi Jewish populations. 

Preliminary clinical trial design
The Initiative has developed BF844, a new therapeutic candidate for the treatment of USH3.
The Initiative is completing pre-clinical toxicity studies to demonstrate that BF844 can be safely administered in humans in compliance with US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations. They expect that clinical trials will commence in 2022. These studies are supported by a $1M grant the Initiative recently received from the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

Consortium
Together with the Usher III Initiative and a global consortium of physicians, Dr Ronald Pennings will participate in the establishment of the USH III Patient Database. “Aggregating comprehensive genetic and  clinical data on USH3 patients is necessary to determine inclusion and eligibility criteria as well as the most effective design for clinical trials.”, commented Cindy Elden, President and Co-Founder of the Initiative and an USH3 patient.

Collaboration
Stichting Ushersyndroom [Dutch Usher Syndrome Foundation] has committed to making a $ 10,000 contribution to support this effort. This grant aligns with the mission of the Stichting Ushersyndroom, to find treatments for all types of Usher syndrome.  

“Usher Syndrome is a serious disorder, which has a deep impact on the lives of patients and their social environments.  We want to stop this disorder from the bottom of our hearts”, commented Ivonne Bressers, chairwoman and co-founder of the Stichting Ushersyndroom and USH2 patient. “We are happy to be able to participate in an international study for USH3-patients.”

Cindy Elden: “On behalf of the Usher III initiative, but also personally, I find it very inspiring to meet other people with Usher syndrome who would like to be active in the search for a treatment for all of us!”

The consortium will not be collecting any information that identifies specific patients, so the database cannot be used to recruit participants for clinical trials. Patients interested in participating in future clinical trials are encouraged to register with My Retina Tracker and the Ush Trust. Once trial investigators and sites have been identified, treating physicians may also recommend individual patients to the appropriate officials. Pursuant to global patient privacy protections, the Usher III Initiative cannot receive confidential patient data. If patients, family or friends want to connect with the Usher III Initiative for more information, they are invited to email info@usheriii.org or connect on Facebook.
Dutch patients can contact Stichting Ushersyndroom for more information on Usher syndrome and contact with fellow sufferers.
For medical advice on Usher syndrome, information on (preclinical) developments of therapeutic approaches to treat Usher syndrome or additional (genetic) diagnostics, they can reach out to the expertise center of the Radboudumc via ushersyndroom@radboudumc.nl. 

Related links:
www.usheriii.org
www.radboudumc.nl/expertisecentrum/ushersyndroom
www.ushersyndrome.nl
www.ushersyndrome.nl/knowledgeportal

Positive results of QR-421a Phase 1/2 Clinical Trial for Usher Syndrome and non-syndromic Retinitis Pigmentosa

 

ProQR has published positive results from its Phase 1/2 Stellar trial of QR-421a, an investigational RNA therapy for the treatment of Usher syndrome and retinitis pigmentosa (RP) due to mutation(s) in exon 13 of the USH2A gene.

Stellar study
The Stellar study is a first-in-human clinical trial of the medicine QR-421a. The Phase 1/2 study includes adults that experience different levels of vision loss due to mutation(s) in exon 13 of the USH2A gene. This trial aims to study the safetly profile and efficacy of QR-421a.

QR-421a is an investigational RNA therapy designed to skip exon 13 in the RNA with the aim to stop vision loss.

A total of 20 clinical trial participants took part in the Stellar study. The trial design consisted of four study groups of which three groups received QR-421a at three different dose levels. A fourth group received sham treatment, where an intravitreal injection is mimicked but no injection or study drug is given. For each participant one eye was treated with a single injection of QR-421a or sham, and the fellow untreated eye was a control.

Summary

  • QR-421a was observed to be well tolerated with no serious adverse events reported.
  • QR-421a also demonstrated benefit in multiple measures of vision, including best corrected visual activity (BCVA), static perimetry, and retinal imaging (OCT).

Next steps
Based on the safety profile and early evidence of efficacy observed to date, ProQR plans to conduct two final stage/pivotal Phase 2/3 clinical trials.

The two-final stage/pivotal Phase 2/3 clinical trials, named: Sirius and Celeste, will study two different patient populations.
The Sirius study is a Phase 2/3 trial that will focus on advanced clinical trial participants with BCVA of equal or worse than 20/40. The preliminary design for Sirius is a doublemasked, randomized, controlled, 24-month, multiple-dose study.
In parallel to Sirius, the Celeste study is a Phase 2/3 trial focusing on early-moderate clinical trial participants with BCVA of better than 20/40. The preliminary design for Celeste is a double-masked, randomized, controlled, 24-month, multiple-dose study.

Read more about the results of the Stellar study here.

This study is based on the research and findings of Dr. Erwin van Wijk at the Radboudumc

Read also: Leiden ProQR is further expanding Radboudumc research