Gene therapy advance hailed for thalassemia

pharmafile | September 16, 2010 | News story | Research and Development Bluebird Bio, gene therapy, thalassemia 

A new gene therapy for one of the most frequently inherited genetic disorders has produced promising results.

The trial by biotech company Bluebird Bio showed that for the first time a patient with severe beta-thalassemia has been living without the need for transfusions over a sustained period of time.

The study involved a single patient who had been dependent on transfusions since early childhood, but has now been free of transfusions for 21 months thanks to the gene therapy.

Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Bluebird Bio has developed a new technique in which stem cells from the patient’s bone marrow were treated with a gene to correct the faulty one. They were then transfused back into his body, where they gradually gave rise to healthy red blood cells.

The process has been hailed as a potential breakthrough, not just for beta-thalassemia, but for the wider gene therapy field.

“Although based on the first treated patient, we believe these results are impressive and illustrate for the first time the significant potential for treatment of beta hemoglobinopathies using lentiviral beta-globin gene transfer in the context of autologous stem cell transplant,” said Philippe Leboulch, senior author of the study and head of the Institute of Emerging Diseases and Innovative Therapies of CEA and INSERM.

Bluebird has patented the technique, which they call LentiGlobin, and hopes to develop it for wider use.

Leboulch added: “For beta-thalassemia, we have worked intensely for almost 20 years to design, develop and manufacture LentiGlobin to provide a sustained high level haemoglobin production, resulting in a major clinical benefit. It has been very rewarding to follow this patient as his life has dramatically improved since receiving our treatment.”

The authors warn, however, that the patient could be at risk of developing leukaemia in the future due to side effects from the gene therapy.

The paper, titled “Transfusion independence and HMGA2 activation after gene therapy of human beta-thalassemia,” is available in the online version of Nature.

LentiGlobin introduces a fully functional human beta-globin gene, under the control of the beta-globin enhancer and locus control region, into the patient’s own hematopoietic stem cells in the bone marrow.

“We believe the human findings in beta-thalassemia, as well as the recently published data in Science on two patients with childhood cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy (CCALD), highlight the significant opportunity for Bluebird Bio’s gene therapy platform to help patients with severe genetic disorders,” said Nick Leschly, president and chief executive of the biotech.

The firm is one of a handful commercial companies hoping to bring cutting-edge biotech techniques to market and into routine clinical practice.

Nick Leschly said the company, which changed its name this month from Genetix Pharmaceuticals, aimed to become “a world-class company in gene therapy” and would move “aggressively forward with multiple clinical studies” including ongoing clinical trials in beta-thalassemia and CCALD.

Andrew McConaghie

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