Wednesday, May 26, 2010

ASGCT, cont': Results on Fetal Tissue for Battens Presented

Robert Steiner, co-principal investigator in a fetal cell transplantation study involving the rare, fatal hereditary disease Neuronal Ceroid Lipofuscinosis (also known as Batten disease), presented results of a now completed phase 1 study. According to Steiner, the study involved the highest ever dose of stem cells delivered to the human brain. The trial involved six children with infantile and late-infantile forms of the disease.

Elsewhere, this safety study has been reported as "positive"- in the sense that there were no unexpected, stem cell related complications. Which is not to say the protocol was a picnic: the study involved (if I understood the presentation correctly) 14 trajectories to the brain, and an extended regime of immunosuppression that caused 23 adverse events. Steiner reported that none of the patients showed a clinical response- which is what one would expect in patients with such advanced forms of disease (hopefully, the research team conveyed the unexpectedness of clinical benefits to parents when they obtained informed consent).

Steiner also reported that, when one of the patients died due to natural course of illness, the family permitted the team to perform an autopsy. The autopsy ruled out the cell transplantation as a cause of mortality, and established that the tissues engrafted successfully. In the words of a press release, "By permitting the autopsy, the family allowed the researchers to learn very important details that will potentially benefit future patients."

Did the research team use the autopsy to determine whether the transplanted cells were expressing the therapeutic gene? If so, was the gene product taken up by surrounding tissues? Answering these questions would be key to maximizing the scientific value of the study, and thus redeeming the risks of surgery, immunosuppression, stem cell transplantation, and the many follow-up visits required of patients participating in the study. But from what I heard, the brain is in the hands of the company, and it is unclear whether they have performed these studies (and if so, whether the results will be reported). Let's hope the family's permission for autopsy allows the researchers to learn still more. (photo credit: dopamineharper 2009)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

ASGCT, continued: Eyes on Stage

Predictably, the big presidential symposium at ASGCT reserved a slot for Jean Bennett, who led one of the three teams that have tested a gene transfer strategy for a rare genetic form of blindness, Leber's Congenital Amaurosis (LCA). Unpredictably, however, Bennett trotted out one of her "treated" patients, Cory Haas, along with his two parents, who sat up on the podium as Bennett went through her 45 minute presentation, which was titled "An Aye for Gene Therapy."

First, let me say that Bennett's results- as well as those of the other teams- continue to be very encouraging. In adults whose retinal tissues have degenerated, the approach has not restored vision, but it has also not raised any major safety concerns (apart from a surgical complication in one patient). In younger patients, the approach has shown safety with restoration of vision, and Bennett this time presented various functional data, along with neuroimaging data consistent with restoration of vision. And nothing that follows detracts from all the credit she and her team deserve for their smarts, scientific rigor, perseverance, and clinical accomplishments. Second, the family has agreed to go public, and this was not their first time on display. No doubt, they feel that putting themselves on display like his helps bring visibility to this important research. As well, they have their own battles to fight: only one eye has been corrected, and perhaps they feel that going public like this may help nudge regulatory authorities to clear the investigators to apply gene transfer to the second eye.

Nevertheless, I found Bennett's exhibition of her subject, and his parents, a case of poor judgment. And judging from one or two conversations with others in attendance, I was not alone. In my book, I warn against the perils of putting patients on display. It performs a rhetorical function that tends to neutralize critical thinking and indulge sentimentality. I found it particularly problematic that this would occur at a major scientific address: if there were skeptical questions to be asked (as there typically are at scientific meetings), who would dare ask them in front of a child and his parents? At any rate, Bennett used a short question and answer period following her talk by asking Corey and his parents a series of Diane Sawyer-like questions: "are you glad you joined the study?" "what was the most difficult part?" "do you have any questions?" She then elicited a round of applause "for the patients" from the >500 assembled attendees. Was the Q and A scripted? Was this a kind of victory lap for Bennett? Who knows.

Spectacular research, to be sure. But it makes for spectacle science as well. (photo credit: strangejourney 2009)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

ASGCT in Washington DC

Another year, another annual meeting of the American Society of Gene Therapy- now rechristened American Society of Gene AND CELL Therapy. The meeting ends today, and I am way behind in posts. There have been, to my knowledge, no startling new revelations about high impact trials or disastrous adverse events. The studies of Leber's Congenital Amaurosis- a rare genetic disorder causing blindness- continue to dazzle, with several groups presenting results showing consistent safety and functional recovery- especially in younger patients. The ADA-SCID data continue to show very encouraging results without any indication of the safety problems encountered using similar vectors. Same goes for the adrenoleukodystrophy study- now three children have received a lentivirus-based cell intervention. Again- no evidence that delivered cells are expanding in a way that would raise concerns about a malignancy, and the disease course for children appears to be significantly improved. Off, now, to catch a session on a new product for another genetic disease- LPL deficiency- which (by the title of the session) has been submitted for regulatory licensure. To be continued, with some ethical commentary... (photo credit: afagan 2007)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Conditions of Collaboration: Protecting the Integrity of the Scientific Enterprise

So what does it take to keep medical research a well-oiled enterprise that efficiently and effectively delivers cures? Lots of cooperation–or so I argue, along with co-authors Alex John London and Marina Emborg in a piece appearing in Science [a publicly accessible version of the essay is available at Science Progress]. Unfortunately, we argue, the way or system of drug development currently thinks about the ethics of clinical research does not presently place sufficient emphasis on the conditions necessary to sustain this cooperation.

Right now, oversight of clinical research is focused almost exclusively on protecting the personal interests of human subjects by obtaining valid informed consent and ensuring that risks are reasonable in relation to benefits. We suggest that this ostensibly private transaction between investigators and patient-volunteers has a public dimension in at least three ways. First, such private transactions inevitably draw on public resources. Second, such transactions have externalities- adverse events occurring on one trial have potential to disrupt collaborations elsewhere in the research system. Third, lax oversight of such private transactions creates conditions where consumers have difficulty identifying (and hence rewarding) producers of high quality goods (namely, trials that are well designed).

We suggest that, when considering whether to initiate highly innovative clinical trials that draw on such public goods, proper oversight and analysis must take into consideration factors that lie beyond the personal interests of human volunteers. (photo credit: McKillaboy, Cataglyphis velox 22, 2009)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Filing Cabinet Syndrome: The Effect of Nonpublication of Preclinical Research

Much has already been said about Filing Cabinet syndrome in medical research: the tendency of researchers to publish exciting results from clinical trials, and to stash null or negative findings safely away from public view in a filing cabinet. Nonpublication distorts the medical literature, because it prevents medical practitioners from accessing negative information about drugs. Recall that, back in 2004, attorney-general Eliot Spitzer sued Glaxo Smithkline for suppressing trial results that showed elevated risk of suicide for adolescents taking the antidepressant drug Paxil; this and several similar episodes led FDA, major medical journals, World Health Organization, World Medical Association, and others to require researchers to register clinical trials before they enroll any patients.

Yet important gaps remain. In the March 2010 issue of PLoS Biology, Emily S. Sena and coauthors provide the most detailed analysis yet of one of these gaps: nonpublication of preclinical (animal) studies. They aggregated results of 16 systematic reviews of preclinical studies involving acute ischaemic stroke, and used statistical methods to estimate the degree of publication bias, and the likely effect of publication bias on measured disease responses. Among other things, they found that 16% of animal experiments were not published, leading to a 31% overstatement of efficacy. The authors note: "we estimate that for the interventions described here, experiments involving some 3,600 animals have remained unpublished. We consider this practice to be unethical."

The authors urge that central registries of preclinical studies be established and maintained-- a call that is not likely to go heeded anytime soon by companies that have much at stake in the secrecy in preclinical research. But their proposal ought to be taken seriously by anyone committed not only to respecting animals used in medical research, but also protecting the welfare of human beings who might enroll in possibly unwarranted clinical research. (photo credit: amy allcock 2009)