Scroll down to listen to this article.
Last month, the US Food and Drug Administration approved two gene-editing therapies to treat sickle cell disease. This made national news in a way few drug approvals have, but why? What’s the big deal, and why should we care?
Sickle cell disease is an inherited genetic disease affecting around half a million babies globally every year. People affected by sickle cell disease have genes that create malformed red blood cells that carry oxygen. These malformed cells become curved like a crescent moon (or a sickle), which results in poor oxygen delivery. Even worse, the curved cells can clump together into clots, which restrict blood flow and cause pain, organ damage, and/or death. Because it is genetic and there has been no known cure, it ranks consistently within the top 20 deaths of children. The disease is most prevalent in people of African descent, and globally the highest concentration of sufferers is in sub-Saharan Africa.
Sickle cell disease is a result of problems with genetic mutation and malformed cells, which makes it very hard to target with traditional medicine. In spite of this, innovative researchers have developed two promising treatments for sickle cell disease. These use our own cells to help cure the disease – instead of an oral, topical, or injected medication. These are both gene therapies, where the genetic code of the patient is altered. This is an understandably touchy topic. Gene-editing is different from other medical procedures in that it may be inherited: your genes are passed to your children after all! The benefit of starting gene therapy with sickle cell disease is that we are starting with mutated genes. The mutated sickle-cell-creating genes will already be passed to any children, so fixing the mutations is likely to have better outcomes. I think of it like CPR. With CPR, you are starting with a person who isn’t breathing and has no circulation; you can’t really get any worse than that. With sickle cell gene therapy, as long as the gene-editing tools are specific and target the correct genes it is hard to do worse than one of the top killers of children worldwide. So what are the therapies that were approved?
The first, Lyfgenia, is a gene-additive therapy. It uses a modified virus that can’t reproduce to infect cells and add new DNA. The virus, a lentivirus, delivers special RNA to the cells, which our cells incorporate into the DNA strand when they copy it. This genetic code tells the cells to make a different kind of hemoglobin – the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. This hemoglobin is a particular type that prevents sticking to the walls of bloodstreams. Note that viruses already deliver RNA that gets encoded into our genes all the time. A 2022 study looked at a protein and found that almost 10% of the human genome may be from viruses.
The second therapy, Casgevy, is gene-editing in the most fundamental way. It uses a technology called CRISPR/Cas9 to cut and change pieces of our DNA. While our DNA may be around 10% viral, bacteria have much smaller genomes, and viral insertion of new DNA is a proportionally bigger problem. To combat this, some bacteria have a gene-editing system that can find and remove bits of wayward code. This system was adapted by very smart scientists into a gene-editing tool we can use to find and correct mutations in our genetic code. The process is pretty intense. Blood stem cells are removed from the body, then the CRISPR-Cas9 system edits them outside the body. The modified cells are reinserted into the bone marrow, where they will reproduce and turn into everyday functioning red blood cells. This is mind-blowing.
Of course, there is controversy surrounding these therapies. One of the biggest is really unrelated to sickle cell disease, but instead to the very idea of gene-editing. This use of gene therapy in sickle-cell is hard to contest: we’re starting with mutated DNA in blood cells that can kill children. The what-ifs about adding new functionality like laser eyes or super strength get a lot of press and can make us question what it means to be human at a fundamental level. The second big problem is inequality. Could gene-editing be used to make a two-tiered system of wealthy people with great eyesight and perfect skill while poor people suffer? It very much looks like that, as Lyfgenia and Casgevy are both amazingly expensive, somewhere between 2-3 million dollars for treatment. But then, if we can permanently stop sickle cell for a person and all of their descendants, it may be worth it.
Staff Writer / Editor Benton Lowey-Ball, BS, BFA
Listen to the article here:
Food and Drug Administration. (December 8, 2023). FDA Approves First Gene Therapies to Treat Patients with Sickle Cell Disease https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-approves-first-gene-therapies-treat-patients-sickle-cell-disease
Milone, M. C., & O’Doherty, U. (2018). Clinical use of lentiviral vectors. Leukemia, 32(7), 1529-1541. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41375-018-0106-0
Frank, J. A., Singh, M., Cullen, H. B., Kirou, R. A., Benkaddour-Boumzaouad, M., Cortes, J. L., … & Feschotte, C. (2022). Evolution and antiviral activity of a human protein of retroviral origin. Science, 378(6618), 422-428. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10542854/
Thomson, A. M., McHugh, T. A., Oron, A. P., Teply, C., Lonberg, N., Tella, V. V., … & Hay, S. I. (2023). Global, regional, and national prevalence and mortality burden of sickle cell disease, 2000–2021: a systematic analysis from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2021. The Lancet Haematology. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanhae/article/PIIS2352-3026(23)00118-7/fulltext