More Gray Matter: Parkinson’s Disease and Gene Transfer

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Several groups are pursuing gene transfer strategies against Parkinson’s disease. No small task, because for these approaches to work, investigators have to deliver vectors deep inside the brain using surgery. I have previously written that early phase studies using surgical delivery press the boundaries of acceptable risk, because patients can generally manage their disease adequately- though far from completely- with dopamine replacement, and study participation entails nontrivial surgical risks (by my calculations, about 0.5% chance of mortality, depending on the approach).


In the December issue of Lancet Neurology, Marks et al report results of a phase 2, sham controlled trial of CERE-120. The results were negative. That is, for the main measure in the study, improvement in symptoms at 12 months, patients receiving CERE-120 did not do significantly better than patients receiving sham. On the other hand, the product did not raise any major safety issues, apart from a hemorrhage during surgery in one patient.

The team performing the study has emphasized several “positive” outcomes. For one, patients receiving CERE-120 generally responded better than patients in the sham arm (though not significantly better- that is, differences may be attributable to chance). And on a secondary endpoint- response at 18 months- patients receiving CERE-120 did indeed perform significantly better. So did Ceregene score against Parkinson’s disease? In an accompanying commentary, French Neurologist Alim Benabid says “the findings… provide the first clinical evidence of a clinical benefit of gene therapy in Parkinson’s disease.”

I ain’t no neurologist, but I say: hold on a minute. When researchers start trials, they pick primary endpoints based on where they think they are most likely to succeed. In this case, the researchers picked improvement at 12 months, rather than at 18 months. From the looks of it, they backed the wrong horse- patients did significantly better at 18 rather than 12 months. What does this tell us? Success in a secondary endpoint might have occurred by chance, and the fact that researchers were unsuccessful on their primary endpoint indicates that they do not yet understand enough about their system to pick the “right” endpoints. So I see this as symptomatic of scientific uncertainty rather than a glimpse of medical destiny. [[One other issue to consider: it is possible that surgery itself (rather than gene transfer) may have caused symptomatic improvements.]]

The study was well reported and provides, yet again, evidence of the utility of sham comparator arms in studies involving Parkinson’s disease. One disappointing feature, however, is that the authors did not report whether patients or clinicians could correctly guess their treatment allocation just prior to unblinding. Without this, it is difficult to exclude the possibility that any difference between groups- even at 18 months- was due to “placebo effect.” (photo credit: Vin6, 2007)

BibTeX

@Manual{stream2010-57,
    title = {More Gray Matter: Parkinson’s Disease and Gene Transfer},
    journal = {STREAM research},
    author = {Jonathan Kimmelman},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2010,
    month = dec,
    day = 20,
    url = {http://www.translationalethics.com/2010/12/20/more-gray-matter-parkinsons-disease-and-gene-transfer/}
}

MLA

Jonathan Kimmelman. "More Gray Matter: Parkinson’s Disease and Gene Transfer" Web blog post. STREAM research. 20 Dec 2010. Web. 21 Jul 2017. <http://www.translationalethics.com/2010/12/20/more-gray-matter-parkinsons-disease-and-gene-transfer/>

APA

Jonathan Kimmelman. (2010, Dec 20). More Gray Matter: Parkinson’s Disease and Gene Transfer [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.translationalethics.com/2010/12/20/more-gray-matter-parkinsons-disease-and-gene-transfer/


Remembrance of Things Past: Fetal Tissue Transplantation and Parkinson’s Disease

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In a recent article in Science magazine, Constance Holden reports that European researchers are contemplating a revival of fetal tissue transplantation for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. As the article recounts, fetal transplants were subjected to sham controlled studies in the late 1990s; none performed better than sham, and several caused disabling dyskinesias. So should fetal tissue transplantation be revived, and if so, how?


The challenges seem all the more formidable today. We now understand that Parkinson’s disease is not restricted to the dopaminergic neurons in the basal ganglia, but instead involves diffuse pathology. And yet, studies will not involve implantation of tissues throughout the brain. As Holden’s article points out, previous fetal transplant studies revealed that brain pathology spreads to implanted tissues, suggesting that permanent responses may be difficult to achieve.

The ethical issues seem just as daunting. Deep brain stimulation has greatly improved the management of Parkinson’s for patients who are no longer responding to dopamine replacement. And yet, those pursuing fetal tissue transplantation will likely advocate pursuing trials in younger patients with less advanced disease. As pointed out by a European team of researchers, “A significant effort of bioethical research and conceptual clarification is required in anticipation of the first protocols involving human subjects.” And in a recently published article in Movement Disorders, several coauthors and I outline various ethical challenges presented by such studies. These include a high degree of uncertainty about the safety of interventions, and a baseline risk associated with delivery that approaches levels of risk encountered in phase 1 cancer trials (for studies that involve eight inoculations to the brain, risk of intracerebral brain hemorrhage leading to permanent neurological deficits is on the order of 2%).

Advocates of the new wave of studies insist we know much more about the properties of fetal tissues than we did in the 1990s; they further note that such studies will provide a basis for later studies involving induced pluripotent stem cells and other tissues. Perhaps, but given the remaining uncertainties and promise of DBS, it’s hard to imagine how fetal graft experiments could credibly establish a claim of clinical equipoise with deep brain stimulation. For these reasons, a more prudent ethical course—if fetal transplant studies for Parkinson’s are to be done at all—would be to pursue safety and feasibility studies in patients who are no longer responsive to standard care. Only once parameters are optimized and mechanisms well understood should clinicians consider studies in patients who are earlier in the disease process. (photo credit: Ethan Hein 2008)

BibTeX

@Manual{stream2009-82,
    title = {Remembrance of Things Past: Fetal Tissue Transplantation and Parkinson’s Disease},
    journal = {STREAM research},
    author = {Jonathan Kimmelman},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2009,
    month = oct,
    day = 29,
    url = {http://www.translationalethics.com/2009/10/29/remembrance-of-things-past-fetal-tissue-transplantation-and-parkinsons-disease/}
}

MLA

Jonathan Kimmelman. "Remembrance of Things Past: Fetal Tissue Transplantation and Parkinson’s Disease" Web blog post. STREAM research. 29 Oct 2009. Web. 21 Jul 2017. <http://www.translationalethics.com/2009/10/29/remembrance-of-things-past-fetal-tissue-transplantation-and-parkinsons-disease/>

APA

Jonathan Kimmelman. (2009, Oct 29). Remembrance of Things Past: Fetal Tissue Transplantation and Parkinson’s Disease [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.translationalethics.com/2009/10/29/remembrance-of-things-past-fetal-tissue-transplantation-and-parkinsons-disease/


Sourgene

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Heaven help those perseverant souls who pursue translational research on neurodegnerative disorders.  New interventions in this area have just about the highest failure rate of any area of medical research. And last week, yet another promising strategy was shown ineffective in a phase II study.


The trial in question was testing Ceregene’s gene transfer strategy against Parkinson’s Disease (PD).  Ceregene was second out of the gate testing gene transfer against PD (the first was Neurologix).  In April 2008, I wrote about their phase 1 study results, which on the one hand seemed to suggest safety, while on the other hand did not show signs of a dose-effect nor a change in dopamine metabolism by imaging.  For me, the most troubling aspect of this protocol was its aggressiveness: researchers delivered vector along eight needle tracks to deep brain structures. Based on surgical complication rates in the published literature, the risk of causing permanent neurological deficits from cerebral hemorrhage was on the order of 7% in this study- and that’s not including the additional risk associated with the vector itself.

On November 26, Ceregene announced results of its sham controlled phase II study of CERE-120.  First the good news: the press release described CERE-120 as “safe and well tolerated.”  The bad news is that the investigators saw no difference in outcomes between the sham and active arms. The press release does not say whether any adverse events were reported; nor does it say anything about surgical complications. In the next few weeks, expect to see data on why, precisely, the strategy might have failed. (photo credit: bebob717 2006).

BibTeX

@Manual{stream2008-119,
    title = {Sourgene},
    journal = {STREAM research},
    author = {Jonathan Kimmelman},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2008,
    month = dec,
    day = 5,
    url = {http://www.translationalethics.com/2008/12/05/sourgene/}
}

MLA

Jonathan Kimmelman. "Sourgene" Web blog post. STREAM research. 05 Dec 2008. Web. 21 Jul 2017. <http://www.translationalethics.com/2008/12/05/sourgene/>

APA

Jonathan Kimmelman. (2008, Dec 05). Sourgene [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.translationalethics.com/2008/12/05/sourgene/


More Grey Matter: Parkinson’s Disease Gene Transfer

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Ceregene published long awaited results of its phase 1 gene transfer study of a Parkinson’s disease treatment in the May issue of Lancet Neurology. The open-label study involved two dose levels. After one year of observation, the authors report no major adverse events relating to the study product, CERE-120 (importantly, no neutralizing antibodies against the transgene product were observed).


The authors also report some hints of efficacy. For example, various motor functions appear improved over the course of the study. As the authors point out, however, the study was uncontrolled, and the road to effective neuroprotection strategies in Parkinson’s disease is littered with casualties. And there are many reasons to greet these results with caution. First, imaging performed in concert with the study is not consistent with a therapeutic effect. Second, a major concern with studies like this is whether they produce symptomatic treatment, or whether they actually stem neurodegeneration. Disentangling the two presents an extraordinary scientific and biostatistical problem. Third, a relationship between dose and response does not seem to have been observed.

Still, the case for proceeding to phase 2 studies- to this observer at least- looks credible (photo credit: brunsdon 2007)

BibTeX

@Manual{stream2008-159,
    title = {More Grey Matter: Parkinson’s Disease Gene Transfer},
    journal = {STREAM research},
    author = {Jonathan Kimmelman},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2008,
    month = apr,
    day = 25,
    url = {http://www.translationalethics.com/2008/04/25/more-grey-matter-parkinsons-disease-gene-transfer/}
}

MLA

Jonathan Kimmelman. "More Grey Matter: Parkinson’s Disease Gene Transfer" Web blog post. STREAM research. 25 Apr 2008. Web. 21 Jul 2017. <http://www.translationalethics.com/2008/04/25/more-grey-matter-parkinsons-disease-gene-transfer/>

APA

Jonathan Kimmelman. (2008, Apr 25). More Grey Matter: Parkinson’s Disease Gene Transfer [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.translationalethics.com/2008/04/25/more-grey-matter-parkinsons-disease-gene-transfer/


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