As gene therapy emerges as one of the hottest areas of medical research, one thing that is striking is how it employs viruses – sometimes very nasty viruses – to deliver the gene to where it is needed in the human body.
Yesterday virologist Abbie Smith discussed another excellent example of this on the ERV blog in a post entitled “GMO Herpes vs. severs cancer pain”, describing how scientists at the Universities of Michigen and Pittsburgh have used a genetically modified herpes virus to deliver the preproenkephalin gene – which produced a precursor to pain-killing opiates – to the nerve cells of terminal cancer patients who were suffering from severe pain.
Abbie remarks that “This was one of the most depressing, yet hopeful, papers I have ever read.”. It’s difficult to disagree, after all most of the patients participating in the trial died within 3 months of it starting. But to focus on this sobering statistic would miss the reason for this study, namely that the pain-relief available to patients with severe chronic pain is often inadequate, as the drugs are not specific enough and cause unacceptable side effects when used at the high doses often required for prolonged periods of time. By targeting the opiate molecules to the nerve ccells themselves these side effects can be avoided, and more effective pain relief provided.
The paper “Gene Therapy for Pain: Results of a Phase I Clinical Trial” is available for anyone to read in PubMed Central and makes it very clear that this is a therapy that was discovered, evaluated and refined in animal models of different types of pain before entering this first clinical trial. The first two paragraphs of the introduction noting that:
A significant limitation to the development of analgesic drugs is that off-target effects at doses below the maximal analgesic threshold restrict the ability to selectively interrupt nociceptive neurotransmission1. To address this limitation, we developed a series of replication defective HSV-based vectors to deliver gene expression cassettes directly to DRG neurons from skin inoculation 2, 3. The anatomically defined projection of DRG axons allows targeting of specific ganglia by injection into selected dermatomes. In preclinical studies, the release of anti-nociceptive peptides or inhibitory neurotransmitters in spinal dorsal horn from the central terminals of transduced DRG neurons effectively reduced pain-related behaviors in rodent models of inflammatory pain, neuropathic pain, and pain caused by cancer4-9.
The human PENK gene encodes for preproenkephalin, a precursor protein proteolytically cleaved to produce the endogenous opioid peptides met- and leu-enkephalin. In the spinal cord, enkephalin peptides inhibit pain signaling through actions at presynaptic opioid receptors located on central terminals of primary afferent nociceptors and postsynaptic opioid receptors on second order neurons involved in nociceptive neurotransmission10. HSV vectors expressing opioid peptides appear to be particularly effective in animal models of inflammatory and cancer pain4, 5, 8.”
And in the conclusion:
In preclinical animal studies, skin inoculation of HSV vectors expressing PENK reduce acute hyperalgesic responses27, and reduce pain-related behaviors in models of arthritis28, formalin injection4, peripheral nerve damage6 and bone cancer5. Because this was the first human trial employing HSV vectors to achieve gene transfer, we elected to carry out the phase 1 clinical trial for safety and dose-finding in patients with pain caused by cancer…This Phase I clinical trial primarily addressed the question of whether intradermal delivery of NP2 to skin would prove to be safe and well tolerated by subjects. The small number of patients and the absence of placebo controls warrant circumspect interpretation of the secondary outcome measures. But the observation that subjects in the low dose cohort had little change in the NRS or SF-MPQ while subjects in the higher dose cohorts reported substantial reduction in NRS and improvement in SF-MPQ is encouraging.”
Encouraging is possibly an understatement, seeing clear evidence of therapeutic benefits in a Phase I trial like this is very promising, or as Abbie puts it “A trial turning out this successful is a great starting point for optimizing this kind of therapy.”.
p.s. Those interested in a more detailed account of the research that led to this clinical trial can find it in this review published in 2008 and available to read online for free.