Newfound airway cells may breathe life into tackling cystic fibrosis

By Aimee Cunningham

Meet the ionocyte. This newly discovered cell may be the star of future cystic fibrosis therapies. Researchers have found that the gene tied to the disease is very active in the cells, which line the air passages of the lungs.

While the cells are rare, making up only 1 to 2 percent of cells that line the airways, they seem to play an outsized role in keeping lungs clear. The identification of the ionocyte “provides key information for targeting treatments,” says medical geneticist Garry Cutting of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, who was not involved in the research. Two teams, working independently, each describe the new cell online August 1 in Nature.

The ionocyte shares its name with similar cells found in fish gills and frog skin. This type of cell regulates fluid movement at surfaces — skin, gills, airways — where air and water meet. In people, special proteins that tunnel across cell membranes lining the airways allow chloride ions (half of what makes salt) to move into the airway. This causes water to move into the airway through a different channel to moisten mucus along the lining, which helps it remove bacteria and inhaled particles from the body.

The tunnel protein that allows chloride ions through is made by a gene called CFTR. In cystic fibrosis patients, that gene is flawed. Airways can’t regulate water movement properly and get clogged with thick mucus that traps bacteria and leads to persistent infections and lung damage. The genetic disease affects at least 70,000 people worldwide, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Bethesda, Md.

Researchers had suspected CFTR was most active in ciliated cells — cells with brushlike projections that work along with the mucus in airways to move invaders out. But the new work found very little gene activity in those cells, compared with the ionocytes.

In experiments with laboratory samples of mouse cells from the airway lining, cell biologist Jayaraj Rajagopal of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and his colleagues found that the gene was very active in ionocytes: out of all the instructions for building the tunnels detected in the cells, 54 percent came from ionocytes. Aron Jaffe, a respiratory disease researcher at Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass., and his colleagues reported that, in laboratory samples of human airways cells, ionocytes were the source of 60 percent of the activity of the tunnels.

The discovery of the new cells raises a lot of questions. Jaffe wonders where ionocytes are positioned in the lining of the airways, and how that placement supports the coordination of water movement and mucus secretion by other cells. “You can imagine the distribution [of ionocytes] is really important,” he says.

A question Rajagopal has: “How does a rare cell type do all of this work?” In fish and frogs, ionocytes are loaded with mitochondria, the so-called cellular energy factories, he notes. Maybe that will be true for human ionocytes, too, giving them lots of energy to do the lion’s share of regulating the movement of water.

Both researchers say the ionocyte’s discovery should lead to a better understanding of cystic fibrosis. “It will let us think about creative new ways to approach the disease,” Rajagopal says.

Original article here.

Vertex Pharmaceuticals opens expanded San Diego research center with focus on cystic fibrosis

By Bradley J. Fikes

Vertex Pharmaceuticals opened its new San Diego research center Monday, starting a new chapter in a decades-long quest to not only treat but cure cystic fibrosis.

In 18 years, three drugs for the lung-ravaging disease have emerged from Vertex’s San Diego center and more are in the pipeline.

The first, Kalydeco, was approved in 2012. It is the first drug that treats the underlying cause of the disease. The second, Orkambi, was approved three years later. And the third, Symdeko, was approved in February.

These drugs can benefit about half of all patients with the incurable disease. In the next several years, Boston-based Vertex hopes its drugs can help nearly all patients live longer, healthier lives.

Cystic fibrosis is caused by a genetic defect that allows a buildup of thick mucus in the lungs, and other internal organs. This mucus clogs airways and promotes the growth of bacteria. The average lifespan of patients is 37 years, up from 20 years in 1980. Treatments include antibiotics to fight lung infections and mucus-thinning drugs.

The new 170,000 square-foot building on Torrey Pines Mesa more than doubles the company’s space. The center includes cell culturing equipment to grow lung cells from patients, to be used for drug screening. A 4,000 square-foot incubator suite will serve outside collaborators.

Asides from cystic fibrosis, the staff will work on other serious diseases.

Among the speakers Monday morning was a veteran in the fight against cystic fibrosis: Jennifer Ferguson, who has two children with the disease, Ashton and Lola. Both her children are taking Vertex drugs, and both were present with her at the event.

With these drugs and the promise of better therapies ahead, she says Ashton and Lola have a good chance of growing up and leading their own lives. She urged all Vertex employees to think of themselves as part of a team to cure the disease.

Ferguson, of San Diego, found out about the work from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The foundation had invested $30 million in startup Aurora Biosciences to find therapies.

In 2001, Vertex purchased Aurora for $592 million in stock, the same year Ashton was diagnosed. The research went on under Vertex, and Ferguson became quite familiar with the research team.

“The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation asked me to come speak, to show them what it’s like to have a little child with CF,” she said. “So I came here about 17 years ago with him as a 6-month-old.”

At that time, many cystic fibrosis patients never reached adulthood.

“I had a hard time keeping it together,” Ferguson told the audience of that long-ago visit.

“But I looked in the staff’s faces — and some of you are still here — and I thought, I’m going to put my faith and trust in your hands, in your brains. And I was able to let go of my worry, because you were on the case.”

Ferguson started visiting every few years to check on what progress was being made, first with Ashton, and later including Lola. She also raises money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Both her children have shown improvement since starting the Vertex drugs, Ferguson said. But they still need to go through a daily regimen of clearing out their lungs.

From medications, the research frontier has advanced to investigations into a cure. That means fixing the genetic defect, which can come in several variations, inside living patients.

That cure might come from the hot new gene editing technology called CRISR. In 2015, Vertex allied with startup CRISPR Therapeutics to develop curative therapies.

This post was originally published on The San Diego Union-Tribune

A Drug Costs $272,000 a Year. Not So Fast, Says New York State.

From The New York Times:

A Drug Costs $272,000 a Year. Not So Fast, Says New York State.

New York’s Medicaid program says Orkambi, a new drug to treat cystic fibrosis, is not worth the price. The case is being closely watched around the country.

A wave of breakthrough drugs is transforming the medical world, offering hope for people with deadly diseases despite their dizzying price tags.

But what if it turns out that some of these expensive new drugs don’t work that well?

That’s the quandary over Orkambi, a drug that was approved in 2015 for cystic fibrosis and was only the second ever to address the underlying cause of the genetic disease. Orkambi, which is sold by Vertex Pharmaceuticals, costs $272,000 a year, but has been shown to only modestly help patients.

Now, in a case that is being closely watched around the country, New York state health officials have said Orkambi is not worth its price, and are demanding that Vertex give a steeper discount to the state’s Medicaid program. The case is the first test of a new law aimed at reining in skyrocketing drug costs in New York’s Medicaid program.

The high price of prescription drugs has ignited a populist furor, and in May, the Trump administration unveiled a set of proposals to address the issue. But while the ideas at the federal level are still mostly theoretical, some states have begun tackling the issue themselves. Earlier this year, Massachusetts asked the federal government for permission to limit its coverage of drugs in an effort to secure larger discounts from drug makers. Other states, like California and Vermont, have passed laws requiring drug companies to turn over certain financial details if they raise prices significantly.

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“There’s a number of states that are really trying to push forward and say, we need to be thinking very differently about how we’re paying for drugs,” said Matt Salo, the executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors. “We need the ability to say that there are some drugs that are just not priced in a rational way.”

Orkambi held great promise for people with cystic fibrosis when it was approved three years ago. A similar drug, Kalydeco, approved in 2012, was viewed as groundbreaking because it was the first to try to counteract the genetic defect that causes cystic fibrosis. The disease, which affects about 30,000 Americans, leads to a buildup of sticky mucus in the lungs and can lead to death by respiratory failure by the time many people are 40.

But while Kalydeco, also known as ivacaftor, was found to be effective, it was only approved for a sliver of patients with the disease — those who had certain genetic mutations. Orkambi, which combines ivacaftor and another drug, lumacaftor, was approved for mutations that covered nearly half of cystic fibrosis patients, but studies showed it was not as effective as Kalydeco.

Since Orkambi’s approval, several countries have balked at paying for it, including Britain, France and Canada.

In the United States, private insurers and Medicare plans have generally covered Orkambi. Medicaid programs, which cover health insurance for the poor, are required to cover all drugs.

Still, many insurers require patients to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket, and even though Vertex offers assistance, not everyone qualifies.

Lora Moser, 40, is covered by Medicare because she is disabled, and said she had to stop taking Orkambi in January because she could not afford the first month’s payment of more than $3,000 required by her insurer, Humana. A spokeswoman for Humana said that for high-cost drugs like Orkambi, the insurer helps patients identify outside assistance programs to cover out-of-pocket costs.

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Ms. Moser said a nonprofit group that had provided financial assistance declined to renew her grant because, she said she was told, her annual household income was too high.CreditTamir Kalifa for The New York Times

A nonprofit group that had provided assistance the previous year to Ms. Moser declined to renew her grant because, she said she was told, her annual household income was too high. She said her income is about $600 above their limit.

“I’ve never felt more destitute and hopeless as I do right now, from a medical standpoint,” Ms. Moser said.

A spokeswoman for Vertex, Heather Nichols, said more than 99 percent of cystic fibrosis patients who are eligible to take Orkambi in the United States have “broad access” to the drug.

“Vertex has a longstanding commitment to supporting access for all eligible patients, and we will continue to oppose any attempts to restrict patient access to these transformative medicines,” Ms. Nichols said.

Despite its lukewarm reception, Orkambi has been a boon for Vertex. In 2017, the drug was its top-selling product, bringing in about $1.3 billion in sales, a considerable sum for a product that is only approved to treat about 28,000 people worldwide.

Dr. Steven D. Pearson, the president of the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, which evaluates the cost-effectiveness of drugs, said the problem is that in the United States, drug companies control the prices, especially in the case of newly approved drugs like Orkambi.

“Our system is set up not to distinguish very well between those drugs that are fairly priced and those that are not,” he said. Dr. Pearson’s institute concluded that Vertex’s cystic-fibrosis drugs should be discounted by as much as 77 percent. “That gives the incentive to the company to overreach, and that’s part of why our system is so out of whack,” he said.

In April, Orkambi became the test case for the New York law when a state board ruled that the drug was not worth its cost, recommending that it be discounted from the list price by roughly 70 percent — an amount that was influenced by work done by Dr. Pearson’s institute. New York’s law, passed in 2017, allows the state to ask manufacturers for a deeper discount if the state’s Medicaid drug budget exceeds a certain amount.

Under federal law, state Medicaid programs get a rebate of at least 23 percent. New York officials said that they identified 30 drugs this year that were priced too high, and that those products’ manufacturers agreed to deeper discounts, resulting in about $60 million in annual savings. Vertex, which is based in Boston, was the only company that refused, the state said. New York officials did not identify the manufacturers that agreed to steeper discounts.

For now, at least, Vertex appears to have the upper hand because federal law requires the state to cover Orkambi, although the state can limit its use. Under its new law, New York could also demand that Vertex disclose details about how it sets its price, including how much goes toward research and development or to other areas, like marketing. But even if Vertex complied, that information would not be made public because it is considered proprietary.

Ms. Nichols, the Vertex spokeswoman, said the company had no plans to agree to a discount below the 23 percent required by law.

And Donna Frescatore, the director of New York’s Medicaid program, said she was reluctant to limit the use of Orkambi for those who need it. “It’s certainly a balance with our ability to get fair pricing for this medication,” she said.

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Ms. Moser prepares to administer medication through a nebulizer at her home in Leander, Tex. CreditTamir Kalifa for The New York Times

But despite the impasse, Mr. Salo said big states like New York are major buyers of prescription drugs, and companies may see an interest in taking those states seriously. “I see this as being of very, very widespread interest,” he said. “A lot of other states are kind of watching and saying, ‘How is that going to work?’”

The debate over Orkambi may soon become moot — earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration approved a new cystic fibrosis drug, also made by Vertex. Symdeko, as the drug is called, treats a similar population as Orkambi, but has been proven to be more effective. It carries a list price of $292,000 a year, and some analysts, including Geoffrey Porges, of Leerink, say they believe Symdeko will eventually replace Orkambi.

Given the arrival of Symdeko, some analysts said New York would be smart to negotiate a package deal for all three of Vertex’s cystic fibrosis drugs, similar to a deal recently made with Ireland. Ms. Frescatore said that’s an approach that she would consider.

“You don’t want a patient being forced to take Orkambi because it’s cheaper,” Mr. Porges said. “You want the right patient to get the right medicine.”

Katie Thomas covers the business of health care, with a focus on the drug industry. She started at The Times in 2008 as a sports reporter. @katie_thomas

Jerry Cahill’s CF Podcast: Stem Cell Research with Dr. Hans-Willem Snoeck

In this feature of The Path Forward with CF series, Dr. Hans-Willem Snoeck, Professor of Medicine (Microbiology and Immunology) at CUMC, sits down to discuss stem cell research as it relates to CF.

Because lung cells regenerate and repair themselves regularly, researchers believe that – some day – stem cell technology could be a one-time therapy to cure cystic fibrosis. Research is ongoing, but in the meantime, scientists can currently use human pluripotent stem cells to create lung organoids (tiny, 3-D structures that mimic features of a full-sized lung), introduce various mutations, and apply technologies to learn more about those mutations’ characteristics.

This video was originally published on JerryCahill.com

CF Foundation ‘Venture Philanthropy’ Model Crucial to CF Breakthroughs

By Larry Luxner

When the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF) was established in 1955, most people with cystic fibrosis (CF) didn’t make it to their sixth birthday. Today, the average life expectancy of a CF patient is 47 years.

To date, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved 12 CF therapies. Three of them are CFTR modulators that treat the basic disease-causing defect, benefiting 60 percent of all patients, and more therapies are on the way.

Preston W. Campbell III, the CFF’s president and CEO, directly attributes this dramatic improvement to the foundation’s philosophy of “venture philanthropy.”

“We are now in Phase 3 CFTR trials that, if successful, will mean that as early as next year, more than 90 percent of all individuals with CF will have a highly effective therapy targeting CF’s basic defect,” he said. “More therapies that treat the complications of CF are in the pipeline than ever before.

“It begs the question: how did all of this happen?”

Campbell answered that during his March 26 presentation, “Patient advocates taking a real stand in drug development: How the CFF worked with biotech and pharma to find a cure,” at the 2018 World Orphan Drug Congress USA in Oxon Hill, Maryland.

Back in 1960, the Bethesda, Maryland-based foundation broke ground by establishing a Care Center Network to provide multidisciplinary care. Within five more years, it had formed a patient registry.

With only $400,000 in the bank, it would also commit $11 million to research, Campbell said. “Five years later, in 1985, the basic CF defect was identified, and in 1989, the CFTR gene was discovered. That opened the floodgates,” he added.

Campbell’s predecessor, Robert J. Beall, created the Therapeutics Development Program — now called its Venture Philanthropy Model — in 1998 to entice industry to focus on CF, and specifically on CFTR as a target. Its three components were financial assistance, research tools and scientific advice, and a clinical trials network.

“We would lower the risk for industry to come into the CF space. We also made our research tools and scientific advice freely available, and we also embedded the best scientists in the world in these industry programs,” said Campbell, who took over from Beall as head of the CFF in January 2016. “Finally, in order to make sure clinical trials were safely and efficiently done, we created a clinical trials network that originally had seven centers and now has 89.”

In the beginning, CFF’s investments were typically in the $1.5 million range. Ultimately, the foundation invested more than $100 million in Aurora and its successor, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, whose headquarters are in Boston.

To date, the FDA has approved three Vertex CFTR modulators: Kalydeco (ivacaftor) for patients with the G551D mutation in the CFTR gene (2012); Orkambi (lumacaftor/ivacaftor)for patients who are homozygous for F508del, the most common mutation in the CFTR gene (2015); and Symdeko (tezacaftor/ivacaftor) for homozygous F508del patients as well as others (2018).

“Payments are milestone-based, so we pay for success,” Campbell said. “A scientific advisory committee determines if milestones are met and if the project should continue. Successful programs offer a return on our investment, so if the program is foundering, we shake hands and walk away.”

To continue to full article, please click here.

‘Sham’ or public interest? ICER suggests 70%-plus discounts on Vertex’s cystic fibrosis drugs

By Angus Liu

Vertex has often talked about its admiration for Gilead, setting the big biotech’s ability to roll out multiple antivirals as a model for its cystic fibrosis endeavor. Now, though, it faces the same pricing issue once pinned on Gilead’s hepatitis C franchise. But the company refuses to play sitting duck.

In a new report, the U.S. cost-effectiveness watchdog the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review argues that Vertex’s cystic fibrosis trio—Kalydeco, Orkambi and newly approved Symdeko—need a huge price cut to achieve cost-effectiveness. Its suggested discount? Over 70%. Continue reading ‘Sham’ or public interest? ICER suggests 70%-plus discounts on Vertex’s cystic fibrosis drugs

FDA approves Proteostasis’s triple combination program for CF

Singapore — Proteostasis Therapeutics, a clinical stage biopharmaceutical company dedicated to the discovery and development of ground-breaking therapies to treat cystic fibrosis (CF) and other diseases caused by dysfunctional protein processing, announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted Fast Track Designation for the Company’s triple combination program for the treatment of cystic fibrosis. The Company’s proprietary triple combination includes a novel cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) amplifier, third generation corrector and potentiator, known as PTI-428, PTI-801 and PTI-808, respectively. The Company announced in January that the protocol for its triple combination clinical study, which the Company plans to initiate in the current quarter, has received endorsement and a high strategic fit score from the Therapeutics Development Network (TDN) and the Clinical Trial Network (CTN), the drug development arms of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF) and the European CF Society (ECFS), respectively.

“Fast Track designation represents another positive step for the development of our triple combination therapy and underscores the serious unmet need that remains for the vast majority of CF patients,” said Meenu Chhabra, president and chief executive officer of Proteostasis Therapeutics.

The FDA’s Fast Track program is designed to facilitate the development and expedite the review of new drugs that are intended to treat serious or life-threatening conditions and that demonstrate the potential to address unmet medical needs. An investigational drug that receives Fast Track program designation is eligible for more frequent communications between the FDA and the company relating to the development plan and clinical trial design and may be eligible for priority review if certain criteria are met.

To read original article click here.

Steps in the Journey: CFTR mutation to sweat chloride concentration to survival

Associations between “salty” sweat and early mortality can be found in the scientific literature dating back to the 17th century [1], hundreds of years before a comprehensive medical description of cystic fibrosis (CF) [2]. Insightful observation of excessive dehydration and deaths among children during a 1948 New York City heat wave suggested that salt homeostasis was a fundamental cellular problem in CF [3], with identification of supranormal sweat chloride concentrations remaining fundamental to the diagnosis of CF today. Since identification of the mutated gene associated with CF (the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator; CFTR) [4], pieces of the CF puzzle seem to have, for the most part, fallen into place. Continue reading Steps in the Journey: CFTR mutation to sweat chloride concentration to survival

Advancing the GI frontier for patients with CF

The care of patients with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) has seen amazing advances in the past few years, made in part through the development of CFTR modulators. However, the recognition of the frequency of gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms in our patients is just beginning to emerge. Only recently have publications noted the excessively high frequency of GI issues. Continue reading Advancing the GI frontier for patients with CF

A Breath of Fresh Air for Biotechs Working on Cystic Fibrosis Therapies

Researchers from the University of Zurich have determined the structure of a chloride channel, which could be a target for new drugs to treat cystic fibrosis.

Researchers at the University of Zurich have found a new target for future cystic fibrosis treatments. The study, published in Nature, has uncovered the structure of a protein that could help to correct the mechanism underlying the buildup of sticky mucus in patients’ lungs. This could give rise to a new wave of therapeutics for the condition, which at the moment lacks disease-modifying treatments.

Cystic fibrosis is a severe genetic disease affecting the lungs, for which there is currently no cure. It is caused by a malfunctioning chloride channel, CFTR, which prevents the secretion of chloride by cells, leading to the production of thick, sticky mucus in the lung. The condition affects around 70,000 people worldwide, who suffer from chronic infections and require daily physiotherapy.

However, one potential approach to treat cystic fibrosis is to activate the calcium-activated chloride channel, TMEM16A, as an alternative route for chloride efflux. As TMEM16A is located within the same epithelium as CFTR, its activation could rehydrate the mucus layer. The research group used cryo-electron microscopy to decipher the structure of TMEM16A, which is part of a protein family that facilitates the flow of negatively charged ions or lipids across the cell membrane.

The changes that occur in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients.

TMEM16A is found in many of our organs, playing a key role in muscle contraction and pain perception, as well as in the lungs. It forms an hourglass-shaped protein-enclosed channel, which when bound by positively charged calcium ions, opens to let chloride ions to pass through the membrane.

Current treatments for cystic fibrosis include bronchodilators, mucus thinners, antibiotics, and physiotherapy, which only control symptoms. However, biotechs around Europe are beginning to make progress, with ProQR completing a Phase Ib trial and Galapagos and Abbvie’s triple combination therapy entering Phase I. Antabio has also received €7.6M from CARB-X to develop a new antibiotic against Pseudomonas infections.

The identification of a new target provides patients and biotechs alike with renewed hope of new and effective cystic fibrosis treatments, or even a cure. It will be interesting to see whether small molecules or gene therapy specialists could take advantage of this information.

Original article: https://labiotech.eu/cystic-fibrosis-treatment-target/