The Center for Gene Therapy at Nationwide Childrens Hospital is working to develop childrens gene therapy treatments. Officials say the gene therapy research and clinical trials there are starting to attract companies to central Ohio.
Nationwide Childrens Hospital is in the forefront of curing several genetic childhood diseases, transforming Columbus into a major medical hub, several gene therapy experts say.
The hospital's Center for Gene Therapy at the Abigail Wexner Research Institute is working to develop treatments for children, which is attracting patients and companies to Ohio, according to officials at Nationwide Childrens and JobsOhio, the state's economic development organization.
The illnesses that were making use of in gene therapy are devastating illnesses, said Dr. Kevin Flanigan, the director of Nationwide Childrens Center for Gene Therapy. These are ones we know that children would be significantly impaired for life or die because of the disease.
Gene therapy involves altering the genes inside the patient's cells in an effort to treat or stop disease. It gives doctors the chance to treat many previously untreatable rare and genetic diseases.
Gene therapy is currently available primarily in a research setting, with only four gene therapy products approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for sale in the United States. One of the four, Zolgensma, started as a clinical trial for spinal muscular atrophy at Nationwide Childrens in 2014.
The hospital is working on a handful of gene therapy treatments for various childhood diseases that affect muscle, motor or mental functions, Flanigan said.
Gene therapy presents a tremendous opportunity for our medical system, and Columbus has been a huge part of that growth thanks to the work being done at Nationwide Childrens Hospital, Edith Pfister, chairwoman of the American Society of Gene & Cell Therapys communications committee, said in an email.
The FDA approved Zolgensma, a one-time treatment that intravenously delivers the gene that is missing in children with spinal muscular atrophy, on May 24.
SMA is a progressive childhood neuromuscular disease that is caused by a mutation in a single gene that attacks nerve cells. It causes major physical limitations including the inability to breathe, swallow, talk or sit up. Children born with SMA typically die or need permanent breathing assistance by the time they turn 2 years old.
Donovan Weisgarber was diagnosed with SMA type 1 at Nationwide Childrens in November 2015 when he was 5 weeks old. His parents, Matt and Laura Weisgarber, decided to participate in a clinical trial at the hospital and Donovan received Zolgensma.
Before the treatment, Donovan was unable to swallow and had difficulty breathing. Today, the 4-year-old has doubled his life expectancy and is able to talk, sit up, roll over and hold his head up on his own. He also attends the Early Childhood Education and Family Center on Johnstown Road on the East Side, which offers services from the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities.
(Gene therapy) has given us an opportunity that we otherwise wouldnt have to love Donovan and experience him, said Matt Weisgarber, 33, of the Northeast Side.
A lot of people hear Ohio and think flyover state, but now Columbus is going to be a hub of the most groundbreaking science known to mankind and thats a really cool thing, he said.
Boston Childrens Hospital and Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia also have impressive gene therapy centers, but Columbus sets itself apart from those East Coast cities, said Severina Kraner, JobsOhios health care director.
The cost to operate, manufacture and live in Ohio is cheaper than Boston and Philadelphia, putting Ohio in a position to win cell and gene therapy companies, she said.
People are being priced out of these coastal cities, Kraner said.
One of the companies who has committed to building in Columbus is Sarepta Therapeutics, a Massachusetts-based biopharmaceutical company. Sarepta signed an agreement with Nationwide Childrens in May 2019, giving the company the licensing to a gene therapy treatment that came out of hospital research for limb-girdle muscular dystrophies, a group of diseases that cause weakness and wasting of the muscles in the arms and legs.
Sarepta is scheduled to open an 85,000-square-foot Gene Therapy Center of Excellence near Nationwide Childrens Hospital in the fall to do early research for all the companys gene therapy programs. A team of about 30 employees from Sarepta is currently working at a facility at Easton Town Center.
The region has every ingredient needed for a thriving gene therapy cluster: a strong academic foundation, world-renowned research hospitals, and, now, industry investment, Louise Rodino-Klapac, Sareptas senior vice president of gene therapy, said in an email. All of these contribute to creating a pipeline of talented people who will accelerate scientific advances that help patients.
Nationwide Childrens recently also announced it will be expanding its gene therapy research by creating Andelyn BioSciences, a new for-profit subsidiary that will manufacture gene therapy products for the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.
Were hoping, and we have a vision, that Andelyn can help capitalize a biotechnology hub in central Ohio focused on developing and advancing gene therapies, said Dr. Dennis Durbin, Nationwide Childrens chief science officer.
Andelyn BioSciences will launch this summer and operate out of the Abigail Wexner Research Institute, 575 Children's Crossroad. Nationwide Children's is trying to secure a permanent location for Andelyn and is looking at land on Ohio State Universitys West Campus.
Gene therapy treatment, however, comes at a high price.
The manufacturer set the price of Zolgensma at more than $2.1 million. Insurers can pay $425,000 a year for five years for one treatment.
Insurance companies are used to regular installment payments, but the single-dose nature of gene therapies are adding a level of uncertainty to health insurance structures, Pfister said in an email. A one-time administration gene therapy costs less overall, but it occurs in one upfront payment.
Pfister said she is hopeful the cost of gene therapy will go down.
Currently, most of the FDA-approved gene and cell therapies are tailored for the specific patient, but theres an incredible amount of research going into standardizing the components and delivery mechanisms behind gene therapy, Pfister said in an email.
Dr. Jerry Mendell helped usher in the era of gene therapy at Nationwide Childrens when he came to the hospital in 2004.
Nationwide Childrens first gene therapy trial was in 2006 for duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare, inherited, degenerative muscle disorder that almost exclusively affects boys.
Things have really changed significantly in the gene therapy world because of the contributions weve made here, and its been a very gratifying experience, said Mendell, the principal investigator in Nationwide Childrens Center for Gene Therapy.
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