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Gene Therapy in Ophthalmology Update 21: New Gene Therapy Company, Spark Therapeutics, Launches

Posted Oct 24 2013 12:27pm

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) announced that it had spun off its work in gene therapy to a new, fully integrated company, Spark Therapeutics , that will assume control over two current gene therapy clinical trials: a Phase III study for Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, an inherited disease that results in blindness caused by mutations of the RPE65 gene, and a Phase I/II study for hemophilia B. The new company is also advancing toward the clinic with gene therapy programs to address neurodegenerative diseases and additional hematologic disorders and other forms of inherited blindness. One such program, in the latter category, already in pre-clinical development at CHOP, could be its study for the treatment of Choroideremia, a rare inherited disorder that causes progressive loss of vision due to degeneration of the choroid and retina.

Editors Note: It should be noted that one clinical trial using gene therapy to treat Choroideremia is already underway at Imperial College London and Oxford University, in conjunction with Moorfields Hospital in London.

The new company has been launched with a $50 million capital commitment from Children’s Hospital to advance and commercialize multiple ongoing programs with clinical proof of concept.
As noted by Susan Young, writing about the launch in Technology Review , “Spark has a chance to be the first gene-therapy company to obtain FDA approval. Results for a late-stage trial of a gene therapy for Leber's Congenital Amaurosis ... are expected by mid-2015. That treatment is one of several gene therapies in or nearing late-stage testing contending to be the first gene therapy approved by the FDA for sale in the U.S.”
The Phase III trial was initiated late last year, and CHOP has made significant progress in enrolling patients. Spark will be sharing additional details on its progress and encouraging results in the very near future.
And, as shown in my table of Ongoing Clinical Trials in Ophthalmology , it is the only gene therapy trial (in ophthalmology) that has advanced to Phase III.
Editors Note: For clarity, is should be noted that there are five other clinical trials underway to treat Leber’s, as shown in my table, but all are currently Phase I or Phase I/II studies. The Spark Therapeutics trial is the farthest advanced.
“The creation of Spark is the culmination of a decade-long commitment by CHOP and our founding team to drive the field of gene therapy forward during a time when many in the industry had moved away,” said Jeffrey D. Marrazzo, co-founder, president and chief executive officer of Spark Therapeutics. “Their vision and long-term dedication have enabled us to effectively address many of the key challenges facing the field and to emerge with one of the industry’s most robust clinical-stage gene therapy pipelines; as well as exclusive rights to commercialize a proprietary manufacturing platform, supply from a world-class manufacturing facility and a founding team with a proven track record of executing safe and effective gene therapy trials for nearly two decades. We are working with great urgency and care to deliver gene therapy products with the potential to transform the lives of those affected by severe genetic diseases.”
Spark builds on the work of CHOP’s Center for Cellular and Molecular Therapeutics (CCMT), established in 2004 as a world-class center for gene therapy translational research and manufacturing. Many of the CCMT’s leaders will assume management roles within Spark or engage with the company as scientific advisors, including Katherine A. High, M.D, a gene therapy pioneer who has served as the director of the CCMT since its inception.
“Gene-based medicines are among the most complex therapeutics ever developed,” said Dr. High. “We at CCMT have persevered through more than a decade of scientific and clinical development and are now closer than ever to realizing the ambitious vision of one-time, potentially curative therapies to address serious genetic conditions. The team at Spark has incredible goals for the treatment of diseases including hemophilia B and inherited blindness, and we look forward to working with them to deliver groundbreaking new treatments to patients in need.”
Spark has entered into agreements with multiple academic institutions to assemble the technology, programs and capabilities needed to deliver its pioneering gene therapy products. Notably, Spark has exclusive rights to commercialize CHOP’s proprietary manufacturing technology and will use clinical-grade gene therapy vectors produced by the CCMT’s state of the art good manufacturing practices (cGMP) clinical facility.
Pioneers in AAV delivery
Over the past two decades, the Spark leadership team has developed unrivaled expertise in the design, manufacturing and delivery of gene therapies using adeno-associated virus (AAV) vectors. AAV has been demonstrated in clinical studies to be a safe and effective vehicle for the delivery of genetic material into targeted cells and provides unique advantages over alternative delivery approaches. The Spark team was among the first to demonstrate human clinical proof of concept in two distinct organ systems — the eye and the liver — establishing a strong foundation for the company’s current programs, and has clinical experience in 15 studies across diverse genetic and non-genetic diseases and five distinct routes of administration.
Spark’s most advanced clinical program is a Phase III study to address blindness caused by mutations in the RPE65 gene. There is currently no pharmacologic treatment for this form of inherited retinal degeneration, which ultimately causes irreversible blindness.
The open-label, randomized, controlled study builds on an earlier clinical study in which 12 patients with RPE65-related blindness demonstrated notable improvement in visual function, moving in some cases from being profoundly blind to being able to recognize faces and ambulate independently. All school-age patients enrolled in the trial were able to transfer from Braille classrooms to sighted classrooms.
One such patient was Corey Haas, whose story is related in the book “The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It”.
Corey Haas, his parents, and the CHOP team that treated his Leber’s and gave him back his vision. 
Read Corey’s story in Ricki Lewis’ book, The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It.

The team's experience in the clinical study of gene therapy – from designing and manufacturing vectors to conducting studies that have shown strong potential for safety and efficacy – is unparalleled in the field. Clinical-grade vectors prepared by the team have been used to safely treat more than 100 human subjects in 12 clinical trials in the U.S. and EU, across five parenteral routes of administration in genetic and non-genetic diseases. No other group can claim this breadth of expertise and experience in human gene therapy.
The adeno-associated virus (AAV) vectors used in the clinical programs have been demonstrated to be safe and effective vehicles for delivering genetic material into targeted cells, providing unique advantages over alternative therapeutic approaches. The team has established human proof of concept in two organ systems – the eye and the liver – and are advancing a Phase III program in blindness caused by mutations of the RPE65 gene; a Phase I/II program in hemophilia B; and preclinical programs in neurodegenerative diseases and other hematologic disorders and forms of inherited blindness.
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