Investigators in the Netherlands have developed an RNA therapy to halt the progression of Stargardt disease.
Reviewed by Carel B. Hoyng, MD.
Investigators in the Netherlands are focused on finding a treatment for Stargardt disease, an inherited progressive retinal disorder that affects about 1 in 10,000 individuals worldwide. They have developed a unique therapeutic approach, an RNA therapy, to stop the progression of the disease, which ultimately leads to legal blindness, according to Dr Carel B. Hoyng, professor of ophthalmology and shareholder and cofounder of Astherna with Dr Rob Collin, professor of Molecular Therapy for Inherited Retinal Diseases, both from Radboud University Centre, Nijmegen, Netherlands.
Dr Hoyng explained at the annual Angiogenesis, Exudation, and Degeneration 2022 conference that mutations in the ABCA4 gene interrupt the visual cycle in Stargardt disease, which usually affects people in the first or second decade of life. That disruption in the visual cycle affects production of proteins and ultimately leads to lipofuscin accumulation in the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). The goal is to restore the appropriate protein production in the visual cycle of these patients.
Stem cell, gene, and pharmacologic therapies have been considered for Stargardt disease. Among these, hESC-RPE cells are in trials as is the gene therapy SAR422459 in the StarGen trial. Numerous pharmacologic therapies are also being evaluated.
AONs, a new area of drug development, can prevent the gradual decline in vision that characterizes Stargardt disease by binding to the targeted RNA. These synthetic RNA molecules work to restore the proteins that are affected by the disease. This approach has already been shown to be promising in Leber congenital amaurosis, another inherited retinal disease. In these patients, eight intravitreally AON-treated eyes had a clinically meaningful (p = 0.001) improvement in vision compared with the untreated contralateral eye 3 months after treatment,1 Dr Hoyng said.
This therapy is advantageous in that it gets to the inherited root of the disease, i.e., the flaws in the RNA, and the small size of the molecules allows them to access the targeted retinal cells.
In a study of AONs in Stargardt disease,2 in which Dr Hoyng participated, the investigators sought to identify missing heritability in these patients. They sequenced ABCA4 in eight cases with one variant and p.Asn1868Ile in trans, 25 cases with one variant, and three cases with no ABCA4 variant. In two-thirds of cases, they identified one known and five novel deep-intronic variants. AONs introduced to correct splice defects resulted in partial correction of the defects in the ABCA4 gene, thus demonstrating the potential of this therapy.
“The importance of this research is that it tackles the root cause of Stargardt disease,” Dr Hoyng concluded.