Patients at center of 8th annual FARA-USF scientific symposium
Patients have always been the center of the yearly scientific symposium hosted by the Friedreich’s Ataxia Research Alliance (FARA) and the University of South Florida Ataxia Research Center.
But, for the 8th annual symposium held Sept. 15 at USF’s Gibbons Alumni Center, patients took on an even more prominent role. The panel discussion in which they share their stories about living with the rare, but devastating, progressive neurodegenerative disease, including patient participation in clinical trials, was moved up in the program format.
And this year, led by FARA spokesperson Kyle Bryant as moderator, the four patient panelists were the ones driving the conversation with leading researchers from academia and industry who sat onstage beside these young adults to discuss the latest advances in the search for effective treatments and, ultimately, a cure.
More than 250 attendees gathered at the USF Gibbons Alumni Center for the symposium, which was also live-streamed and viewed worldwide by those in the FA community, over 500 people in eight countries. The symposium “Understanding Energy for a Cure” kicked off a series of events in Tampa Bay to raise awareness about FA, culminating Sept. 17 with the FARA Energy Ball gala, which this year raised $2 million to benefit innovative ataxia research.
“My parents and sister never really let me believe that Friedreich’s ataxia was going to stop me,” said panelist Alison Avery, 22, diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia at age 18, who is interning with the National Football League’s social responsibility department in NYC following college graduation. “It may have changed the way that I do certain things, but right now I’m living on my own in New York City, and that’s something not everyone would do, whether or not they have FA.”
Alison participates in the “Cardiac MRI and Biomarkers in Friedreich’s Ataxia” study at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and another evaluating the relationship between exercise performance and neurological/cardiac status and overall functioning in children and adults with FA. “I’m excited to be able to share my perspective on being involved in different research studies,” she said. “I feel like that’s something more people should know, especially the researchers — about how patients actually feel about trials and studies.”
Friedreich’s ataxia typically strikes in childhood or adolescence and leads to a progressive loss of coordination and muscle strength, eventually robbing young people of their energy and ability to walk. While the neurological symptoms are most visible, FA is a multisystem disease that can adversely affect cardiac function, metabolism, vision, hearing and the skeletal system. There is currently no approved treatment for FA.
“Throughout the history of this event, the one constant has been how incredibly motivating and inspiring it is to hear from patients and their families who never fail to share one valuable message: ‘Live life to its fullest despite the challenges of Friedreich’s ataxia,’” said USF System President Judy Genshaft in her symposium welcome remarks.
The USF Health Morsani College of Medicine is one of 10 sites in the international FARA Collaborative Clinical Research Network, all working to discover treatments that can attack FA on different fronts and improve the quality of life for patients.
“We’ve made this a high research priority within the institution,” President Genshaft said. “Over the last 20 years FARA’s international collaborative of researchers has increased the pace in the fight against FA. Today more than 20 drugs are in the treatment pipeline and ongoing studies are working toward the discovery of new therapies… We have every reason to be hopeful, but we do know there is more work to be done.”
Theresa Zesiewicz, MD, professor of neurology and director of the USF Ataxia Research Center, updated attendees on the center’s initiatives.
“We started out at USF with one clinical trial eight years ago, and now we have five or six clinical trials and each (investigational) drug works differently,” Dr. Zesiewicz said. “Some drugs work to increase frataxin (the protein depleted in those with FA), some drugs work on inflammation, some work as strong antioxidants. So, there may not be one magic bullet to stop this disease; rather, it may require a cocktail of therapies, a conglomerate of different compounds to help delay or stop the disease process.”
Some promising preliminary results for two clinical trials conducted at USF, among other sites, were announced by lead investigator Dr. Zesiewicz. Both studies were done in collaboration with FARA.
- EPI-743 Safety and Effectiveness Study: The Phase 2 open-label extension study, sponsored by Edison Pharmaceuticals, tested the effectiveness of the potent antioxidant EPI 743 primarily on vision, and secondarily, on neurological function in adult patients with FA. After two years of study and a year of data analysis, the researchers found that patients taking EPI-743 from the study’s start demonstrated markedly less disease progression than would be expected in the natural history of the disease. The improvement in neurological function was dose-dependent, and although the last 18 months of the study were open-label, patients and investigators were blinded to the drug dose allocation. Additional studies of EPI-743 are planned in pediatric patients and those with point mutations.
- Retrotope RT001 Phase 1/2: The randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled trial evaluated the safety, tolerability and early effectiveness of the stabilized fatty acid RT001 in adult patients with FA. In the small, 28-day study, researchers found that the drug was safe, well tolerated at high doses and rapidly absorbed to target levels, with early signs of effectiveness. Earlier this year, the FDA granted Retrotope orphan drug designation for RT001 in FA.
The scientist and physician panelists at the symposium covered four areas of FA research:
- Basic and Discovery Science: Helene Puccio, PhD; Marek Napierala, PhD; and Jordi Magrane, PhD
- Drug Development and Advancing Treatments: Mark Payne, MD; and Barry Byrne, MD, PhD.
- FA Biomarkers: Kimberly Lee Lin, MD; Angel Martin, PhD student; and Christophe Lenglet, PhD.
- Clinical Trials and Translating Treatments to Improved Care: Martin Delatycki, PhD; and David Lynch, MD, PhD.
The researchers discussed their scholarly work, progress beyond their laboratories and its relevance to advancing treatments. They also emphasized their passion for FA science and personal commitment to patients.
Moving from treating symptoms to slowing and stopping progression to reversing disease is “not an overnight event,” said David Lynch, MD, PhD, lead investigator for the FARA Natural History Study at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “So, in 15 years we may look back and talk not about the advance but about the 15 advances from each of 15 clinical trials superimposed on top of one another, eventually leading to that four letter word — cure.”
Despite the challenges, the researchers agreed that the steadfast determination and resilience of patients and their families energizes them to keep working toward a cure.
“Everything we do is for the patients, and we are all in this together trying to find a treatment and cure for Friedreich’s ataxia,” said USF’s Dr. Zesiewicz. “That’s the only reason we’re here.”
Photos by Eric Younghans and video by Sandra C. Roa, USF Health Communications and Marketing