Sticking to its Guns with Gene Therapy, Genzyme To Present Key Findings Within Days

3/25/09Follow @xconomy

Dozens of companies have given up on gene therapy after the technology failed to live up to its early promise, but not Genzyme. The world’s largest maker of drugs for genetic diseases has stuck with this field through two decades of ups and downs, and it expects to see important results in coming days on whether it has found an effective approach in people.

Genzyme (NASDAQ: GENZ), with headquarters in Cambridge, MA and a gene therapy manufacturing unit in San Diego, is planning to present results this month at the American College of Cardiology from a clinical trial of 289 patients who took its experimental gene therapy for peripheral artery disease. This treatment is designed to encourage re-growth of new blood vessels to circumvent clogged arteries in the legs. If successful, this trial will show whether a single shot can help patients with severely limited mobility keep walking for longer periods without pausing to rest.

Gene therapy, in simple terms, is about modifying viruses to carry copies of genes into cells where they can replace missing or faulty genes at the root cause of certain types of disease. This technique was hyped in the early 1990s as a panacea for many ills beyond the reach of conventional medicine. Time magazine published a cover story in 1994 titled “Genetics: The Future is Now.” More than 100 biotech companies were formed with dreams of becoming the next Amgen or Genentech. Then the field ran into a brick wall in 1999 when Arizona teenager Jesse Gelsinger died of a massive inflammatory response in a gene therapy clinical trial.

That scared away most investors, and provoked a fierce ethical debate. Gene therapy regained some momentum in 2002 when French researchers found that the technique could restore a functioning immune system for infants with severe combined immunodeficiency, sometimes called “bubble boy” disease. But even that step forward was followed by a setback when four of nine were later found to have developed leukemia between ages of 3 and 6. There are still no FDA-approved gene therapies on the U.S. market. Yet Genzyme still has about 100 people on any given day working on gene therapy programs, for peripheral artery disease, Parkinson’s disease, and age-related macular degeneration, among other conditions.

“Gene therapy was probably oversold in the early days,” says Sam Wadsworth, who oversees the company’s gene therapy research as Genzyme’s group vice president of translational research. But he’s quick to add that the scientists have a reason to keep going. “We believe that one day we will bring these therapies to patients. We know it. We will not pursue things that have no hope.”

Genzyme has been forging ahead in this field since the early days in 1991. Like some other companies, notably Seattle-based Targeted Genetics (NASDAQ: TGEN), it went after what was then considered low-hanging fruit—cystic fibrosis, a deadly lung disease in children and young adults that’s caused by a single faulty gene. Deliver the correct gene inside cells, and gene therapy was supposed to offer a cure.

It didn’t work out that way. Genzyme dropped that program long ago. The company now has three programs—peripheral artery disease, Parkinson’s disease, macular degeneration—that share some features in common. They can be treated with localized therapy … Next Page »

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