Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School have shown that it is possible to do what had once seemed unthinkable — shut down the extra chromosome that causes the developmental problems and intellectual disabilities in people with Down syndrome.
The surprising result, so far accomplished only with human cells grown in laboratory dishes, is the fruit of a daring, out-of-the-box approach by a scientist whose work has been shaped by her early experience counseling families of children with disabilities.
“It really is revolutionary, in terms of causing us all to rethink the one impossible thought — can you make, functionally, that extra chromosome disappear,” said Dr. Brian Skotko, co-director of the Down Syndrome Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, who was not involved in the new study. “I don’t think any of us thought it was possible or even within the current realm of scientific dreaming.”
The gist of the discovery is this: People with Down syndrome are born with three, not the usual two, copies of chromosome 21. The UMass team found a way to suppress the expression of that extra chromosome, raising the possibility that eventually, a similar shutdown could be engineered in people, perhaps short-circuiting some of the manifestations of Down syndrome.
The discovery, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, highlights a broad shift in how scientists, doctors, and families view Down syndrome. In the decades since the chromosome abnormality was identified in 1959, there had been little serious talk about trying to treat its complex underlying biological cause. But research and advocacy are beginning to change the discussion.
While UMass researchers were conducting their experiments, researchers at Mass. General were preparing to launch two clinical trials of drugs intended to improve the cognitive capacities of adults with Down syndrome. The studies are set to start in the next few months.
The hope is that drug therapies, even given in adulthood, could partly restore normal function in the brains of people with Down syndrome. But the condition alters brain development in the womb, so some scientists believe that to be most effective, therapies would need to be administered during pregnancy.
The drugs to be tested at Mass. General are made by the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche and by Elan Corp. in Ireland.
The idea of treating the core problems of Down syndrome, and not just the medical problems that accompany it, appeals to families, even though such drugs would be unable to reverse all the developmental problems.
Louise Borke of North Andover said participating in trials of therapies is something she would seriously consider for her 24-year-old son, Louis Sciuto. He has two jobs and lives independently, and he rides his bike to her house to play basketball in the driveway, but like any parent she would love to give him every opportunity. “If it would just make the individual a higher-functioning person with Down syndrome, I would be surprised if there’s anyone who wouldn’t want to try it,” Borke said.
To do the UMass research, Jeanne Lawrence, a professor of cell and developmental biology, weaved together two unlikely threads: her interest in the biology of the sex-determining X chromosome and a passion for helping families of children with intellectual disabilities.
Lawrence earned a degree in genetic counseling in the 1970s but before she got much experience as a counselor, she and her husband moved to New Haven, where she couldn’t find an open job. She was offered a position in the laboratory of a human geneticist, and she quickly became fascinated by the fundamental biology of chromosomes, the structures that carry DNA in our cells.
Lawrence went on to earn a graduate degree and eventually moved to UMass. Conditions such as Down syndrome, however, were never far from her thoughts.
She regularly invited a family with a child with Down syndrome to talk to medical students and always remembered a summer she spent in college teaching adults with Down syndrome how to swim.
“When you look at the sort of fortunes that people experience, the luck of people, the children born with disabilities have had a tough time from the start, and I was just motivated by that,” Lawrence said in an interview.
Her research focused on a gene called XIST that occurred on the X chromosome and inactivated one copy of this chromosome in women. Women have two copies of the X chromosome, but only one is needed — men have only one X chromosome — so the body has a natural way to silence one.
That planted an idea in the back of Lawrence’s mind: Would it be possible to shut down extra chromosomes that cause conditions such as Down syndrome using the same approach?
“It was just a glimmer of, ‘Huh, I wonder,’ ” Lawrence said. But there were huge technical questions about whether it was feasible.
As technologies evolved, she saw a possible path forward. She asked the dean of the medical school, an expert in gene therapy, whether she would be wasting her time. She had a conversation with a geneticist she used to work with, asking whether it seemed crazy to try.
Both were encouraging.
Supported by a type of grant from the National Institutes of Health that is awarded to risky projects, Lawrence and two colleagues, Jun Jiang and Lisa Hall, began working on the problem. Even for a high-risk grant, Lawrence said, “I think they thought this was at the margin of too high risk.”
The basic idea, however, is simple: they would use new genome editing techniques to insert the large XIST gene into the extra copy of the chromosome in cells from a Down syndrome patient. Then they would see whether they could trigger the gene to shut down the chromosome.
The researchers started with stem cells that had been created by reprogramming skin cells taken from a man with Down syndrome. They inserted the gene for XIST into one of the extra chromosome copies, and then were able to create specific types of cells and see what happened when they turned the gene on.
Tests of gene activity suggested the extra chromosome had stopped functioning. Strikingly, they saw that in brain cells without the extra chromosome, cells were able to grow more rapidly and were better able to form progenitors of other brain cells. They are continuing to test the differences between cells, and are hoping next to use the technology to shut down the extra chromosome in a mouse with a version of Down syndrome.
Prior to publication of the paper, Lawrence presented her results to a conference of researchers in Washington, D.C.
“I really believe people’s jaws dropped at that meeting,” said Dr. Diana Bianchi, executive director of the Mother Infant Research Institute at Tufts Medical Center. Bianchi said she was particularly interested in the effect shutting off the chromosome had on brain cell formation, since she is interested in developing prenatal therapies that could normalize brain development in the womb.
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