Exa-cel on review at the FDA

Just last week, on 31 October, the FDA’s Cellular, Tissue, and Gene Therapies Advisory Committee met to discuss Vertex Pharma’s Biologics License Application for Exagamglogene autotemcel (or exa-cel, and formerly known as CTX-001) — a cell-based gene therapy designed to treat sickle-cell diseases.

I have written about exa-cel many times before, both on this blog (here) and in published academic writing too. I have also spoken about it in this podcast. Exa-cel is a therapeutic product that is composed of the patient’s own (autologous) hematopoietic stem cells; however, those cells — specifically differentiation 34+ (CD34+) cells, have been edited using CRISPR/Cas 9 editing machinery (CRISPR).

In short, a CRISPR-Cas endonuclease system (CRISPRs) is a naturally occurring adaptive immune system that exists in most bacteria. These systems prevent bacteria from being infected by foreign genetic elements, such as viruses and phages. Where an infection exists, the Cas9 protein in the CRISPR will cleave or cut one strand each of double-stranded DNA to cause a double-strand break and thus decrease production of progeny viruses. Following that DSB, the genome will be repaired naturally, usually through a naturally occurring process called non-homologous end joining or NHEJ.

But this CRISPR/Cas 9 system can be ‘hijacked’ by science for therapeutic purposes. Using a guided template, the DSBs made by the Cas9 protein can be repaired in a precise and controllable manner, allowing the editing machinery of cell repair to be redirected toward doing repairs or edits that it would otherwise not do unguided.

This is how exa-cel works (in a nutshell). After the patient’s cells have been extracted, they are subject to guided disruption and repair by CRISPR. The CRISPR system make precise DSBs at the erythroid lineage specific enhancer region of B-cell lymphoma/leukemia 11A (BCL11A) gene on chromosome 2. In turn, this process disrupts GATA1 binding and abrogates BCL11A expression. Having turned off the expression of BCL11A, another gene, γ-globin (HBG1/HGB2) is expressed, creating fetal hemoglobin (HbF) production. It is quite complicated; but, in essence, the production of fetal hemoglobin allows people with sickle-cell diseases (red blood cells shaped like sickles because the cells are starved of oxygen) to be restored to health.

There are many issues and risks with this therapy, including the fact that sickle-cell disorder could be a protective disorder against malaria. But one especially concerning prospect, which is really at the core of the BLA on review currently, is the chance that the CRISPR may create cuts or DSBs at a site on the genome locus that is not in the right place. These misplaced or unforeseen cuts are known as ‘off-target effects’ or, alternatively, as indels — which means (usually unintended) insertions or deletions. The BLA puts the risks well:

One of the main concerns related to genome editing technology is risk of cleavage of genomic DNA at unintended sites due to imperfect pairing between the gRNA and the target DNA sequence. A subset of these imperfectly paired sites can be cleaved by the Cas9 endonuclease resulting in unintended edits across the genome. These sites can tolerate up to 6-mismatches between the gRNA and the genomic DNA. Since unintended edits can disrupt gene expression if present in the coding or regulatory DNA sequences, it is critical that the specificity of the gRNA be thoroughly screened to ensure off-target genome editing is minimized.


I am still trying to get my head around the recent report of the results of the off-target analysis present in the BLA. The FDA’s BLA report states as follows:

For the cellular off-target analysis, the Applicant used three samples from healthy donors and three samples from subjects with SCD of African American ethnicity. Given the impact of the SCD on [hematopoietic stem cell] function, which can potentially change the chromatin landscape and can impact off-target editing, the merits of using healthy donor samples for such analysis is not clear.

Additionally, it is not clear if the small number of samples used in the cellular GUIDE-seq offtarget analysis is sufficient to adequately assess off-target editing in exa-cel.


The report then continues: In Silico Analysis Off-Target Analysis Data for Exa-cel

The Applicant used three publicly available in silico algorithms to nominate potential off-target sites for the sgRNA SPY101 (Figure 6) based on its homology to the reference sequence.


Notably, however, when you get to the next page on the analysis of these risks, there are a number of redactions, no doubt because these are commercially protected contents that the regulator must not disclose. On first view, it appears that these ‘in silico algorithms’ to nominate potential off-target sites is, as is said below, a ‘part of the tool.’ I am not quite sure whether that means that the tool — the CRISPR system used be Vertex — is also the same system that conducts the off-target search, or something else. Have a read:

In any case, it looks like the so-called ‘indel frequency’ is very low. As the report noted later, “In this analysis, there were no statistically significant off-target editing events observed at any of the off-targets nominated using in silico analysis.” Although it remains unclear to me precisely how the indel assessment takes place, it is worth noting that the report’s view of the findings of the sponsor are very ambiguous, and tend towards a finding that the results of the study are inadequate. As the report notes in its conclusion of the safety summary section (4.1.2):

These changes have the potential to impact the chromatin landscape of SCD donor derived CD34+ HSPCs. Since chromatin accessibility can influence off-target activity, it is not clear if GUIDE-seq analysis of healthy donor derived CD34+ HSPCs can adequately capture potential off-target editing occurring in patient cells. However, availability of SCD donor cells can be limited and should also be considered. The Applicant used a total of four samples that were from donors of African American ethnicity. Three of these samples were from SCD donors that were used in the GUIDE-seq experiment and hybrid capture sequencing experiment, and one sample was from healthy donor that was used in the hybrid capture sequencing experiment. Given the limited number of SCD samples that were used in the cellular off-target analysis, it is not clear if the GUIDE-seq analysis adequately assessed the potential off-target editing by exa-cel.

Given the ambiguity of the FDA’s assessment, which states that Vertex’s pharmacovigilance plan is still under review, it remains to be seen whether more studies will need to be provided before the FDA consider exa-cel ready for the clinic.