A New Era for Genetic Medicine

By Barby Ingle, PNN Columnist

This past September, I attended several conferences for chronic pain awareness month. Most had the same speakers and the same topics, but a promising new development was discussed at one meeting: Genetic medicine as a treatment for painful diseases.

For those who are new to the concept of gene replacement therapy, this is a potential way to treat genetic diseases that would save time, pain, life and energy for anyone with a gene related health challenge.

New genetic therapies, such as gene editing and oligonucleotides, are already paving the way towards treating rare diseases. Gene therapy focuses on adding a corrected copy of a gene or directly altering a mutated gene, while oligonucleotides are synthetic molecules used to inactivate genes involved in the disease process.

I listened to leaders from patient advocacy and industry discuss the promise of these new approaches, including Bartholomew Tortella, MD, who is a leader in Global Medical Affairs at Pfizer and Pushkal Garg, MD, who is Chief Medical Officer at Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. It was interesting to me that pharmaceutical companies are on the cutting edge of gene therapies.

One of the things I learned is that genetic editing and remapping are “one and done” treatments. A gene fix can only be done once. No doubt it would be expensive, but if it works what is the price of 30 years of standard treatments to manage a condition vs. a one-time treatment that can reverse the actual underlying genetic issue?

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I have had Prometheus and Color gene testing, and know that I have some life challenges of my own built into my genes. But learning about the potential of gene therapy gave me reason for hope.

There are already genetic therapies that are approved by the FDA for blind patients. Other genetic treatments will be coming online soon. We have been making advances with mice in research studies, and translating that into human clinical trials has now begun.

Would you want to get involved in the early stages of genetic testing? Or would you rather wait until its safety and effectiveness is proven? We won’t make progress without patients who are willing to volunteer and have their genes edited first. This is something that is a little sci-fi and scary to comprehend. It takes a special person to go first in these types of situations, yet the scientists I spoke with say the trials are being closely monitored for safety and efficacy.

One major challenge is that viruses are often used in gene replacement therapy to introduce the proper genes into the body. If a patient has previously been exposed to the virus, the new gene will be attacked by the body’s immune system and the treatment won’t work. If the therapy works, the virus is now in their body and it will not be a future option as a delivery system if the gene mutation returns or is not fully corrected.

Finding that Goldilocks zone for each patient will continue to be a challenge.

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics. More information about Barby can be found at her website.  

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.