Gene Therapy for Stroke Applied with Eye Drops

Administering growth factors to the brains of patients with neurodegenerative diseases can prevent neurons from dying and maintain the structure of their brains. For example, a recently published clinical trial by Nagahara and others from the Department of Neuroscience and the University of California, San Diego examined 10 Alzheimer’s disease (AD) patients and showed that these patients responded to Nerve Growth Factor gene therapy. When they compared treated and nontreated sides of the brain in 3 patients who underwent gene transfer, expansion of cholinergic neurons was observed on the NGF-treated side. Both neurons exhibiting the typical pathology of AD and neurons free of such pathology expressed NGF, which indicates that degenerating cells can be infected with therapeutic genes. No adverse pathological effects related to NGF were observed. In the words of this study, “These findings indicate that neurons of the degenerating brain retain the ability to respond to growth factors with axonal sprouting, cell hypertrophy, and activation of functional markers. [Neuronal s]prouting induced by NGF persists for 10 years after gene transfer. Growth factor therapy appears safe over extended periods and merits continued testing as a means of treating neurodegenerative disorders.” See JAMA Neurol. 2015 Oct 1;72(10):1139-47.

Another study that also shows that the brains of AD patients can respond to growth factors comes from a paper by Ferreira and others from the Journal of Alzheimers Disease. These authors hail from the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, and they implanted encapsulated NGF-delivery systems into the brains of AD patients. Six AD patients received the treatment during twelve months. These patients were classified as responders and non-responders according to their twelve-month change in the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE), which is a standard. In order to set a proper standard of MMSE decline and brain atrophy in AD patients, Ferreira and other examined 131 AD patients for longitudinal changes in MMSE and brain atrophy. When these results provided a baseline, the NGF-treated were then compared with these baseline data. Those patients who did not respond to the implanted NGF showed more brain atrophy, and neuronal degeneration as evidenced by higher CSF levels of T-tau and neurofilaments than responding patients. The responders showed better clinical status and less pathological levels of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) Aβ1-42, and less brain shrinkage and better progression in the clinical variables and CSF biomarkers. In particular, two responders showed less brain shrinkage than what was normally experienced in the baseline data. From these experiments, Ferreira and others concluded that encapsulated biodelivery of NGF might have the potential to become a new treatment strategy for AD.

Now new, even simpler treatment strategy has been developed by a research team funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering for delivering gene therapy to the brains of AD patients. This team invented an eye drop cocktail that can deliver the gene for a growth factor called granulocyte colony stimulating factor (G-CSF) to the brain. They have tested these eye drops on mice with stroke-like injuries.

When treated with these eye drops, the mice experienced a significant reduction in shrinkage of the brain, neurological defects, and death. Ingeniously, this research group also devised a way to use Magnetic Imaging Systems to monitor how well the gene delivery worked. This one-two punch of an inexpensive and noninvasive delivery system combined with a monitoring technique that is equally noninvasive might have the ability to improve gene therapy studies in laboratory animals. Such a strategy might also be transferable to human patients. Imagine that acute brain injury might be treatable in the near future by emergency medical workers by means of eye drops that carry a therapeutic gene.

The growth factor G-CSF (granulocyte-colony stimulating factor) has more than proven itself in several animal studies. In model systems for stroke, AD, and Parkinson’s disease, G-CSF promotes neuronal survival and decreases inflammation (See McCollum M, et al., Mol Neurobiol. 2010 Jun;41(2-3):410-9; Frank T, et al., Brain. 2012 Jun;135(Pt 6):1914-25; Prakash A, Medhi B, Chopra K. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2013 Sep;110:46-57; Theoret JK, et al., Eur J Neurosci. 2015 Oct 16. doi: 10.1111/ejn.13105). Unfortunately, when G-CSF was when tested in a human trial in more than 400 stroke patients, it failed to improve neurological outcomes in stroke patients. Therefore, it is fair to say that the excitement this growth factor once generated is not what is used to be. A caveat with this clinical trial, however, is that G-CSF expression in the brains of these patients might have been rather poor in comparison to the expression achieved in mice. To properly establish the efficacy or lack of efficacy of gene therapies in human patients, scientists MUST convincingly determine that the gene is expressed in the target tissue of test subjects. This has been a perennial problem that has dogged many gene therapy trials.

Philip K. Liu, Ph.D., of the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Harvard Medical School, and his collaborators, H. Prentice and J. Wu of Florida Atlantic University, developed the novel MRI-based techniques for monitoring G-CSF treatment and the eye drop-based delivery system as well. MRI can efficiently confirm successful administration and expression of G-CSF in the brain after gene therapy delivery. This work was published in the July issue of the journal Gene Therapy.

“This new, rapid, non-invasive administration and evaluation of gene therapy has the potential to be successfully translated to humans,” says Richard Conroy, Ph.D., Director of the NIBIB Division of Applied Science and Technology. “The use of MRI to specifically image and verify gene expression, now gives us a clearer picture of how effective the gene therapy is. The dramatic reduction in brain atrophy in mice, if verified in humans, could lead to highly effective emergency treatments for stroke and other diseases that often cause brain damage such as heart attack.”

Liu’s motivation for this project was to develop a gene delivery method that was simple, and could rapidly and effectively deliver the genes to the brain. A simple gene delivery technique would obviate the need for highly trained staff and expensive, sophisticated equipment. They also sought to successfully demonstrate the efficacy of their technology in laboratory animals so that it could be translated to humans.

To test their system, they deprived mice of blood flow to their brains, and then administered a genetically-engineered adenovirus that had the G-CSF gene inserted into its genome. This particular adenovirus is known to be quite safe in humans and can also efficiently infect brain cells. The adenovirus was also safely and effectively administered through eye drops. The simplicity of the eye drops means that it is easy to give multiple gene therapy treatments. By delivering the G-CSF gene at multiple time points after the induced blockage, Liu and others found that the treated mice showed significant reductions in deaths, brain atrophy, and neurological deficits as measured by behavioral testing of these mice.

MRI examinations also confirmed that G-CSF was expressed in treated mouse brains. Liu and his group used an MRI contrast agent tethered to a segment of DNA that targets the G-CSF gene. This inventive strategy enabled MRI imaging of G-CSF gene expression in mouse brains. The brains of mice treated with the recombinant adenovirus showed significant expression of the G-CSF gene. Control mice treated with the same adenovirus carrying the contrast agent bound to a different piece of DNA produced no MRI signal in the brain.

Control mice that did not receive G-CSF in eye drops, MRI scan identified areas of the brain with reduced metabolic activity and shrinkage as a result of the stroke. Mice treated with the G-CSF gene therapy, however, kept their usual levels of metabolic activity and did not have any evidence of brain atrophy. On average, after a stroke, mouse brain striatum size decreased more than 3-fold, from 15 square millimeters in normal mice to less than 5 square millimeters. But in contrast, G-CSF-treated mice retained an average striatum volume of more than 13 square millimeters, which is close to normal brain volume.

“We are very excited about the potential of this system for eventual use in the clinic,” says Liu, “The eye drop administration allows us to do additional treatments with ease when necessary. The MRI allows us to track gene expression and treatment success over time. The fact that both methods are non-invasive increases the ability to develop, and successfully test gene therapy treatments in humans.”

Liu and his collaborators are now jumping through the multitudes of hoops to take this work to a clinical trial. They are trying to secure FDA approval for the use of the G-CSF gene therapy in human patients. Finally, they also need to invite collaborating with physicians to develop their clinical trial protocol.


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).

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