To fix heart conditions, a company is using gene therapy plus patient voices

As gene therapies and small molecule drugs are being studied in clinical trials, companies increasingly see the value in hiring patients to help explain the potential benefits.

As a child, Wendy Borsari participated in a health study at Boston Children’s Hospital. She was involved because heart disease and sudden cardiac arrest ran in her family as far back as seven generations. When she was 18, however, the study’s doctors told her that she had a perfectly healthy heart and didn’t have to worry.

A couple of years after graduating from college, though, the Boston native began to experience episodes of near fainting. During any sort of strenuous exercise, my blood pressure would drop instead of increasing, she recalls.

She was diagnosed at 24 with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Although HCM is a commonly inherited heart disease, Borsari’s case resulted from a rare gene mutation, the MYH7 gene. Her mother had been diagnosed at 27, and Borsari had already lost her grandmother and two maternal uncles to the condition. After her own diagnosis, Borsari spent most of her free time researching the disease and “figuring out how to have this condition and still be the person I wanted to be,” she says.

Then, her son was found to have the genetic mutation at birth and diagnosed with HCM at 15. Her daughter, also diagnosed at birth, later suffered five cardiac arrests.

That changed Borsari’s perspective. She decided to become a patient advocate. “I didn’t want to just be a patient with the condition,” she says. “I wanted to be more involved with the science and the biopharmaceutical industry so I could be active in helping to make it better for other patients.”

She consulted on patient advocacy for a pharmaceutical and two foundations before coming to a company called Tenaya in 2021.

“One of our core values as a company is putting patients first,” says Tenaya’s CEO, Faraz Ali. “We thought of no better way to put our money where our mouth is than by bringing in somebody who is affected and whose family is affected by a genetic form of cardiomyopathy to have them make sure we’re incorporating the voice of the patient.”

Biomedical corporations and government research agencies are now incorporating patient advocacy more than ever, says Alice Lara, president and CEO of the Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndromes Foundation in Salt Lake City, Utah. These organizations have seen the effectiveness of including patient voices to communicate and exemplify the benefits that key academic research institutions have shown in their medical studies.

“From our side of the aisle,” Lara says, “what we know as patient advocacy organizations is that educated patients do a lot better. They have a better course in their therapy and their condition, and understanding the genetics is important because all of our conditions are genetic.”

Founded in 2016, Tenaya is advancing gene therapies and small molecule drugs in clinical trials for both prevalent and rare forms of heart disease, says Ali, the CEO.

The firm’s first small molecule, now in a Phase 1 clinical trial, is intended to treat heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, where the amount of blood pumped by the heart is reduced due to the heart chambers becoming weak or stiff. The condition accounts for half or more of all heart failure in the U.S., according to Ali, and is growing quickly because it’s closely associated with diabetes. It’s also linked with metabolic syndrome, or a cluster of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels.

“We have a novel molecule that is first in class and, to our knowledge, best in class to tackle that, so we’re very excited about the clinical trial,” Ali says.

The first phase of the trial is being performed with healthy participants, rather than people with the disease, to establish safety and tolerability. The researchers can also look for the drug in blood samples, which could tell them whether it’s reaching its target. Ali estimates that, if the company can establish safety and that it engages the right parts of the body, it will likely begin dosing patients with the disease in 2024.

Tenaya’s therapy delivers a healthy copy of the gene so that it makes a copy of the protein missing from the patients’ hearts because of their mutation. The study will start with adult patients, then pivot potentially to children and even newborns, Ali says, “where there is an even greater unmet need because the disease progresses so fast that they have no options.”

Although this work still has a long way to go, Ali is excited about the potential because the gene therapy achieved positive results in the preclinical mouse trial. This animal trial demonstrated that the treatment reduced enlarged hearts, reversed electrophysiological abnormalities, and improved the functioning of the heart by increasing the ejection fraction after the single-dose of gene therapy. That measurement remained stable to the end of the animals’ lives, roughly 18 months, Ali says.

He’s also energized by the fact that heart disease has “taken a page out of the oncology playbook” by leveraging genetic research to develop more precise and targeted drugs and gene therapies.

“Now we are talking about a potential cure of a disease for which there was no cure and using a very novel concept,” says Melind Desai of the Cleveland Clinic.

Tenaya’s second program focuses on developing a gene therapy to mitigate the leading cause of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy through a specific gene called MYPBC3. The disease affects approximately 600,000 patients in the U.S. This particular genetic form, Ali explains, affects about 115,000 in the U.S. alone, so it is considered a rare disease.

“There are infants who are dying within the first weeks to months of life as a result of this mutation,” he says. “There are also adults who start having symptoms in their 20s, 30s and 40s with early morbidity and mortality.” Tenaya plans to apply before the end of this year to get the FDA’s approval to administer an investigational drug for this disease humans. If approved, the company will begin to dose patients in 2023.

“We now understand the genetics of the heart much better,” he says. “We now understand the leading genetic causes of hypertrophic myopathy, dilated cardiomyopathy and others, so that gives us the ability to take these large populations and stratify them rationally into subpopulations.”

Melind Desai, MD, who directs Cleveland Clinic’s Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Center, says that the goal of Tenaya’s second clinical study is to help improve the basic cardiac structure in patients with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy related to the MYPBC3 mutation.

“Now we are talking about a potential cure of a disease for which there was no cure and using a very novel concept,” he says. “So this is an exciting new frontier of therapeutic investigation for MYPBC3 gene-positive patients with a chance for a cure.

Neither of Tenaya’s two therapies address the gene mutation that has affected Borsari and her family. But Ali sees opportunity down the road to develop a gene therapy for her particular gene mutation, since it is the second leading cause of cardiomyopathy. Treating the MYH7 gene is especially challenging because it requires gene editing or silencing, instead of just replacing the gene.

Wendy Borsari was diagnosed at age 24 with a commonly inherited heart disease. She joined Tenaya as a patient advocate in 2021.Wendy Borsari

“If you add a healthy gene it will produce healthy copies,” Ali explains, “but it won’t stop the bad effects of the mutant protein the gene produces. You can only do that by silencing the gene or editing it out, which is a different, more complicated approach.”

Euan Ashley, professor of medicine and genetics at Stanford University and founding director of its Center for Inherited Cardiovascular Disease, is confident that we will see genetic therapies for heart disease within the next decade.

“We are at this really exciting moment in time where we have diseases that have been under-recognized and undervalued now being attacked by multiple companies with really modern tools,” says Ashley, author of The Genome Odyssey. “Gene therapies are unusual in the sense that they can reverse the cause of the disease, so we have the enticing possibility of actually reversing or maybe even curing these diseases.”

Although no one is doing extensive research into a gene therapy for her particular mutation yet, Borsari remains hopeful, knowing that companies such as Tenaya are moving in that direction.

“I know that’s now on the horizon,” she says. “It’s not just some pipe dream, but will happen hopefully in my lifetime or my kids’ lifetime to help them.”