The β thalassemia trait is associated with over 300 mutations in the β-globin gene that lead to reduced (β+ allele) or absent (β0 allele) synthesis of the β globin chain. A subset of these mutations affect the canonic splicing of the β globin mRNA. Such mutations activate aberrant splice sites, which lead to an altered splicing pathway and consequently affects protein synthesis.

The (C>G) IVS-2-745 mutation is common in South Eastern Europe, Cyprus, Lebanon, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia. This mutation, located within intron 2 of the β-globin gene, creates an aberrant 5' splice site at nucleotide 745 of intron 2 and activates a cryptic 3' splice site within the same intron. Portions of the intronic sequence are incorrectly retained in the spliced mutant mRNA. The mutation results in a premature stop codon that prevents proper mRNA translation and causes a β‐globin deficiency, resulting in β‐thalassemia. The IVS-2-745 allele has the functional splice sites preserved, but produces a significantly reduced level of correctly spliced β-globin mRNA and results in only marginal synthesis of HbA. Therefore, the IVS-2-745 mutation in homozygosity leads to severe transfusion-dependent thalassemia major. Taking advantage of conserved canonical splice sites in defective β‐globin genes, such as IVS-2-745, recently developed approaches show that by targeting the aberrant splice sites it is possible to circumvent the aberrant splice site and restore the normal β-globin splicing pattern.

We sought to use uniform 2'-O-methoxyethyl (2'-MOE) splice switching oligos (SSOs) to reverse aberrant splicing in the pre-mRNA for the IVS-2-745 mutation. Using these SSOs, we show effective aberrant-to-wild-type splice switching. This leads to an increase in adult hemoglobin (HbA) by up to 80% in erythroid cells from patients with the IVS-2-745 mutation. Furthermore, we demonstrate a restoration of the balance between β-like- and α-globin chains, and up to an 87% reduction in α-heme aggregates. While examining the potential benefit of 2'-MOE-SSOs in a sickle/IVS-2-745-thalassemic genotype setting, we found that use of these oligos restored production of HbA and reduced HbS synthesis, which ultimately lessened cell sickling under hypoxic conditions. We confirmed increased WT β-globin expression in specimens treated with 2'-MOE-SSOs with semi- and quantitative methods (RT and Q-PCR), and further supported this evidence using a direct quantification method (ddPCR). Compared to treated specimens heterozygous for IVS-2-745 , homozygous specimens showed elevated WT HbA, reflecting the additive effect of targeting the aberrant splicing of both alleles as opposed to a single IVS-2-745 allele. In fact, while 2'-MOE-SSOs significantly reduced aberrant splicing, leading to a consequent 60% increase in HbA levels in specimens from patients with a β0/IVS-2-745 genotype, the same oligos produced a more robust effect in specimens with a homozygous IVS-2-745 genotype, resulting in an 80% increase in HbA levels. This level of increase could potentially be curative for patients with this particular genotype.

Moreover, we compared the effect of 2'-MOE-SSOs treatment to a lentiviral vector carrying a WT β-globin gene. In this comparative assay, β0/IVS-2-745 cells treated with 2'-MOE-SSOs or the lentivector (with 1.13 copies integrated per genome) lead to a similar increase in HbA (50%). This suggests that the oligo-based technology is a competitive approach and a viable alternative to gene addition therapy to overcome anemia in IVS-2-745 β-thalassemia.

In summary, 2'-MOE-SSOs are promising therapeutic tools for certain forms of β-thalassemia caused by aberrant splicing. Their ability to correct the underlying splicing defect offers a pharmacological treatment that is direct, specific, and accessible. In comparison, gene therapy approaches utilizing gene addition or editing are primarily available in advanced medical care environment resulting in an unfulfilled demand in regions where such conditions are not readily available. The restoration of target gene activity reported here suggests that this treatment strategy could be applicable to other forms of thalassemia resulting from mutations affecting splicing. This could have, with an effective method of delivery, potential clinical utility in helping patients reduce their transfusion dependence or even achieving transfusion independence.

Disclosures

Dong:Aruvant Sciences INC: Employment. Motta:Sanofi-Genzyme: Honoraria, Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees. Guo:Ionis Pharmaceutical, INC: Employment, Other: shareholders. Peralta:Ionis Pharmaceutical, Inc: Employment. Freier:Ionis Pharmaceuticals: Employment. Watt:Ionis Pharmaceuticals: Employment. Manwani:Novartis: Consultancy; Pfizer: Consultancy; GBT: Consultancy, Research Funding. Cappellini:Genzyme/Sanofi: Honoraria, Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Novartis: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Celgene Corporation: Honoraria; Vifor Pharmaceutical: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; CRISPR Therapeutics: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees. Abdulmalik:The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: Patents & Royalties: Provisional Patent. Rivella:Meira GTx, Ionis Pharmaceutical: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Disc medicine, Protagonist, LIPC, Meira GTx: Consultancy.

Author notes

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Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.