Dr. Musunuru shows blood plasma samples from a mouse that received the ANGPTL3 CRISPR treatment (right) and a mouse that was untreated (left). The cloudiness of the sample on the left is from the high content of cholesterol and triglycerides. (Credit: Peggy Peterson Photography)
PHILADELPHIA – Using a variation of CRISPR gene editing may be a potential strategy for mimicking the protective effects of a genetic mutation linked to lower cholesterol levels and heart disease risks, according to new mouse research from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania
published this week in Circulation.
People with naturally occurring mutations that cause a loss of function in the gene for ANGPTL3 have reduced blood triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and risk of coronary heart disease, with no apparent detrimental consequences to their health. This makes the ANGPTL3 protein an attractive target for new heart disease drugs. Earlier studies at Penn found that single copies of inactivating mutations in ANGPTL3 are found in about one in every 250 people of European heritage; however, people with mutations in both copies of the gene are more rare.
A team led by Kiran Musunuru, MD, PhD, MPH, an associate professor of Cardiovascular Medicine, assessed in a mouse model whether base editing – a variation of CRISPR genome editing that does not require breaks in the double-strand of DNA – might be used in humans one day to introduce mutations into ANGPTL3 to reduce blood lipid levels.
“This proof-of-principle study showed that base-editing of ANGPTL3 is a potential way to permanently treat patients with harmful blood lipid levels,” Musunuru said. “It would be especially useful in patients with a rare condition called homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia, which causes sky-high cholesterol levels and dramatically increased risk of heart attack. They are very difficult to treat with today’s medications, and a one-time CRISPR ‘vaccination’ might be ready to use in these patients within five years.”
The study took a three-part approach. First, the team injected normal mice with the base-editing treatment for the ANGPTL3 gene. After a week, sequencing of the ANGPTL3 target site in liver samples from the mice revealed a median 35 percent editing rate in the target gene and no off-target mutations. In addition, the mean levels of blood lipids were significantly lower in the treated mice by up to 30 percent compared to untreated mice.
Second, the researchers compared mice with the modified ANGPTL3 gene to those injected with a base-editing treatment for another liver gene, PCSK9, for plasma cholesterol and triglycerides. After a week, ANGPTL3 targeting caused a similar reduction in cholesterol but a much greater decline in triglycerides compared to targeting PCSK9. The PCSK9 protein is the target of currently available medications, including evinacumab, which has been shown to reduce cholesterol (but not triglycerides) as well as the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Third, they looked at how base editing of the ANGPTL3 gene performed in a mouse model of homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia (in which knocking out PCSK9 had little effect). After two weeks, the treated mice showed substantially reduced triglycerides (56 percent) and cholesterol (51 percent) compared to untreated mice.
Musunuru’s lab is now preparing to test CRISPR-based treatments against the human ANGPTL3 gene in human liver cells transplanted into mice. This will provide important information on efficacy and safety that will be needed before human trials can move forward.
This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (T32-HL007843, T32-GM007170, R01-HL118744, R01-HL126875).
The other Penn coauthors are Alexandra Chadwick, Niklaus Evitt, and Wenjian Lu.
Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $8.6 billion enterprise.
The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top medical schools in the United States for more than 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $494 million awarded in the 2019 fiscal year.
The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center—which are recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report—Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; and Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.
Penn Medicine is powered by a talented and dedicated workforce of more than 43,900 people. The organization also has alliances with top community health systems across both Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey, creating more options for patients no matter where they live.
Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2019, Penn Medicine provided more than $583 million to benefit our community.