3 years ago

Oral tetrahydrouridine and decitabine for non-cytotoxic epigenetic gene regulation in sickle cell disease: A randomized phase 1 study

Johara Hassan, James Douglas Engel, Lewis L. Hsu, Donald Lavelle, Mitch Phelps, Kwok Peng Ng, Santhosh Saraf, Matthew Hsieh, Matthew Rump, Maria A. Ruiz, Robert Molokie, James Jacobberger, Vinzon Ibanez, Joseph DeSimone, Philip Woost, Yogen Saunthararajah, Daisy Pacelli, Lani Krauz, Victor Gordeuk, Michael Pacini, Sherry Fada, Michel Gowhari, John F. Tisdale, Tomas Radivoyevitch

by Robert Molokie, Donald Lavelle, Michel Gowhari, Michael Pacini, Lani Krauz, Johara Hassan, Vinzon Ibanez, Maria A. Ruiz, Kwok Peng Ng, Philip Woost, Tomas Radivoyevitch, Daisy Pacelli, Sherry Fada, Matthew Rump, Matthew Hsieh, John F. Tisdale, James Jacobberger, Mitch Phelps, James Douglas Engel, Santhosh Saraf, Lewis L. Hsu, Victor Gordeuk, Joseph DeSimone, Yogen Saunthararajah


Sickle cell disease (SCD), a congenital hemolytic anemia that exacts terrible global morbidity and mortality, is driven by polymerization of mutated sickle hemoglobin (HbS) in red blood cells (RBCs). Fetal hemoglobin (HbF) interferes with this polymerization, but HbF is epigenetically silenced from infancy onward by DNA methyltransferase 1 (DNMT1).

Methods and findings

To pharmacologically re-induce HbF by DNMT1 inhibition, this first-in-human clinical trial (NCT01685515) combined 2 small molecules—decitabine to deplete DNMT1 and tetrahydrouridine (THU) to inhibit cytidine deaminase (CDA), the enzyme that otherwise rapidly deaminates/inactivates decitabine, severely limiting its half-life, tissue distribution, and oral bioavailability. Oral decitabine doses, administered after oral THU 10 mg/kg, were escalated from a very low starting level (0.01, 0.02, 0.04, 0.08, or 0.16 mg/kg) to identify minimal doses active in depleting DNMT1 without cytotoxicity. Patients were SCD adults at risk of early death despite standard-of-care, randomized 3:2 to THU–decitabine versus placebo in 5 cohorts of 5 patients treated 2X/week for 8 weeks, with 4 weeks of follow-up. The primary endpoint was ≥ grade 3 non-hematologic toxicity. This endpoint was not triggered, and adverse events (AEs) were not significantly different in THU-decitabine—versus placebo-treated patients. At the decitabine 0.16 mg/kg dose, plasma concentrations peaked at approximately 50 nM (Cmax) and remained elevated for several hours. This dose decreased DNMT1 protein in peripheral blood mononuclear cells by >75% and repetitive element CpG methylation by approximately 10%, and increased HbF by 4%–9% (P < 0.001), doubling fetal hemoglobin-enriched red blood cells (F-cells) up to approximately 80% of total RBCs. Total hemoglobin increased by 1.2–1.9 g/dL (P = 0.01) as reticulocytes simultaneously decreased; that is, better quality and efficiency of HbF-enriched erythropoiesis elevated hemoglobin using fewer reticulocytes. Also indicating better RBC quality, biomarkers of hemolysis, thrombophilia, and inflammation (LDH, bilirubin, D-dimer, C-reactive protein [CRP]) improved. As expected with non-cytotoxic DNMT1-depletion, platelets increased and neutrophils concurrently decreased, but not to an extent requiring treatment holds. As an early phase study, limitations include small patient numbers at each dose level and narrow capacity to evaluate clinical benefits.


Administration of oral THU-decitabine to patients with SCD was safe in this study and, by targeting DNMT1, upregulated HbF in RBCs. Further studies should investigate clinical benefits and potential harms not identified to date.

Trial registration

ClinicalTrials.gov, NCT01685515

Publisher URL: http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002382

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