Two Deaths From Liver Failure Linked to Spinal Muscular Atrophy Drug

Kelli Whitlock Burton

August 12, 2022

Two children taking the gene therapy drug onasemnogene abeparvovec (Zolgensma, Novartis) for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) have died from acute liver failure, according to a statement issued by the drug's manufacturer.

The patients were 4 months and 28 months of age and lived in Russia and Kazakhstan. They died 5-6 weeks after infusion with Zolgensma and approximately 1-10 days after the initiation of a corticosteroid taper.

These are the first known fatal cases of acute liver failure associated with the drug, which the company notes was a known side effect included in the product label and in a boxed warning in the United States.

"Following two recent patient fatalities, and in alignment with health authorities, we will be updating the labeling to specify that fatal acute liver failure has been reported," the statement reads.

"While this is important safety information, it is not a new safety signal," it adds.

Rare Genetic Disorder

SMA is a rare genetic disorder that affects about 1 in 10,000 newborns. Patients with SMA lack a working copy of the survival motor neuron 1 (SMN1) gene, which encodes a protein called SMN that is critical for the maintenance and function of motor neurons.

Without this protein, motor neurons eventually die, causing debilitating and progressive muscle weakness that affects the ability to walk, eat, and breathe.

Zolgensma, a one-time gene replacement therapy delivered via IV infusion replaces the function of the missing or nonworking SMN1 gene with a new, working copy of the SMN1 gene.

The first gene therapy treatment for SMA, it was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2019 for patients with SMA up to 2 years of age. It is also the most expensive drug in the world, costing about $2.1 million for a one-time treatment.

"We have notified health authorities in all markets where Zolgensma is used, including FDA, and are communicating to relevant healthcare professionals as an additional step in markets where this action is supported by health authorities," the manufacturer's statement says.

As reported by Medscape Medical News last year, studies have suggested that the treatment's effects persist more than 5 years after infusion.

Clinical trials currently underway by Novartis are studying the drug's long-term efficacy and safety and its potential use in older patients.

The company is also leading the phase 3 clinical trial STEER to test intrathecal (IT) administration of the drug in patients ages 2-18 years who have type 2 SMA.

That trial began late last year after the FDA lifted a 2-year partial hold on an earlier study. The FDA halted the STRONG trial in 2019, citing concerns from animal studies that IT administration may result in dorsal root ganglia injury. The partial hold was released last fall following positive study results in nonhuman primates.

None of the current trials will be affected by the two deaths reported this week, according to a Novartis spokesperson.

Kelli Whitlock Burton is a reporter for Medscape Medical News who covers psychiatry and neurology.

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