FARA's Scientific Advisory Board and Board of Directors recognize the need to proactively direct research in high priority areas that are not fully addressed through the FARA grant program. These projects aim to fill gaps in knowledge, create resources and research tools, and promote new drug discovery with a pre-competitive focus. We believe this will be most impactful in advancing research to treat and cure FA.

While FARA does not have a research facility, FARA partners with academic researchers and biotech institutions (such as Contract-Research Organizations) who have the knowledge, interest and capabilities to conduct the research or provide services required.

Active projects

TRACK-FA / International Neuroimaging Biomarker Study

A natural history study to TRACK brain and spinal changes in individuals with Friedreich Ataxia (TRACK-FA)

The overall goal of this study is to understand how specific areas of the brain and spinal cord are affected in FA and how they change over time and with stage of disease, and which imaging measurements can be used in clinical trials to monitor response to treatment in the central nervous system. TRACK-FA proposes the first prospective, multi-site longitudinal magnetic resonance (MR) study in FA across six main sites in multiple countries. Based on a power analysis, the study will recruit ~175-200 individuals with FA and ~100 control participants assessed at baseline, 12 months, and 24 months. Participants with FA will be aged >5 years old, split into 75% individuals in the early stage and 25% later stage of the disease to allow targeted sub-cohort analyses. A small group of younger children (≥5 and <10 yr) will be scanned with a shorter protocol. Data processing and analyses will be allocated between the sites based on areas of expertise. A governance structure has been established including a steering committee comprising of site PIs, FARA and industry representatives to monitor the overall progress of the study.

This study is open and actively enrolling – for more information visit FARA's active study post.

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Academic Partners and Study sites:

Melbourne site – Monash University and Murdoch Children's Research Institute, Melbourne, Australia
PIs – Nellie Georgiou-Karistianis, Ian Harding and Louise Corben
Aachen site – Aachen University, Aachen, Germany
PIs - Kathrin Reetz, Imis Dogan and Sandro Romanzetti
Minnesota site – University Minnesota, Minnesota, USA
PIs – Christophe Lenglet, Pierre-Gilles Henry
Sao Paulo site – University of Campinas, Sao Paulo, Brazil
PIs - Marcondes Franca Jr. and Thiago Rezende
Philadelphia site – Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
PIs – Timothy Roberts, William Gaetz, David Lynch
Gainesville site – University of Florida, Florida, USA
PIs – Manuela Corti, Sub Subramony, Thomas Mareci

Development and Validation of a Potency Assay for Use in Development of Gene and Protein Replacement Strategies

This research initiative supports the development of gene therapy drug products by establishing a potency assay for AAV-FXN viral lots for delivery in human subjects. This type of assay will be required for all entities pursuing gene therapy for FA. Potency tests are used to measure product attributes associated with product quality and manufacturing controls, and are performed to assure identity, purity, strength (potency), and stability of products used during all phases of clinical study. Potency measurements are used to verify that only product lots that meet appropriate standards are used during drug clinical investigation and following market approval.

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Academic Partners

Dr. Jill Napierala, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Dr. Marek Napierala, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Dr. Robert Wilson, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Development of a Friedreich Ataxia Rat Model

Lack of an appropriate animal model that recapitulates all or most aspects of the disease has been a major hurdle in pre-clinical studies of potential therapeutics for FA. To try to overcome this limitation FARA is directing the development of a rat model of FA. It is FARA's hope that an FA rat model would better recapitulate more aspects of the human disease. Moreover, since rats are widely used for toxicology and pharmacology studies, FA rat models would be ideal to simultaneously evaluate safety as well as therapeutic benefits of potential drugs and perform pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics studies. This project aims at creating A KIKO-like model in which GAA repeats>500 will be inserted in intron 1 of the rat frataxin gene on one allele, with a conditional KO on the second allele.

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Defining Mechanisms of FXN Gene Silencing for Therapeutic Development The ultimate therapeutic goal in FA is to replenish frataxin levels to physiological levels in disease-relevant cells and tissues in vivo. Gene reactivation strategies are less encumbered by some of the complications that are involved in delivery of exogenous frataxin / FXN gene as a therapeutic strategy and it is not unreasonable to surmise that the ultimate goal of widespread frataxin replenishment may be best achieved by a combination of exogenous delivery and reactivation of endogenous FXN genes. Knowledge of the precise mechanism(s) of FXN gene silencing in FA is critical for the development of effective gene reactivation therapies. The current project aims at addressing gaps in knowledge about the spatial and temporal aspects of gene silencing and providing a systematic and comprehensive analysis of known silencing mechanisms with very controlled experiments. It also aims at validating cellular and mouse models for specific gene reactivation therapy.

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Academic Partners

Dr. Sanjay Bidichandani, University of Oklahoma
Dr. Marek Napierala, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Dr. Jennifer Phillips-Cremins, University of Pennsylvania

Retrospective Cardiac Natural History Study and Development of Hypotheses on Putative Clinical Markers

Although cardiac disease is the major cause of early death in Friedreich's Ataxia (FA), there is insufficient understanding of how FA heart disease progresses over time. For example, it is not known if there are measurements of the heart that could be made at the time of diagnosis of FA that predict the course of the cardiac aspects of the disease or the impact of heart disease on lifespan. Several small studies have suggested that analyses of echocardiograms may undercover measurements that are useful in better understanding the FA heart, but a larger coordinated effort is needed to standardize these measurements. Once standard measures are available, drug developers will be able to assess treatment effects in the heart. This project will re-analyze existing echocardiograms to quickly assess the value of these data in understanding and predicting the progression of heart disease in FA.

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Academic Partners

Project Leads:
Dr. Kimberly Lin, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
Dr. Laura Mercer-Rosa, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
Dr. Heather Griffis, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
Dr. Steve Ampah, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Dr. Mark Payne, Indiana University
Dr. Aarti Patel, University of South Florida
Dr. Anne Fournier, University of Montreal, CHU Sainte Justine
Dr. Linda Cripe, Nationwide Children’s Hospital
Dr. Jonathan Johnson, Mayo Clinic

Update of the Clinical Management Guidelines

FARA is constantly working to improve treatment and medical outcomes for individuals living with FA. One way to do this is by having educational materials available to physicians and people living with FA. In 2014, >35 clinicians contributed to the first comprehensive Clinical Management Guidelines for FA. These guidelines are a giant step forward in documenting diagnosis, treatment and management of FA.

In 2020, FARA and the clinician community recognized the need to update these guidelines. This update employs more the standard GRADE system, a universal approach, to grading and documenting evidence, that allows for more transparency and improves documentation and ability to update the recommendations going forward.

A steering committee was formed to provide recommendations and oversight. The steering committee identified a diverse (by specialty and geography) group of clinician experts to participate in the development of the Clinical Management Guidelines 2.0. The committee also recommended that individuals with FA be involved with the development and review of the updated guidelines.

We hope to have the updated guidelines available to the FA community in the second half of 2021.

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Academic Partners

Lead Investigator:
Dr. Louise Corben, Murdoch Children's Research Institute

Steering Committee:
Dr. Martin Delatycki, Murdoch Children's Research Institute
Dr. Kimberly Lin, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
Dr. David Lynch, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
Dr. Massimo Pandolfo, McGill University
Dr. Jorg Schultz, Aachen University
Dr. Sub Subramony, University of Florida

Completed projects

Friedreich's ataxia cell line repository

A repository of fibroblasts and iPSC lines derived from Friedreich's ataxia patients, carriers and healthy individuals has been established at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The repository currently includes over 80 fibroblasts lines and 20 FRDA and control iPSC lines including three sets of patient and isogenic, CRISPR/Cas9-edited paired lines. See the available lines here:
Cell lines in this repository are available to both academic and industry investigators for a fee (waived if the investigator currently holds a FARA grant) and by executing an MTA with UAB. This project was a collaboration between FARA and Dr. Marek Napierala at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Dr. David Lynch at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

White paper on therapeutic targets in the CNS in Friedreich's ataxia

Because many of the major targets of long-term therapy for FA are in the central nervous system (CNS), FARA worked with several FA investigators to write an in-depth review of the pathology present in the brain and spinal cords of patients with FA. Patrick Ritschel, Director at FARA, assembled a diverse group of investigators to evaluate evidence gathered from human clinical observations, physiological, pathological and imaging approaches, as well as studies in animal models. Dr. Ian H. Harding (Monash University), Dr. David Lynch (Children's Hospital of Philadelphia), Dr. Arnulf Koeppen (Albany Research Institute) and Dr. Massimo Pandolfo (McGill University) authored a review article that provides a detailed summary of the current understanding of what areas of the spinal cord and brain are impacted by the disease, including what specific cells are vulnerable to the loss of frataxin. Moreover, the review provides some insight into the temporal course of neuropathological changes in the CNS, which helps to offer information on areas that may respond to therapy and be successfully treated at different timepoints during the progression of the disease. This comprehensive review titled “Central Nervous System Therapeutic Targets in Friedreich Ataxia” is useful to patients, caregivers, physicians, as well as drug developers and is open access in Human Gene Therapy.