Last month, at a conference celebrating DARPA, the research arm of the Defense Department, FBI Special Agent Edward You declared, "The 21st century will be the revolution of the life sciences."
Biomedical engineer Kevin Zhao has a sensor in his arm and chest that monitors his oxygen level in real time.
Indeed, four years ago, the agency dedicated a new office solely to advancing biotechnology. Its primary goal is to combat bioterrorism, protect U.S. forces, and promote warfighter readiness. But its research could also carry over to improve health care for the general public.
With an annual budget of about $3 billion, DARPA's employees oversee about 250 research and development programs, working with contractors from corporations, universities, and government labs to bring new technologies to life.
Check out these three current programs:
1) IMPLANTABLE SENSORS TO MEASURE OXYGEN, LACTATE, AND GLUCOSE LEVELS IN REAL TIME
Biomedical engineer Kevin Zhao has a sensor in his arm and his chest that monitors his oxygen level in those tissues in real time. With funding from DARPA for the program "In Vivo Nanoplatforms," he developed soft, flexible hydrogels that are injected just beneath the skin to perform the monitoring and that sync to a smartphone app to give the user immediate health insights.
A first-in-man trial for the glucose sensor is now underway in Europe for monitoring diabetics, according to Zhao. Volunteers eat sugary food to spike their glucose levels and prompt the monitor to register the changes.
"If this pans out, with approval from FDA, then consumers could get the sensors implanted in their core to measure their levels of glucose, oxygen, and lactate," Zhao said.
Lactate, especially, interests DARPA because it's a first responder molecule to the onset of trauma, sepsis, and potentially infection.
"The sensor could potentially detect rise of these [body chemistry numbers] and alert the user to prevent onset of dangerous illness."
2) NEAR INSTANTANEOUS VACCINE PROTECTION DURING A PANDEMIC
Traditional vaccines can take months or years to develop, then weeks to become effective once you get it. But when an unknown virus emerges, there's no time to waste.
This program, called P3, envisions a much more ambitious approach to stop a pandemic in its tracks.
"We want to confer near instantaneous protection by doing it a different way – enlist the body as a bioreactor to produce therapeutics," said Col. Matthew Hepburn, the program manager.
So how would it work?
To fight a pandemic, we will need 20,000 doses of a vaccine in 60 days.
If you have antibodies against a certain infection, you'll be protected against that infection. This idea is to discover the genetic code for the antibody to a specific pathogen, manufacture those pieces of DNA and RNA, and then inject the code into a person's arm so the muscle cells will begin producing the required antibodies.
"The amazing thing is that it actually works, at least in animal models," said Hepburn. "The mouse muscles made enough protective antibodies so that the mice were protected."
The next step is to test the approach in humans, which the program will do over the next two years.
But the hard part is actually not discovering the genetic code for highly potent antibodies, according to Hepburn. In fact, researchers already have been able to do so in two to four weeks' time.
"The hard part is once I have an antibody, a large pharma company will say in 2 years, I can make 100-200 doses. Give us 4 years to get to 20,000 doses. That's not good enough," Hepburn said.
To fight a pandemic, we will need 20,000 doses of a vaccine in 60 days.
"We have to fundamentally change the idea that it takes a billion dollars and ten years to make a drug," he concluded. "We're going to do something radically different."
3) RAPID DIAGNOSING OF PATHOGEN EXPOSURE THROUGH EPIGENETICS
Imagine that you come down with a mysterious illness. It could be caused by a virus, bacteria, or in the most extreme catastrophe, a biological agent from a weapon of mass destruction.
What if a portable device existed that could identify--within 30 minutes—which pathogen you have been exposed to and when? It would be pretty remarkable for soldiers in the field, but also for civilians seeking medical treatment.
This is the lofty ambition of a DARPA program called Epigenetic Characterization and Observation, or ECHO.
Its success depends on a biological phenomenon known as the epigenome. While your DNA is relatively immutable, your environment can modify how your DNA is expressed, leaving marks of exposure that register within seconds to minutes; these marks can persist for decades. It's thanks to the epigenome that identical twins – who share identical DNA – can differ in health, temperament, and appearance.
These three mice are genetically identical. Epigenetic differences, however, result in vastly different observed characteristics.
Reading your epigenetic marks could theoretically reveal a time-stamped history of your body's environmental exposures.
Researchers in the ECHO program plan to create a database of signatures for exposure events, so that their envisioned device will be able to quickly scan someone's epigenome and refer to the database to sort out a diagnosis.
"One difficult part is to put a timestamp on this result, in addition to the sign of which exposure it was -- to tell us when this exposure happened," says Thomas Thomou, a contract scientist who is providing technical assistance to the ECHO program manager.
Other questions that remain up in the air for now: Do all humans have the same epigenetic response to the same exposure events? Is it possible to distinguish viral from bacterial exposures? Does dose and duration of exposure affect the signature of epigenome modification?
The program will kick off in January 2019 and is planned to last four years, as long as certain milestones of development are reached along the way. The desired prototype would be a simple device that any untrained person could operate by taking a swab or a fingerprick.
"In an outbreak," says Dr. Thomou, "it will help everyone on the ground immediately to have a rapidly deployable machine that will give you very quick answers to issues that could have far-reaching ramifications for public health safety."
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.