If any malady proves the fragile grace of the human genome, it is sickle cell disease.
If experimental treatments receive regulatory approval, it would be a watershed breakthrough for tens of thousands of Americans.
It occurs because of a single "misspelled" letter of DNA, causing red blood cells to run low on oxygen and transforming the hemoglobin in each cell into a stiff rod. Normally round cells become rigid crescents that hamper the flow of blood throughout the body, like leaves clumping in a drain.
Strokes in toddlers are merely the beginning of the circulatory calamities this disease may inflict. Most sickled cells cannot carry oxygen through the body, causing anemia as well as excruciating chronic pain. Older patients are at risk of kidney failure, heart disease and all the other collateral damage caused by poor circulation. Few live beyond middle age.
The only way to cure it has been through a bone marrow transplant from a donor, which requires not only a closely matching volunteer, but bouts of chemotherapy to allow new stem cells to take root, as well as rounds of immunosuppressive drugs that may last for years.
Recent advances in genomic medicine may soon alter the disease's outlook, although many obstacles remain.
In one treatment under development, patient's skin cells are converted into stem cells, allowing them to be inserted into the bone marrow without the need for a donor. Another treatment known as gene therapy involves replacing the aberrant gene in the patient's body with new genetic material.
Although both remain in clinical trials -- and also require at least chemotherapy -- they have shown promise. Matthew Hsieh, a hematologist and staff scientist with the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute in Maryland, has performed about 10 gene therapy procedures over the past three years as part of a clinical trial. Ongoing tweaks in the procedure have led to the blood in more recent patients showing sickle cell trait -- not a perfect outcome, but one that leaves patients with far fewer symptoms than if they have the full-blown disease.
If one or both treatments receive regulatory approval, it would be a watershed breakthrough for the tens of thousands of Americans who suffer from the disease.
Yet it is entirely possible many patients may decline the cure.
A Painful History
The vast majority of sickle cell sufferers in the U.S. -- well beyond 90 percent -- are African-American, a population with a historically uneasy relationship toward healthcare.
"There is a lot of data on distrust between African-Americans and American medical institutions," says J. Corey Williams, a psychiatrist with the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who has written extensively on racial disparities in healthcare. "It comes from a long legacy of feeling victimized by medicine."
"What you hear from many patients is 'I am not going to be your guinea pig, and I am not going to be experimented on.'"
As a result, Williams is among several clinicians interviewed for this story who believe a cure for sickle cell disease would be embraced reluctantly.
"What you hear from many patients is 'I am not going to be your guinea pig, and I am not going to be experimented on.' And so the history of African-Americans and research will manifest as we develop gene therapies for [these] patients," says Christopher L. Edwards, a clinical psychologist and researcher with the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
Fear among African-Americans of becoming guinea pigs is well-founded. The first c-sections and fistula repairs occurring in North America were performed on enslaved women -- all without consent and virtually none with anesthesia.
Modern 20th century medicine led to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service. Researchers withheld treatment from some 400 African-American men from the 1930s well into the 1970s to observe how they reacted to the disease -- even though curative antibiotics had been around for decades. Only news reports ended the experiment.
The long-standing distrust of American healthcare in the African-American community is also baked into the care provided to sickle cell patients. Despite affecting one in 365 African-Americans, there is no disease registry to assist clinical trials, according to Mary Hulihan, a blood disorders epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Edwards says many sufferers are suspicious of being monitored.
Meanwhile, only two drugs are available to alleviate the worst symptoms. The first one, hydroxyurea, received FDA approval only in 1998 -- nearly 90 years after the disease was first diagnosed. Moreover, Edwards says that some sufferers shy away from using hydroxyurea because it is also used to treat cancer. It's part of what he calls the "myth and folklore" in the African-American community about sickle cell disease.
Economics plays a role as well in the often-fragmented care such patients receive. According to CDC data, many patients rely extensively on public insurance programs such as Medicaid, whose coverage varies from state to state.
A Tough Transition
Edwards notes that sickle cell sufferers usually receive good care when they're children because of support provided by family members. But that often breaks down in adulthood. According to CDC data, an adult sickle cell patient visits a hospital emergency room three times as often as a child patient.
The consensus is that the path to a medical cure for sickle cell will first need to be smoothed over with a talk cure.
Modupe Idowu, a hematologist with the University of Texas Health system, estimates that there are perhaps a dozen comprehensive care centers for the estimated 100,000 sickle cell patients in the U.S., including the one she operates in Houston. That means a significant proportion of those afflicted are on their own to procure care.
And since many patients are on Medicaid, "a lot of hematologists that train to take care of blood disorders, many are not interested in treating [sickle cell disease] because the reimbursement for providers is not great," Idowu says.
Hsieh acknowledges that many of his patients can be suspicious about the care they are receiving. Frustration with fragmented care is usually the biggest driver, he adds.
Meanwhile, the skepticism that patients have about the treatments they seek is often reciprocated by their caregivers.
"The patients have experiences with medication and know what works at a very young age (for their pain)," Edwards says. Such expertise demonstrated by an African-American patient often leads to them being labeled as narcotics seekers.
The Correct Path
This all begs the question of how to deploy a cure. Idowu, who regularly holds town hall-style meetings with Houston-area patients, often must allay anxieties. For example, the gene therapy approach uses a harmless virus to transport new genetic material into cells. That virus happens to be a benign version of HIV, and convincing patients they won't be infected with HIV is a fraught issue.
The consensus is that the path to a medical cure for sickle cell will first need to be smoothed over with a talk cure.
Idowu tries to hammer home the fact that patients are afforded vastly more protections than in the past. "There are a lot of committees and investigational review boards that keep track of clinical trials; things just don't happen anymore as they did in the past," she says. She also believes it helps if more providers of color communicate to patients.
Hsieh is very straightforward with his patients. He informs them about the HIV vector but assures them no one has ever tested positive for the virus as a result of its use.
Edwards notes that since many patients suffer psychosocial trauma as a result of their chronic pain, there already is some counseling infrastructure in place to help them cope. He believes such resources will have to be stretched further as a cure looms closer.
In the absence of formal mental health services, straight talk may be the best way to overcome wariness.
"If patients have misgivings, we try our best to address them, and let them know at the end of the day it is their decision to make," Hsieh says. "And even the patients who have gone through the gene therapy and it didn't work well -- they're still glad they took the chance."
Responding to COVID-19 outbreaks at more than 200 mink farms, the Danish government, in November 2020, culled its entire mink population. The Danish armed forces helped farmers slaughter each of their 17 million minks, which are normally farmed for their valuable fur.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, said officials, spread from human handlers to the small, ferret-like animals, mutated, and then spread back to several hundred humans. Although the mass extermination faced much criticism, Denmark’s prime minister defended the decision last month, stating that the step was “necessary” and that the Danish government had “a responsibility for the health of the entire world.”
Over the past two and half years, COVID-19 infections have been reported in numerous animal species around the world. In addition to the Danish minks, there is other evidence that the virus can mutate as it’s transmitted back and forth between humans and animals, which increases the risk to public health. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), COVID-19 vaccines for animals may protect the infected species and prevent the transmission of viral mutations. However, the development of such vaccines has been slow. Scientists attribute the deficiency to a lack of data.
“Several animal species have been predicted and found to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2,” says Suresh V. Kuchipudi, interim director of the Animal Diagnostic Laboratory at the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences. But the risk remains unknown for many animals in several parts of the world, he says. “Therefore, there is an urgent need to monitor the SARS-CoV-2 exposure of high-risk animals in different parts of the world.”
In June, India introduced Ancovax, its first COVID-19 vaccine for animals. The development came a year after the nation reported that the virus had infected eight Asiatic lions, with two of them dying. While 30 COVID-19 vaccines for humans have been approved for general or emergency use across the world, Ancovax is only the third such vaccine for animals. The first, named Carnivac-Cov, was registered by Russia in March last year, followed by another vaccine four months later, developed by Zoetis, a U.S. pharmaceutical company.
Christina Lood, a Zoetis spokesperson, says the company has donated over 26,000 doses of its animal vaccine to over 200 zoos – in addition to 20 conservatories, sanctuaries and other animal organizations located in over a dozen countries, including Canada, Chile and the U.S. The vaccine, she adds, has been administered to more than 300 mammalian species so far.
“At least 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases have an animal origin, including COVID-19,” says Lood. “Now more than ever before, we can all see the important connection between animal health and human health."
The Dangers of COVID-19 Infections among Animals
Cases of the virus in animals have been reported in several countries across the world. As of March this year, 29 kinds of animals have been infected. These include pet animals like dogs, cats, ferrets and hamsters; farmed animals like minks; wild animals like the white-tailed deer, mule deer and black-tailed marmoset; and animals in zoos and sanctuaries, including hyenas, hippopotamuses and manatees. Despite the widespread infection, the U.S. Centres for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that “we don’t yet know all of the animals that can get infected,” adding that more studies and surveillance are needed to understand how the virus is spread between humans and animals.
Leyi Wang, a veterinary virologist at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, University of Illinois, says that captive and pet animals most often get infected by humans. It goes both ways, he says, citing a recent study in Hong Kong that found the virus spread from pet hamsters to people.
Wang’s bigger concern is the possibility that humans or domestic animals could transmit the virus back to wildlife, creating an uncontrollable reservoir of the disease, especially given the difficulty of vaccinating non-captive wild animals. Such spillbacks have happened previously with diseases such as plague, yellow-fever, and rabies.
It’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets.
In the past, other human respiratory viruses have proven fatal for endangered great apes like chimpanzees and gorillas. Fearing that COVID-19 could have the same effect, primatologists have been working to protect primates throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, virus reservoirs have already been created among other animals, Wang says. “Deer of over 20 U.S. states were tested SARS-CoV-2 positive,” says Wang, pointing to a study that confirmed human-to-deer transmission as well as deer-to-deer transmission. It remains unclear how many wildlife species may be susceptible to the disease due to interaction with infected deer, says Wang.
In April, the CDC expressed concerns over new coronavirus variants mutating in wildlife, urging health authorities to monitor the spread of the contagion in animals as threats to humans. The WHO has made similar recommendations.
Challenges to Vaccine Development
Zoetis initiated development activities for its COVID-19 vaccine in February 2020 when the first known infection of a dog occurred in Hong Kong. The pharmaceutical giant completed the initial development work and studies on dogs and cats, and shared their findings at the World One Health Congress in the fall of 2020. A few months later, after a troop of eight gorillas contracted the virus at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Zoetis donated its experimental vaccine for emergency use in the great ape population.
Zoetis has uniquely formulated its COVID-19 vaccine for animals. It uses the same antigen as human vaccines, but it includes a different type of carrier protein for inducing a strong immune response. “The unique combination of antigen and carrier ensures safety and efficacy for the species in which a vaccine is used,” says Lood.
But it’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets. “As it became apparent that risk of severe disease for household pets such as cats and dogs was low, demand for those vaccines decreased before they became commercially available,” says William Karesh, executive vice-president for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance. He adds that in affected commercial mink farms, the utility of a vaccine could justify the cost in some cases.
Although scientists have made tremendous advances in making vaccines for animals, Kuchipudi thinks that the need for COVID-19 vaccines for animals “must be evaluated based on many factors, including the susceptibility of the particular animal species, health implications, and cost.”.
Not every scientist feels the need for animal vaccines. Joel Baines, a professor of virology at Cornell University’s Baker Institute for Animal Health, says that while domestic cats are the most susceptible to COVID-19, they usually suffer mild infections. Big cats in zoos are vulnerable, but they can be isolated or distanced from humans. He says that mink farms are a relatively small industry and, by ensuring that human handlers are COVID negative, such outbreaks can be curtailed.
Baines also suggests that human vaccines could probably work in animals, as they were tested in animals during early clinical trials and induced immune responses. “However, these vaccines should be used in humans as a priority and it would be unethical to use a vaccine meant for humans to vaccinate an animal if vaccine doses are at all limiting,” he says.
William Karesh, president of the World Animal Health Organization Working Group on Wildlife Diseases, says the best way to protect animals is to reduce their exposure to infected people.
In the absence of enough vaccines, Karesh says that the best way to protect animals is the same as protecting unvaccinated humans - reduce their exposure to infected people by isolating them when necessary. “People working with or spending time with wild animals should follow available guidelines, which includes testing themselves and wearing PPE to avoid accidentally infecting wildlife,” he says.
The Link between Animal and Human Health
Although there is a need for animal vaccines in response to virus outbreaks, the best approach is to try to prevent the outbreaks in the first place, explains K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India. He says that the incidence of zoonotic diseases has increased in the past six decades because human actions like increased deforestation, wildlife trade and animal meat consumption have opened an ecological window for disease transmission between humans and animals. Such actions chip away at the natural barriers between humans and forest-dwelling viruses, while building conveyor belts for the transmission of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.
Many studies suggest that the source of COVID-19 was infected live animals sold at a wet market in China’s Wuhan. The market sold live dogs, rats, porcupines, badgers, hares, foxes, hedgehogs, marmots and Chinese muntjac (small deer) and, according to a study published in July, the virus was found on the market’s stalls, animal cages, carts and water drains.
This research strongly suggests that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, one that jumps from animals to humans due to our close relationship with them in agriculture, as companions and in the natural environment. Half of the infectious diseases that affect people come from animals, but the study of zoonotic diseases has been historically underfunded, even as they can reduce the likelihood and cost of future pandemics.
“We need to invest in vaccines,” says Reddy, “but that cannot be a substitute for an ecologically sensible approach to curtailing zoonotic diseases.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in health research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.