In late March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up in the United States, David Fajgenbaum, a physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, devised a 10-day challenge for his lab: they would sift through 1,000 recently published scientific papers documenting cases of the deadly virus from around the world, pluck out the names of any drugs used in an attempt to cure patients, and track the treatments and their outcomes in a database.
Before late 2019, no one had ever had to treat this exact disease before, which meant all treatments would be trial and error. Fajgenbaum, a pioneering researcher in the field of drug repurposing—which prioritizes finding novel uses for existing drugs, rather than arduously and expensively developing new ones for each new disease—knew that physicians around the world would be embarking on an experimental journey, the scale of which would be unprecedented. His intention was to briefly document the early days of this potentially illuminating free-for-all, as a sidebar to his primary field of research on a group of lymph node disorders called Castleman disease. But now, 11 months and 29,000 scientific papers later, he and his team of 22 are still going strong.
They're running a publicly accessible database called the CORONA Project (COvid19 Registry of Off-label & New Agents) that to date tracks 400 different COVID-19 treatments that have been tried somewhere in the world, along with the frequency of their use, and the outcomes.
"There's so many drugs being used all over the place, in different ways, with different outcomes," says Fajgenbaum. "We're trying to add some order to the madness."
20,000 people have accessed the registry—other physicians and researchers, those in the pharmaceutical industry, and even curious lay people—and the data are now being shared with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the hopes of launching large-scale trials that would lead to approving a constellation of treatment options for COVID-19 faster than any new drugs could come online.
"What David's group has done with the CORONA Project is on a scale that I don't think has ever been seen before," says Heather Stone, a health science policy analyst at the FDA who specializes in drug repurposing. She was not involved in establishing the project, but is now working with its data. "To collect and collate that information and make it openly accessible is a massive feat, and a huge benefit to the medical community," she says.
On a Personal Mission
In the science and medical world, Fajgenbaum lives a dual existence: he is both researcher and subject, physician and patient. In July 2010, when he was a healthy and physically fit 25-year-old finishing medical school, he began living through what would become a recurring, unprovoked, and overzealous immune response that repeatedly almost killed him.
His lymph nodes were inflamed; his liver, kidneys, and bone marrow were faltering; and he was dead tired all the time. At first his doctors mistook his mysterious illness for lymphoma, but his inflamed lymph nodes were merely a red herring. A month after his initial hospitalization, pathologists at Mayo Clinic finally diagnosed him with idiopathic multicentric Castleman disease—a particularly ruthless form of a class of lymph node disorders that doesn't just attack one part of the body, but many, and has no known cause. It's a rare diagnosis within an already rare set of disorders. Only about 1,500 Americans a year receive the same diagnosis.
Without many options for treatment, Fajgenbaum underwent recurring rounds of chemotherapy. Each time, the treatment would offer temporary respite from Castleman symptoms, but bring the full spate of chemotherapy side effects. And it wasn't a sustainable treatment for the long haul. Regularly dousing a person's cells in unmitigated toxicity was about as elegant a solution to Fajgenbaum's disease as bulldozing a house in response to a toaster fire. The fire might go out (though not necessarily), but the house would be destroyed.
A swirl of exasperation and doggedness finally propelled Fajgenbaum to take on a crucial question himself: Among all of the already FDA-approved drugs on the market, was there something out there, labeled for another use, that could beat back Castleman disease and that he could tolerate long-term? After months of research, he discovered the answer: sirolimus, a drug normally prescribed to patients receiving a kidney transplant, could be used to suppress his overactive immune system with few known side effects to boot.
Fajgenbaum became hellbent on devoting his practice and research to making similar breakthroughs for others. He founded the Castleman Disease Collaborative Network, to coordinate the research of others studying this bewildering disease, and directs a laboratory consumed with studying cytokine storms—out-of-control immune responses characterized by the body's release of cytokines, proteins that the immune system secretes and uses to communicate with and direct other cells.
In the spring of 2020, when cytokine storms emerged as a hallmark of the most severe and deadly cases of COVID-19, Fajgenbaum's ears perked up. Although SARS-CoV-2 itself was novel, Fajgenbaum already had almost a decade of experience battling the most severe biological forces it brought. Only this time, he thought, it might actually be easier to pinpoint a treatment—unlike Castleman disease, which has no known cause, at least here a virus was clearly the instigator.
"Because [a drug] looks promising, we need to do a well-designed, large randomized controlled trial to really investigate whether this drug works or not ... We don't use that to say, 'You should take it.'"
Thinking Beyond COVID
The week of March 13, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Fajgenbaum found himself hoping that someone would make the same connection and apply the research to COVID. "Then like a minute later I was like, 'Why am I hoping that someone, somewhere, either follows our footsteps, or has a similar background to us? Maybe we just need to do it," he says. And the CORONA Project was born—first as a 10-day exercise, and later as the robust, interactive tool it now is.
All of the 400 treatments in the CORONA database are examples of repurposed drugs, or off-label uses: physicians are prescribing drugs to treat COVID that have been approved for a different disease. There are no bonafide COVID treatments, only inferences. The goal for people like Fajgenbaum and Stone is to identify potential treatments for further study and eventual official approval, so that physicians can treat the disease with a playbook in hand. When it works, drug repurposing opens up a way to move quickly: A range of treatments could be available to patients within just a few years of a totally new virus entering our reality compared with the 12 - 19 years new drug development takes.
"Companies for many decades have explored the use of their products for not just a single indication but often for many indications," says Stone. "'Supplemental approvals' are all essentially examples of drug repurposing, we just didn't call it that. The challenge, I think, is to explore those opportunities more comprehensively and systematically to really try to understand the full breadth of potential activity of any drug or molecule."
The left column shows the path of a repurposed drug, and on the right is the path of a newly discovered and developed drug.
Cures Within Reach
In Fajgenbaum's primary work, promising drugs stand out easily. For a disease like Castleman, where improvement almost never occurs on its own, any improvement that follows a treatment can pretty clearly be attributed to that treatment. But Fajgenbaum says tracking COVID outcomes is less straightforward since "the vast majority of people will get better, whether they take steroids or they take Skittles." That's why the intent of the database is to identify promising treatments only to generate hypotheses and fruitful clinical trials, not to offer full-throated treatment recommendations. Within the registry, Fajgenbaum considers a drug promising if it's being used in humans, not just in lab animals, and a significant proportion of cases report patient improvement.
"It's that sort of combination of rock-solid randomized controlled trial data, plus anecdotal retrospective data, that we combine to say, 'Wow, this drug looks more promising than another,'" says Fajgenbaum. "Because it looks promising, we need to do a well-designed, large randomized controlled trial to really investigate whether this drug works or not ... We don't use that to say, 'You should take it.'"
Experts say that the search for repurposed drugs to treat COVID could have implications for rare diseases in general. Rare diseases, of which Castleman is one, affect 400 million people around the world. 95% of them don't have a tailor-made, FDA-approved drug treatment. Developing one is a lengthy and often prohibitively expensive process. If only a dozen people will benefit from and buy a drug, it's not often worth it to pharmaceutical companies to spend millions of dollars making them. On occasion when they do, however, that overhead shows up in the price tag: the top 10 most expensive drugs in the world are all for rare diseases, often making them inaccessible to patients. Identifying new clinical uses for drugs that already exist is critical for opening a trap door out of a cycle that prioritizes profits over health outcomes.
"COVID is an interesting case where it's demonstrated that when the scientific and medical community really focuses all of its efforts and talents on a single problem, a solution can be identified and in a much faster time period than has ever historically been the case," says Stone. "I certainly wish it hadn't taken a pandemic to do that, but I think it does have lessons for the future in terms of our ability to accomplish things that we might have previously not thought were possible"—for example, mainstreaming the idea of drug repurposing as a treatment tool, even long after the pandemic subsides.
A Confounding Virus
The FDA declined to comment on what drugs it was fast-tracking for trials, but Fajgenbaum says that based on the CORONA Project's data, which includes data from smaller trials that have already taken place, he feels there are three drugs that seem the most clearly and broadly promising for large-scale studies. Among them are dexamethasone, which is a steroid with anti-inflammatory effects, and baricitinib, a rheumatoid arthritis drug, both of which have enabled the sickest COVID-19 patients to bounce back by suppressing their immune systems. The third most clearly promising drug is heparin, a blood thinner, which a recent trial showed to be most helpful when administered at a full dose, more so than at a small, preventative dose. (On the flipside, Fajgenbaum says "it's a little sad" that in the database you can see hydroxychloroquine is still the most-prescribed drug being tried as a COVID treatment around the world, despite over the summer being debunked widely as an effective treatment, and continuously since then.)
One of the confounding attributes of SARS-CoV-2 is its ability to cause such a huge spectrum of outcomes. It's unlikely a silver bullet treatment will emerge under that reality, so the database also helps surface drugs that seem most promising for a specific population. Fluvoxamine, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor used to treat obsessive compulsive disorder, showed promise in the recovery of outpatients—those who were sick, but not severely enough to be hospitalized. Tocilizumab, which was actually developed for Castleman disease, the disease Fajgenbaum is managing, was initially written off as a COVID treatment because it failed to benefit large portions of hospitalized patients, but now seems to be effective if used on intensive care unit patients within 24 hours of admission—these are some of the sickest patients with the highest risk of dying.
Other than fluvoxamine, most of the drugs labeled as promising do skew toward targeting hospitalized patients, more than outpatients. One reason, Fajgenbaum says, is that "if you're in a hospital it's very easy to give you a drug and to track you, and there are very objective measurements as to whether you die, you progress to a ventilator, etc." Tracking outpatients is far more difficult, especially when folks have been routinely asked to stay home, quarantine, and free up hospital resources if they're experiencing only mild symptoms.
But the other reason for the skew is because COVID is very unlike most other diseases in terms of the human immune response the virus triggers. For example, if oncology treatments show some benefit to people with the highest risk of dying, then they usually work extremely well if administered in the earlier stages of a cancer diagnosis. Across many diseases, this dialing backward is a standard approach to identifying promising treatments. With COVID, all of that reasoning has proven moot.
As we've seen over the last year, COVID cases often start as asymptomatic, and remain that way for days, indicating the body is mounting an incredibly weak immune response initially. Then, between days five and 14, as if trying to make up for lost time, the immune system overcompensates by launching a major inflammatory response, which in the sickest patient can lead to the type of cytokine storms that helped Fajgenbaum realize his years of Castleman research might be useful during this public health crisis. Because of this phased response, you can't apply the same treatment logic to all cases.
"In COVID, drugs that work late tend to not work if given early, and drugs that work early tend to not work if given late," says Fajgenbaum. "Generally this … is not a commonplace thing for a virus."
"There are drugs that are literally sitting in every single hospital pharmacy in the country that, if a study shows it's effective, can be deployed that evening to patients on a massive scale."
This see-sawing necessitates tracking a constellation of drugs that might work for different stages of the disease as a patient moves from the weak immune response stage into the overzealous immune response.
"COVID is difficult, compared to other diseases, because there are so many different levels of disease severity, and recovery at different rates," says Stone, the FDA researcher. "That makes it hard to see the patterns or signals and it makes it very important to collect very, very large numbers of cases in order to really reliably identify signals."
This particular moment in the pandemic feels like a massive tipping point, or the instant a tiny pinprick of light finally appeared at the end of the tunnel: several vaccines are already here, with more on the way imminently. In the U.S., more than 65 million doses of the vaccine have been administered, and positive COVID cases are finally falling back to levels not seen since October. On the hopeful surface, it might seem a strange moment to be preparing to launch trials that will validate treatments for a virus it seems the U.S. may finally be beating back. But at best, Americans are still months away from reaching herd immunity through vaccination, and new circulating variants may threaten to upend our fragile progress.
"In the meantime, there are drugs that are literally sitting in every single hospital pharmacy in the country that, if a study shows it's effective, can be deployed that evening to patients on a massive scale. It wouldn't have to be newly produced, it wouldn't have to be shipped, it's literally there already," says Fajgenbaum. "The idea that you can save a lot of lives by finding things that are just already there I think is really compelling, given how many people are going to die over these next few months."
Even after that, not everyone can or will be vaccinated, and, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, "The pathogen will circulate for years, or even decades, leaving society to coexist with Covid-19 much as it does with other endemic diseases like flu, measles, and HIV." Neither vaccines, personal behavior, or treatments alone is a panacea against the virus, but together they might be.
"It's important to explore all avenues in this public health emergency, and drug repurposing can continue to play a role as the pandemic continues and evolves," says Stone. "I think COVID variants in particular are a big concern at the moment, and therefore continuing to investigate new therapeutics, even as the vaccines roll out, will continue to be a priority."
When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor specimens and the Foresight team is analyzing this data, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.