Editor's Note: In the year 2000, Amber Salzman was a 39-year-old mom from Philadelphia living a normal life: working as a pharmaceutical executive, raising an infant son, and enjoying time with her family. But when tragedy struck in the form of a ticking time bomb in her son's DNA, she sprang into action. Her staggering triumphs after years of turmoil exemplify how parents today can play a crucial role in pushing science forward. This is her family's story, as told to LeapsMag's Editor-in-Chief Kira Peikoff.
For a few years, my nephew Oliver, suffered from symptoms that first appeared as attention deficit disorder and then progressed to what seemed like Asperger's, and he continued to worsen and lose abilities he once had. After repeated misdiagnoses, he was finally diagnosed at age 8 with adrenoleukodystrophy, or ALD – a degenerative brain disease that puts kids on the path toward death. We learned it was an X-linked disease, so we had to test other family members. Because Oliver had it, that meant his mother, my sister, was carrier, which meant I had a 50-50 chance of being a carrier, and if I was, then my son had a 50-50 chance of getting the bad gene.
You know how some people win prizes all the time? I don't have that kind of luck. I had a sick feeling when we drew my son's blood. It was almost late December in the year 2000. Spencer was 1 and climbing around like a monkey, starting to talk—a very rambunctious kid. He tested positive, along with Oliver's younger brother, Elliott.
"The only treatment at the time was an allogenic stem cell transplant from cord blood or bone marrow."
You can imagine the dreadful things that go through your mind. Everything was fine then, but he had a horrific chance that in about 3 or 4 years, a bomb would go off. It was so tough thinking that we were going to lose Oliver, and then Spencer and Elliott were next in line. The only treatment at the time was an allogenic stem cell transplant from cord blood or bone marrow, which required finding a perfect match in a donor and then undergoing months of excruciating treatment. The mortality rate can be as high as 40 percent. If your kid was lucky enough to find a donor, he would then be lucky to leave the hospital 100 days after a transplant with a highly fragile immune system.
At the time, I was at GlaxoSmithKline in Research and Development, so I did have a background in working with drug development and I was fortunate to report to the chairman of R&D, Tachi Yamada.
I called Tachi and said, "I need your advice, I have three or four years to find a cure. What do I do?" He did some research and said it's a monogenic disease—meaning it's caused by only one errant gene—so my best bet was gene therapy. This is an approach to treatment that involves taking a sample of the patient's own stem cells, treating them outside the body with a viral vector as a kind of Trojan Horse to deliver the corrected gene, and then infusing the solution back into the patient, in the hopes that the good gene will proliferate throughout the body and stop the disease in its tracks.
Tachi said to call his friend Jim Wilson, who was a leader in the field at UPenn.
Since I live in Philadelphia I drove to see Jim as soon as possible. What I didn't realize was how difficult a time it was. This was shortly after Jesse Gelsinger died in a clinical trial for gene therapy run by UPenn—the first death for the field—and research had abruptly stopped. But when I met with Jim, he provided a road map for what it would take to put together a gene therapy trial for ALD.
Meanwhile, in parallel, I was dealing with my son's health.
After he was diagnosed, we arranged a brain MRI to see if he had any early lesions, because the only way you can stop the disease is if you provide a bone marrow transplant before the disease evolves. Once it is in full force, you can't reverse it, like a locomotive that's gone wild.
"He didn't recover like other kids because his brain was not a normal brain; it was an ALD brain."
We found he had a brain tumor that had nothing to do with ALD. It was slow growing, and we would have never found it otherwise until it was much bigger and caused symptoms. Long story short, he ended up getting the tumor removed, and when he was healing, he didn't recover like other kids because his brain was not a normal brain; it was an ALD brain. We knew we needed a transplant soon, and the gene therapy trial was unfortunately still years away.
At the time, he was my only child, and I was thinking of having additional kids. But I didn't want to get pregnant with another ALD kid and I wanted a kid who could provide a bone marrow transplant for my son. So while my son was still OK, I went through 5 cycles of in vitro fertilization, a process in which hormone shots stimulated my ovaries to produce multiple eggs, which were then surgically extracted and fertilized in a lab with my husband's sperm. After the embryos grew in a dish for three to five days, doctors used a technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, screening those embryos to determine which genes they carry, in order to try to find a match for Spencer. Any embryo that had ALD, we saved for research. Any that did not have ALD but were not a match for Spencer, we put in the freezer. We didn't end up with a single one that was a match.
So he had a transplant at Duke Children's Hospital at age 2, using cord blood donated from a public bank. He had to be in the hospital a long time, infusing meds multiple times a day to prevent the donor cells from rejecting his body. We were all excited when he made it out after 100 days, but then we quickly had to go back for an infection he caught.
We were still bent on moving forward with the gene therapy trials.
Jim Wilson at Penn explained what proof of concept we needed in animals to go forward to humans, and a neurologist in Paris, Patrick Aubourg, had already done that using a vector to treat ALD mice. But he wasn't sure which vector to use in humans.
The next step was to get Patrick and a team of gene therapy experts together to talk about what they knew, and what needed to be done to get a trial started. There was a lot of talk about viral vectors. Because viruses efficiently transport their own genomes into the cells they infect, they can be useful tools for sending good genes into faulty cells. With some sophisticated tinkering, molecular biologists can neuter normally dangerous viruses to make them into delivery trucks, nothing more. The biggest challenge we faced then was: How do we get a viral vector that would be safe in humans?
Jim introduced us to Inder Verma, chair of the scientific advisory board of Cell Genesys, a gene therapy company in California that was focused on oncology. They were the closest to making a viral vector that could go into humans, based on a disabled form of HIV. When I spoke to Inder, he said, "Let's review the data, but you will need to convince the company to give you the vector." So I called the CEO and basically asked him, "Would you be willing to use the vector in this horrific disease?" I told him that our trial would be the fastest way to test their vector in humans. He said, "If you can convince my scientists this is ready to go, we will put the vector forward." Mind you, this was a multi-million-dollar commitment, pro bono.
I kept thinking every day, the clock is ticking, we've got to move quickly. But we convinced the scientists and got the vector.
Then, before we could test it, an unrelated clinical trial in gene therapy for a severe immunodeficiency disease, led to several of the kids developing leukemia in 2003. The press did a bad number and scared everyone away from the field, and the FDA put studies on hold in the U.S. That was one of those moments where I thought it was over. But we couldn't let it stop. Nothing's an obstacle, just a little bump we have to overcome.
Patrick wanted to do the study in France with the vector. This is where patient advocacy is important in providing perspective on the risks vs. benefits of undergoing an experimental treatment. What nobody seemed to realize was that the kids in the 2003 trial would have died if they were not first given the gene therapy, and luckily their leukemia was a treatable side effect.
Patrick and I refused to give up pushing for approval of the trial in France. Meanwhile, I was still at GSK, working full time, and doing this at night, nonstop. Because my day job did require travel to Europe, I would stop by Paris and meet with him. Another sister of mine who did not have any affected children was a key help and we kept everything going. You really need to continually stay engaged and press the agenda forward, since there are so many things that pop up that can derail the program.
Finally, Patrick was able to treat four boys with the donated vector. The science paper came out in 2009. It was a big deal. That's when the venture money came in—Third Rock Ventures was the first firm to put big money behind gene therapy. They did a deal with Patrick to get access to the Intellectual Property to advance the trial, brought on scientists to continue the study, and made some improvements to the vector. That's what led to the new study reported recently in the New England Journal of Medicine. Of 17 patients, 15 of them are still fine at least two years after treatment.
You know how I said we felt thrilled that my son could leave the hospital after 100 days? When doing the gene therapy treatment, the hospital stay needed is much quicker. Shortly after one kid was treated, a physician in the hospital remarked, "He is fine, he's only here because of the trial." Since you get your own cells, there is no risk of graft vs. host disease. The treatment is pretty anticlimactic: a bag of blood, intravenously infused. You can bounce back within a few weeks.
Now, a few years out, approximately 20 percent of patients' cells have been corrected—and that's enough to hold off the disease. That's what the data is showing. I was blown away when it worked in the first two patients.
The formerly struggling field is now making a dramatic comeback.
Now I run a company, Adverum Biotechnologies, that I wish existed back when my son was diagnosed, because I want people who are like me, coming to me, saying: "I have proof of concept in an animal, I need to get a vector suitable for human trials, do the work needed to file with the FDA, and move it into humans." Our company knows how to do that and would like to work with such patient advocates.
Often parents feel daunted to partake in similar efforts, telling me, "Well, you worked in pharma." Yes, I had advantages, but if you don't take no for an answer, people will help you. Everybody is one degree of separation from people who can help them. You don't need a science or business background. Just be motivated, ask for help, and have your heart in the right place.
Having said that, I don't want to sound judgmental of families who are completely paralyzed. When you get a diagnosis that your child is dying, it is hard to get out of bed in the morning and face life. My sister at a certain point had one child dying, one in the hospital getting a transplant, and a healthy younger child. To expect someone like that to at the same time be flying to an FDA meeting, it's hard. Yet, she made critical meetings, and she and her husband graciously made themselves available to talk to parents of recently diagnosed boys. But it is really tough and my heart goes out to anyone who has to live through such devastation.
Tragically, my nephew Oliver passed away 13 years ago at age 12. My other nephew was 8 when he had a cord blood transplant; our trial wasn't available yet. He had some bad graft vs. host disease and he is now navigating life using a wheelchair, but thank goodness, it stopped the disease. He graduated Stanford a year ago and is now a sports writer for the Houston Chronicle.
As for my son, today he is 17, a precocious teenager applying to colleges. He also volunteers for an organization called the Friendship Circle, providing friends for kids with special needs. He doesn't focus on disability and accepts people for who they are – maybe he would have been like that anyway, but it's part of who he is. He lost his cousin and knows he is alive today because Oliver's diagnosis gave us a head start on his.
My son's story is a good one in that he had a successful transplant and recovered.
Once we knew he would make it and we no longer needed our next child to be a match, we had a daughter using one of our healthy IVF embryos in storage. She is 14 now, but she jokes that she is technically 17, so she should get to drive. I tell her, they don't count the years in the freezer. You have to joke about it.
I am so lucky to have two healthy kids today based on advances in science.
And I often think of Oliver. We always try to make him proud and honor his name.
[Editor's Note: This story was originally published in November 2017. We are resurfacing archive hits while our staff is on vacation.]
Salzman and her son Spencer, 17, who is now healthy.
(Courtesy of Salzman)
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.
We are sticking our heads into the sand of reality on Omicron, and the results may be catastrophic.
Omicron is over 4 times more infectious than Delta. The Pfizer two-shot vaccine offers only 33% protection from infection. A Pfizer booster vaccine does raises protection to about 75%, but wanes to around 30-40 percent 10 weeks after the booster.
That’s because the much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, as the Center for Disease Control warned, in this major Omicron wave.
Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines and is promoting boosters. Certainly, it’s crucial to get as many people to get their booster – and initial vaccine doses – as soon as possible. But the government is not taking the steps that would be the real game-changers.
Pfizer’s anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89%. Due to this effectiveness, the FDA approved Pfizer ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. Yet the FDA chose not to hasten the approval process along with the emergence of Omicron in late November, only getting around to emergency authorization in late December once Omicron took over. That delay meant the lack of Paxlovid for the height of the Omicron wave, since it takes many weeks to ramp up production, resulting in an unknown number of unnecessary deaths.
We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases.
Widely available at-home testing would enable people to test themselves quickly, so that those with mild symptoms can quarantine instead of infecting others. Yet the federal government did not make tests available to patients when Omicron emerged in late November. That’s despite the obviousness of the coming wave based on the precedent of South Africa, UK, and Denmark and despite the fact that the government made vaccines freely available. Its best effort was to mandate that insurance cover reimbursements for these kits, which is way too much of a barrier for most people. By the time Omicron took over, the federal government recognized its mistake and ordered 500 million tests to be made available in January. However, that’s far too late. And the FDA also played a harmful role here, with its excessive focus on accuracy going back to mid-2020, blocking the widespread availability of cheap at-home tests. By contrast, Europe has a much better supply of tests, due to its approval of quick and slightly less accurate tests.
Neither do we see meaningful leadership at the level of employers. Some are bringing out the tired old “delay the office reopening” play. For example, Google, Uber, and Ford, along with many others, have delayed the return to the office for several months. Those that already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements or adding sufficient ventilation to address the spread of COVID.
Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts, leaders are repeating the same mistakes we fell into with Delta. And so are regular people. For example, surveys show that Omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of unvaccinated Americans to get a first vaccine dose, or of vaccinated Americans to get a booster. That’s despite Omicron having taken over from Delta in late December.
What explains this puzzling behavior on both the individual and society level? We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking and gut reactions, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.
These cognitive biases stem from the more primitive, emotional, and intuitive part of our brains that ensured survival in our ancestral environment. This quick, automatic reaction of our emotions represents the autopilot system of thinking, one of the two systems of thinking in our brains. It makes good decisions most of the time but also regularly makes certain systematic thinking errors, since it’s optimized to help us survive. In modern society, our survival is much less at risk, and our gut is more likely to compel us to focus on the wrong information to make decisions.
One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet we failed to pay attention to and prepare for such a threat.
We want the future to be normal. We’re tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disruptors, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.
When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes those used to their old ways of action to reject any alternatives, including to prepare for a new variant.
Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we excessively discount the benefits of orienting toward the future and focus on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of trying to return to normal over managing the risks of future variants.
The way forward into the future is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future.
The FDA requires a serious overhaul. It’s designed for a non-pandemic environment, where the goal is to have a highly conservative, slow-going, and risk-averse approach so that the public feels confident trusting whatever it approved. That’s simply unacceptable in a fast-moving pandemic, and we are bound to face future pandemics in the future.
The federal government needs to have cognitive bias experts weigh in on federal policy. Putting all of its eggs in one basket – vaccinations – is not a wise move when we face the risks of a vaccine-escaping variant. Its focus should also be on expediting and prioritizing anti-virals, scaling up cheap rapid testing, and subsidizing high-filtration masks.
For employers, instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, companies need to adopt a decentralized team-led approach. Each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team should determine what works best for their team. After all, team leaders tend to know much more of what their teams need, after all. Moreover, they can respond to local emergencies like COVID surges.
At the same time, team leaders need to be trained to integrate best practices for hybrid and remote team leadership. Companies transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. They fell into the cognitive bias of functional fixedness and transposed their pre-existing, in-office methods of collaboration on remote work. Zoom happy hours are a clear example: The large majority of employees dislike them, and research shows they are disconnecting, rather than connecting.
Yet supervisors continue to use them, despite the existence of much better methods of facilitating colalboration, which have been shown to work, such as virtual water cooler discussions, virtual coworking, and virtual mentoring. Leaders also need to facilitate innovation in hybrid and remote teams through techniques such as virtual asynchronous brainstorming. Finally, team leaders need to adjust performance evaluation to adapt to the needs of hybrid and remote teams.
On an individual level, people built up certain expectations during the first two years of the pandemic, and they don't apply with Omicron. For example, most people still think that a cloth mask is a fine source of protection. In reality, you really need an N-95 mask, since Omicron is so much more infectious. Another example is that many people don’t realize that symptom onset is much quicker with Omicron, and they aren’t prepared for the consequences.
Remember that we have a huge number of people who are asymptomatic, often without knowing it, due to the much higher mildness of Omicron. About 8% of people admitted to hospitals for other reasons in San Francisco test positive for COVID without symptoms, which we can assume translates for other cities. That means many may think they're fine and they're actually infectious. The result is a much higher chance of someone getting many other people sick.
During this time of record-breaking cases, you need to be mindful about your internalized assumptions and adjust your risk calculus accordingly. So if you can delay higher-risk activities, January and February might be the time to do it. Prepare for waves of disruptions to continue over time, at least through the end of February.
Of course, you might also choose to not worry about getting infected. If you are vaccinated and boosted, and do not have any additional health risks, you are very unlikely to have a serious illness due to Omicron. You can just take the small risk of a serious illness – which can happen – and go about your daily life. If doing so, watch out for those you care about who do have health concerns, since if you infect them, they might not have a mild case even with Omicron.
In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might create a competitive advantage in our new future. COVID will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.