Seven years ago, mountain biking near his home in Whitefish, Montana, Jeff Marquis felt confident enough to try for a jump he usually avoided. But he hesitated just a bit as he was going over. Instead of catching air, Marquis crashed.
Researchers' major new insight is that recovery is still possible, even years after an injury.
After 18 days on a ventilator in intensive care and two-and-a-half months in a rehabilitation hospital, Marquis was able to move his arms and wrists, but not his fingers or anything below his chest. Still, he was determined to remain as independent as possible. "I wasn't real interested in having people take care of me," says Marquis, now 35. So, he dedicated the energy he formerly spent biking, kayaking, and snowboarding toward recovering his own mobility.
For generations, those like Marquis with severe spinal cord injuries dreamt of standing and walking again – with no realistic hope of achieving these dreams. But now, a handful of people with such injuries, including Marquis, have stood on their own and begun to learn to take steps again. "I'm always trying to improve the situation but I'm happy with where I'm at," Marquis says.
The recovery Marquis and a few of his fellow patients have achieved proves that our decades-old understanding of the spinal cord was wrong. Researchers' major new insight is that recovery is still possible, even years after an injury. Only a few thousand nerve cells actually die when the spinal cord is injured. The other neurons still have the ability to generate signals and movement on their own, says Susan Harkema, co-principal investigator at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, where Marquis is being treated.
"The spinal cord has much more responsibility for executing movement than we thought before," Harkema says. "Successful movement can happen without those connections from the brain." Nerve cell circuits remaining after the injury can control movement, she says, but leaving people sitting in a wheelchair doesn't activate those sensory circuits. "When you sit down, you lose all the sensory information. The whole circuitry starts discombobulating."
Harkema and others use a two-pronged approach – both physical rehabilitation and electrical stimulation – to get those spinal cord circuits back into a functioning state. Several research groups are still honing this approach, but a few patients have already taken steps under their own power, and others, like Marquis, can now stand unassisted – both of which were merely fantasies for spinal cord injury patients just five years ago.
"This really does represent a leap forward in terms of how we think about the capacity of the spinal cord to be repaired after injury," says Susan Howley, executive vice president for research for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which supports research for spinal cord injuries.
Jeff Marquis biking on a rock before his accident.
This new biological understanding suggests the need for a wholesale change in how people are treated after a spinal cord injury, Howley says. But today, most insurance companies cover just 30-40 outpatient rehabilitation sessions per year, whether you've sprained your ankle or severed your spinal cord. To deliver the kind of therapy that really makes a difference for spinal cord injury patients requires "60-80-90 or 150 sessions," she says, adding that she thinks insurance companies will more than make up for the cost of those therapy sessions if spinal cord injury patients are healthier. Early evidence suggests that getting people back on their feet helps prevent medical problems common among paralyzed people, including urinary tract infections, which can require costly hospital stays.
"Exercise and the ability to fully bear one's own weight are as crucial for people who live with paralysis as they are for able-bodied people," Howley notes, adding that the Reeve Foundation is now trying to expand the network of facilities available in local communities to offer this essential rehabilitation.
"Providing the right kind of training every day to people could really improve their opportunity to recover," Harkema says.
It's not entirely clear yet how far someone could progress with rehabilitation alone, Harkema says, but probably the best results for someone with a severe injury will also require so-called epidural electrical stimulation. This device, implanted in the lower back for a cost of about $30,000, sends an electrical current at varying frequencies and intensities to the spinal cord. Several separate teams of researchers have now shown that epidural stimulation can help restore sensation and movement to people who have been paralyzed for years.
Epidural stimulation boosts the electrical signal that is generated below the point of injury, says Daniel Lu, an associate professor and vice chair of neurosurgery at the UCLA School of Medicine. Before a spinal cord injury, he says, a neuron might send a message at a volume of 10 but after injury, that volume might drop to a two or three. The epidural stimulation potentially trains the neuron to respond to the lower volume, Lu says.
Lu has used such stimulators to improve hand function – "essentially what defines us" – in two patients with spinal cord injuries. Both increased their grip strength so they now can lift a cup to drink by themselves, which they couldn't do before. He's also used non-invasive stimulation to help restore bladder function, which he says many spinal cord injury patients care about as much as walking again.
A closeup of the stimulator.
Not everyone will benefit from these treatments. People whose injury was caused by a cut to the spinal cord, as with a knife or bullet, probably can't be helped, Lu says, adding that they account for less than 5 percent of spinal cord injuries.
The current challenge Lu says is not how to stimulate the spinal cord, but where to stimulate it and the frequency of stimulation that will be most effective for each patient. Right now, doctors use an off-the-shelf stimulator that is used to treat pain and is not optimized for spinal cord patients, Harkema says.
Swiss researchers have shown impressive results from intermittent rather than continuous epidural stimulation. These pulses better reflect the way the brain sends its messages, according to Gregoire Courtine, the senior author on a pair of papers published Nov. 1 in Nature and Nature Neuroscience. He showed that he could get people up and moving within just a few days of turning on the stimulation. Three of his patients are walking again with only a walker or minimal assistance, and they also gained voluntary leg movements even when the stimulator was off. Continuous stimulation, this research shows, actually interferes with the patients' perception of limb position, and thus makes it harder for them to relearn to walk.
Even short of walking, proper physical rehabilitation and electrical stimulation can transform the quality of life of people with spinal cord injury, Howley and Harkema say. Patients don't need to be able to reach the top shelf or run a marathon to feel like they've been "cured" from their paralysis. Instead, recovering bowel, bladder and sexual functions, the ability to regulate their temperature and blood pressure, and reducing the breakdown of skin that can lead to a life-threatening infection can all be transformative – and all appear to improve with the combination of rehabilitation and electrical stimulation.
Howley cites a video of one of Harkema's patients, Stefanie Putnam, who was passing out five to six times a day because her blood pressure was so low. She couldn't be left alone, which meant she had no independence. After several months of rehabilitation and stimulation, she can now sit up for long periods, be left alone, and even, she says gleefully, cook her own dinner. "Every time I watch it, it brings me to tears," Howley says of the video. "She's able to resume her normal life activity. It's mind-boggling."
The work also suggests a transformation in the care of people immediately after injury. They should be allowed to stand and start taking steps as soon as possible, even if they cannot do it under their own power, Harkema says. Research is also likely to show that quickly implanting a stimulator after an injury will make a difference, she says.
There may be medications that can help immediately after an injury, too. One drug currently being studied, called riluzole, has already been approved for ALS and might help limit the damage of a spinal cord injury, Howley says. But testing its effectiveness has been a slow process, she says, because it needs to be given within 12 hours of the initial injury and not enough people get to the testing sites in time.
Stem cell therapy also offers promise for spinal cord injury patients, Howley says – but not the treatments currently provided by commercial stem cell clinics both in the U.S. and overseas, which she says are a sham. Instead, she is carefully following research by a California-based company called Asterias Biotherapeutics, which announced plans Nov. 8 to merge with a company called BioTime.
Asterias and a predecessor company have been treating people since 2010 in an effort to regrow nerves in the spinal cord. All those treated have safely tolerated the cells, but not everyone has seen a huge improvement, says Edward Wirth, who has led the trial work and is Asterias' chief medical director. He says he thinks he knows what's held back those who didn't improve much, and hopes to address those issues in the next 3- to 4-year-long trial, which he's now discussing with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
So far, he says, some patients have had an almost complete return of movement in their hands and arms, but little improvement in their legs. The stem cells seem to stimulate tissue repair and regeneration, he says, but only around the level of the injury in the spinal cord and a bit below. The legs, he says, are too far away to benefit.
Wirth says he thinks a combination of treatments – stem cells, electrical stimulation, rehabilitation, and improved care immediately after an injury – will likely produce the best results.
While there's still a long way to go to scale these advances to help the majority of the 300,000 spinal cord injury patients in the U.S., they now have something that's long been elusive: hope.
"Two or three decades ago there was no hope at all," Howley says. "We've come a long way."
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.