Lynn Julian Crisci, 40, is an actress, a singer-songwriter, and an ambassador for the U.S. Pain Foundation. She is also a Boston Marathon bombing survivor. Crisci has a genetic disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), which has magnified the impact of the traumatic brain injury she sustained as a result of the attack that occurred almost five years ago. Having EDS means that her brain tissue is weaker and more prone to injury.￼
"I would love to learn more about gene editing and the possibilities of using it to lessen the symptoms of EDS, or cure it completely."
"EDS is a genetic tissue disorder that forces the body to make defective collagen," Crisci told LeapsMag. Since collagen is the main component of connective tissue (bones, blood vessels, the gastrointestinal tract, skin, cartilage, etc.), and is the most abundant protein in mammals, EDS can affect virtually every part of the body. "This results in widespread joint pain, usually due to hypermobility, sometimes along with digestive issues such as inflammatory bowel disease, and prolapsed organs."
If life was difficult with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome alone, the addition of the brain injury has made Crisci's life feel unbearable at times. Amidst her week's back-to-back doctor's visits, Crisci said that she would "love to learn more about gene editing and the possibilities of using it to lessen the symptoms of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, or cure it completely."
With all of the excitement these days around CRISPR, a precise and efficient way to edit DNA that has taken the world by storm, such treatments seem tantalizingly within reach. But is it fair to present the hope of such cures to those with life-limiting genetic disorders?
"From the experience that we've had from gene therapy — we're 20, almost 30 years past some of the initial gene therapy stuff — and there's still not a huge number of applications for it," said Scott Weissman, founder of Chicago Genetic Consultants, a company that provides genetic counseling services to patients. "Unfortunately, we have to wait and see if this is something that's truly viable, or if it's really just hype."
"I expect five years from now we'll look back and say, 'Wow, we were just scratching the surface.'"
Defining Our Terms
The terms "gene therapy" and "gene editing" are often used interchangeably, but not everyone agrees with this usage.
According to Editas Medicine, a leader in CRISPR technology, gene therapy involves the transfer of a new gene into a patient's cells to augment a defective gene, instead of using drugs or surgery to treat a condition. After a teenager's death in 1999 effectively shut down gene therapy research in the U.S., subsequent studies helped the field make a comeback, and the first such treatment for an inherited disease was approved by the FDA just a few weeks ago, for a rare form of vision loss. Called Luxturna, it is for treatment of patients with RPE65-mediated inherited retinal disease (IRD).
Since those with RPE65-mediated IRD typically become blind in childhood and have no pharmacologic treatment options, the FDA's approval of Luxturna is "a significant moment for patients," said Jeffrey Marrazzo, the chief executive officer of the company behind the product, Spark Therapeutics. Two other gene therapy treatments were also approved in the last five months, both for specific cancers.
Gene editing, on the other hand, refers to a group of technologies that enables scientists to precisely and directly change an organism's genes by adding, removing, or altering particular segments of DNA. Gene editing tools include Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFNs), Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nucleases (TALENs), and CRISPR/Cas9. The first treatment using ZFNs happened in November in California, when a 44-year-old man with a metabolic ailment called Hunter syndrome was injected with gene editing tools. Results are not yet known.
Dr. David Valle, director of the Institute of Genetic Medicine at Johns Hopkins, said that gene therapy's "significant therapeutic misadventures" have actually been beneficial. They've helped us learn to "be rigorous in our thinking about what we can do and what we can't do with CRISPR" and other gene editing tools.
"It appears like we are really beginning to have, for the first time, some meaningful and good results from gene therapy — it's moving into the clinic now in a meaningful way," Valle said. "I expect five years from now we'll look back and say, 'Wow, we were just at this point in 2017 — we were just scratching the surface.'"
Over 2300 gene therapy clinical trials are planned, ongoing, or have been completed so far. As for gene editing, no treatments are commercially available anywhere in the world. The expectation, however, is that many treatments that are "currently in or soon to enter clinical trials will come up for approval in coming years," according to a November 2016 report by the American Society of Gene & Cell Therapy.
CRISPR Therapeutics of Cambridge, Massachusetts will begin a European gene editing trial this year, with the hopes of creating a treatment for beta thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder. The company will also request approval from the FDA to begin a clinical trial using CRISPR for sickle-cell disease. And Stanford University School of Medicine researchers are planning a similar CRISPR clinical trial for sickle-cell disease. They hope to begin their trial in 2019.
Jim Burns, the president and chief executive officer of Casebia Therapeutics, told Leapsmag that the company will start animal research this year using CRISPR to treat autoimmune diseases, hemophilia A, and retinal diseases. They expect to begin clinical research in humans in 2019 or 2020. [Disclosure: Casebia Therapeutics is a novel joint venture between CRISPR Therapeutics and Leapsmag's founder, Leaps by Bayer, though Leapsmag is editorially independent of Bayer.]
Efforts are well underway to take genome-targeted treatments from the scientist's bench to the patient's bedside.
The Technology Isn't There Yet
Unlike germline gene editing — when egg and sperm cell DNA is edited in an embryo — somatic cell gene editing in adults is not very controversial, because the edits are not heritable. Since somatic cells contribute to the various tissues of the body but not to eggs or sperm cells, changes made to somatic cells are limited to the treated individual.
The number one reason that gene therapy and gene editing treatments are not yet widely available to the adult population is that the technology is not advanced enough. But it's getting there. Efforts are well underway to take genome-targeted treatments from the scientist's bench to the patient's bedside — especially in the case of monogenic diseases.
Roughly 10,000 genetic illnesses are monogenic, meaning that they result from a disease-causing variant in a single gene. Some monogenic diseases that have gene editing treatments currently in development for use in clinical trials include cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease, Tay-Sachs disease, and sickle cell anemia.
Marrazzo of Spark Therapeutics told LeapsMag that his company is working on gene therapies for monogenic diseases that affect the eye, like the retinal disease that Luxturna targets, as well as neurodegenerative and liver diseases.
But most illnesses are polygenic, meaning that they result from multiple gene mutations that have a combined influence on disease progression. Polygenic diseases, like high blood pressure and diabetes, would therefore be more challenging to treat with genome-targeted interventions. As a result, most research is currently focused on monogenic diseases.
"We don't really know how to target the gene editing to a specific organ in the body once it's fully developed and matured."
A major hurdle of gene editing is the risk of off-target effects. Editing the genome "can have unpredictable effects on gene expression and unintended effects on neighboring genes," wrote Morgan Maeder and Charles Gersbach in a March 2016 article in Molecular Therapy. One such unintended effect is the development of leukemia when a new gene unintentionally activates a cancer gene.
And since there are roughly 37 trillion cells in the adult human body, getting the gene editing machinery to enough cells or target tissues to create a lasting and significant change is a daunting task.
"We don't really know how to target the gene editing to a specific organ in the body once it's fully developed and matured," said Weissman, the genetic counseling expert. If you take an adult patient with known BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations, for example, how do you then "get the [gene editing] system in the breast so that it accurately cuts out the mutation in every single breast cell that could potentially turn into breast cancer, or in every single ovarian cell that could turn into ovarian cancer? We don't know how to target it like that, and I think that's the biggest reason you're not seeing it more somatically at this point in time."
Approval and Access
Debra Mathews, assistant director for science programs for the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, told LeapsMag that pre-existing regulatory frameworks surrounding gene therapy have been sufficient for addressing ethical and regulatory concerns surrounding gene editing. A bigger concern, she said, centers around access to future genome-targeted treatments.
"We know more about the genetics of Caucasian populations than other populations," Mathews explained, due to how genomic data is gathered. This "could lead to problems not just of financial but of biological access to new therapies." In other words, she said, "if you're of European ancestry, there may be a greater chance that there's a relevant genetically-targeted therapy for you than if you're of non-European ancestry."
Ensuring that genome-targeted treatments are accessible to all will require increased cooperation and data-sharing among key stakeholders around the world, as well as increased public engagement that is inclusive of a wide range of voices.
"It's important to be realistic in our predictions to the public."
The Coming Wave of Gene Editing Treatments
Ehlers-Danlos syndrome alone has 13 monogenic subtypes, each with its own genetic basis and set of clinical criteria. Though several of the gene mutations causing EDS subtypes have been identified, the genetic basis for the most common subtype that Lynn Julian Crisci has — hypermobile EDS — remains unknown. What this means, according to Valle, the doctor from Johns Hopkins, is that a gene therapy or gene editing approach "really cannot be contemplated because we don't know what we're trying to fix" yet. This is the case for many genetic illnesses.
Efforts are ongoing in gene discovery by organizations such as the Baylor-Hopkins Center for Mendelian Genomics, of which Valle is the principal investigator. "Our objective," he said, "is to identify the genes and variants responsible" in monogenic disorders.
While Valle is optimistic about the coming wave of commercially available gene therapy and gene editing treatments, he also thinks that "it's important to be realistic in our predictions to the public." As eager as physicians are to offer cures to their patients, "we have to make sure that we're rigorous in our thinking and our ideas are well-buttressed with results."
Estimates vary for how long Crisci and others with genetic illnesses will have to wait for genome-targeted treatment options. Depending on the illness, viable gene editing treatments could hit the market within the next ten years. Though patients have already waited a long while, the revolutionary technology allowing us to fix nature's mistakes could make up for lost time and lost hope.
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.
Last summer, when fast and cheap Covid tests were in high demand and governments were struggling to manufacture and distribute them, a group of independent scientists working together had a bit of a breakthrough.
Working on the Just One Giant Lab platform, an online community that serves as a kind of clearing house for open science researchers to find each other and work together, they managed to create a simple, one-hour Covid test that anyone could take at home with just a cup of hot water. The group tested it across a network of home and professional laboratories before being listed as a semi-finalist team for the XPrize, a competition that rewards innovative solutions-based projects. Then, the group hit a wall: they couldn't commercialize the test.
They wanted to keep their project open source, making it accessible to people around the world, so they decided to forgo traditional means of intellectual property protection and didn't seek patents. (They couldn't afford lawyers anyway). And, as a loose-knit group that was not supported by a traditional scientific institution, working in community labs and homes around the world, they had no access to resources or financial support for manufacturing or distributing their test at scale.
But without ethical and regulatory approval for clinical testing, manufacture, and distribution, they were legally unable to create field tests for real people, leaving their inexpensive, $16-per-test, innovative product languishing behind, while other, more expensive over-the-counter tests made their way onto the market.
Who Are These Radical Scientists?
Independent, decentralized biomedical research has come of age. Also sometimes called DIYbio, biohacking, or community biology, depending on whom you ask, open research is today a global movement with thousands of members, from scientists with advanced degrees to middle-grade students. Their motivations and interests vary across a wide spectrum, but transparency and accessibility are key to the ethos of the movement. Teams are agile, focused on shoestring-budget R&D, and aim to disrupt business as usual in the ivory towers of the scientific establishment.
Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Initiatives developed within the community, such as Open Insulin, which hopes to engineer processes for affordable, small-batch insulin production, "Slybera," a provocative attempt to reverse engineer a $1 million dollar gene therapy, and the hundreds of projects posted on the collaboration platform Just One Giant Lab during the pandemic, all have one thing in common: to pursue testing in humans, they need an ethics oversight mechanism.
These groups, most of which operate collaboratively in community labs, homes, and online, recognize that some sort of oversight or guidance is useful—and that it's the right thing to do.
But also, and perhaps more immediately, they need it because federal rules require ethics oversight of any biomedical research that's headed in the direction of the consumer market. In addition, some individuals engaged in this work do want to publish their research in traditional scientific journals, which—you guessed it—also require that research has undergone an ethics evaluation. Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Bridging the Ethics Gap
The problem is that traditional oversight mechanisms, such as institutional review boards at government or academic research institutions, as well as the private boards utilized by pharmaceutical companies, are not accessible to most independent researchers. Traditional review boards are either closed to the public, or charge fees that are out of reach for many citizen science initiatives. This has created an "ethics gap" in nontraditional scientific research.
Biohackers are seen in some ways as the direct descendents of "white hat" computer hackers, or those focused on calling out security holes and contributing solutions to technical problems within self-regulating communities. In the case of health and biotechnology, those problems include both the absence of treatments and the availability of only expensive treatments for certain conditions. As the DIYbio community grows, there needs to be a way to provide assurance that, when the work is successful, the public is able to benefit from it eventually. The team that developed the one-hour Covid test found a potential commercial partner and so might well overcome the oversight hurdle, but it's been 14 months since they developed the test--and counting.
In short, without some kind of oversight mechanism for the work of independent biomedical researchers, the solutions they innovate will never have the opportunity to reach consumers.
In a new paper in the journal Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, we consider the issue of the ethics gap and ask whether ethics oversight is something nontraditional researchers want, and if so, what forms it might take. Given that individuals within these communities sometimes vehemently disagree with each other, is consensus on these questions even possible?
We learned that there is no "one size fits all" solution for ethics oversight of nontraditional research. Rather, the appropriateness of any oversight model will depend on each initiative's objectives, needs, risks, and constraints.
We also learned that nontraditional researchers are generally willing (and in some cases eager) to engage with traditional scientific, legal, and bioethics experts on ethics, safety, and related questions.
We suggest that these experts make themselves available to help nontraditional researchers build infrastructure for ethics self-governance and identify when it might be necessary to seek outside assistance.
Independent biomedical research has promise, but like any emerging science, it poses novel ethical questions and challenges. Existing research ethics and oversight frameworks may not be well-suited to answer them in every context, so we need to think outside the box about what we can create for the future. That process should begin by talking to independent biomedical researchers about their activities, priorities, and concerns with an eye to understanding how best to support them.
Christi Guerrini, JD, MPH studies biomedical citizen science and is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Alex Pearlman, MA, is a science journalist and bioethicist who writes about emerging issues in biotechnology. They have recently launched outlawbio.org, a place for discussion about nontraditional research.