Matt Fuchs is a health and science writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He is a monthly contributor to The Washington Post and has also written for The Washington Post Magazine, WIRED Magazine and Time Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @fuchswriter.
In 2007, Matthew Might's son, Bertrand, was born with a life-threatening disease that was so rare, doctors couldn't diagnose it. Might, a computer scientist and biologist, eventually realized, "Oh my gosh, he's the only patient in the world with this disease right now." To find effective treatments, new methodologies would need to be developed. But there was no process or playbook for doing that.
Might took it upon himself, along with a team of specialists, to try to find a cure. "What Bertrand really taught me was the visceral sense of urgency when there's suffering, and how to act on that," he said.
He calls it "the agency of urgency"—and patients with more common diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer's, often feel that same need to take matters into their own hands, as they find their hopes for new treatments running up against bureaucratic systems designed to advance in small, steady steps, not leaps and bounds. "We all hope for a cure," said Florence "Pippy" Rogers, a 65-year-old volunteer with Georgia's chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. She lost her mother to the disease and, these days, worries about herself and her four siblings. "We need to keep accelerating research."
We have a fresh example of what can be achieved by fast-tracking discoveries in healthcare: Covid-19 vaccines.
President Biden has pushed for cancer moonshots since the disease took the life of his son, Beau, in 2015. His administration has now requested $6.5 billion to start a new agency in 2022, called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, within the National Institutes of Health. It's based on DARPA, the Department of Defense agency known for hatching world-changing technologies such as drones, GPS and ARPANET, which became the internet.
We have a fresh example of what can be achieved by fast-tracking discoveries in healthcare: Covid-19 vaccines. "Operation Warp Speed was using ARPA-like principles," said Might. "It showed that in a moment of crisis, institutions like NIH can think in an ARPA-like way. So now the question is, why don't we do that all the time?"
But applying the DARPA model to health involves several challenging decisions. I asked experts what could be the hardest question facing advocates of ARPA-H: which health problems it should seek to address. "All the wonderful choices lead to the problem of which ones to choose and prioritize," said Sudip Parikh, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. "There is no objectively right answer."
The Agency of Urgency
ARPA-H will borrow at least three critical ingredients from DARPA: goal-oriented project managers, many from industry; aggressive public-private partnerships; and collaboration among fields that don't always interact. The DARPA concept has been applied to other purposes, including energy and homeland security, with promising results. "We're learning that 'ARPA-ism' is a franchisable model," said Might, a former principal investigator on DARPA projects.
The federal government already pours billions of dollars into advancing research on life-threatening diseases, with much of it channeled through the National Institutes of Health. But the purpose of ARPA-H "isn't just the usual suspects that NIH would fund," said David Walt, a Harvard biochemist, an innovator in gene sequencing and former chair of DARPA's Defense Science Research Council. Whereas some NIH-funded studies aim to gradually improve our understanding of diseases, ARPA-H projects will give full focus to real-world applications; they'll use essential findings from NIH research as starting points, drawing from them to rapidly engineer new technologies that could save lives.
And, ultimately, billions in healthcare costs, if ARPA-H lives up to its predecessor's track record; DARPA's breakthroughs have been economic game-changers, while its fail-fast approach—quickly pulling the plug on projects that aren't panning out—helps to avoid sunken costs. ARPA-H could fuel activities similar to the human genome project, which used existing research to map the base pairs that make up DNA, opening new doors for the biotech industry, sparking economic growth and creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs.
Despite a nearly $4 trillion health economy, "we aren't innovating when it comes to technological capabilities for health," said Liz Feld, president of the Suzanne Wright Foundation for pancreatic cancer.
Individual Diseases Ripe for Innovation
Although the need for innovation is clear, which diseases ARPA-H should tackle is less apparent. One important consideration when choosing health priorities could be "how many people suffer from a disease," said Nancy Kass, a professor of bioethics and public health at Johns Hopkins.
That perspective could justify cancer as a top objective. Cancer and heart disease have long been the two major killers in the U.S. Leonidas Platanias, professor of oncology at Northwestern and director of its cancer center, noted that we've already made significant progress on heart disease. "Anti-cholesterol drugs really have a wide impact," he said. "I don't want to compare one disease to another, but I think cancer may be the most challenging. We need even bigger breakthroughs." He wondered whether ARPA-H should be linked to the part of NIH dedicated to cancer, the National Cancer Institute, "to take maximum advantage of what happens" there.
Previous cancer moonshots have laid a foundation for success. And this sort of disease-by-disease approach makes sense in a way. "We know that concentrating on some diseases has led to treatments," said Parikh. "Think of spinal muscular atrophy or cystic fibrosis. Now, imagine if immune therapies were discovered ten years earlier."
But many advocates think ARPA-H should choose projects that don't revolve around any one disease. "It absolutely has to be disease agnostic," said Feld, president of the pancreatic cancer foundation. "We cannot reach ARPA-H's potential if it's subject to the advocacy of individual patient groups who think their disease is worse than the guy's disease next to them. That's not the way the DARPA model works." Platanias agreed that ARPA-H should "pick the highest concepts and developments that have the best chance" of success.
Finding Connections Between Diseases
Kass, the Hopkins bioethicist, believes that ARPA-H should walk a balance, with some projects focusing on specific diseases and others aspiring to solutions with broader applications, spanning multiple diseases. Being impartial, some have noted, might involve looking at the total "life years" saved by a health innovation; the more diseases addressed by a given breakthrough, the more years of healthy living it may confer. The social and economic value should increase as well.
For multiple payoffs, ARPA-H could concentrate on rare diseases, which can yield important insights for many other diseases, said Might. Every case of cancer and Alzheimer's is, in a way, its own rare disease. Cancer is a genetic disease, like his son Bertrand's rare disorder, and mutations vary widely across cancer patients. "It's safe to say that no two people have ever actually had the same cancer," said Might. In theory, solutions for rare diseases could help us understand how to individualize treatments for more common diseases.
Many experts I talked with support another priority for ARPA-H with implications for multiple diseases: therapies that slow down the aging process. "Aging is the greatest risk factor for every major disease that NIH is studying," said Matt Kaeberlein, a bio-gerontologist at the University of Washington. Yet, "half of one percent of the NIH budget goes to researching the biology of aging. An ARPA-H sized budget would push the field forward at a pace that's hard to imagine."
Might agreed. "It could take ARPA-H to get past the weird stigmas around aging-related research. It could have a tremendous impact on the field."
For example, ARPA-H could try to use mRNA technology to express proteins that affect biological aging, said Kaeberlein. It's an engineering project well-suited to the DARPA model. So is harnessing machine learning to identify biomarkers that assess how fast people are aging. Biological aging clocks, if validated, could quickly reveal whether proposed therapies for aging are working or not. "I think there's huge value in that," said Kaeberlein.
By delivering breakthroughs in computation, ARPA-H could improve diagnostics for many different diseases. That could include improving biowearables for continuously monitoring blood pressure—a hypothetical mentioned in the White House's concept paper on ARPA-H—and advanced imaging technologies. "The high cost of medical imaging is a leading reason why our healthcare costs are the highest in the world," said Feld. "There's no detection test for ALS. No brain detection for Alzheimer's. Innovations in detection technology would save on cost and human suffering."
Some biotech companies may be skeptical about the financial rewards of accelerating such technologies. But ARPA-H could fund public-private partnerships to "de-risk" biotech's involvement—an incentive that harkens back to the advance purchase contracts that companies got during Covid. (Some groups have suggested that ARPA-H could provide advance purchase agreements.)
Parikh is less bullish on creating diagnostics through ARPA-H. Like DARPA, Biden's health agency will enjoy some independence from federal oversight; it may even be located hundreds of miles from DC. That freedom affords some breathing room for innovation, but it could also make it tougher to ensure that algorithms fully consider diverse populations. "That part I really would like the government more involved in," Parikh said.
Might thinks ARPA-H should also explore innovations in clinical trials, which many patients and medical communities view as grindingly slow and requiring too many participants. "We can approve drugs for very tiny patient populations, even at the level of the individual," he said, while emphasizing the need for safety. But Platanias thinks the FDA has become much more flexible in recent years. In the cancer field, at least, "You now see faster approvals for more drugs. Having [more] shortcuts on clinical trial approvals is not necessarily a good idea."
With so many options on the table, ARPA-H needs to show the public a clear framework for measuring the value of potential projects. Kass warned that well-resourced advocates could skew the agency's priorities. They've affected health outcomes before, she noted; fundraising may partly explain larger increases in life expectancy for cystic fibrosis than sickle cell anemia. Engaging diverse communities is a must for ARPA-H. So are partnerships to get the agency's outputs to people who need them. "Research is half the equation," said Kass. "If we don't ensure implementation and access, who cares." The White House concept paper on ARPA-H made a similar point.
As Congress works on authorizing ARPA-H this year, Might is doing what he can to ensure better access to innovation on a patient-by-patient basis. Last year, his son, Bertrand, passed away suddenly from his disorder. He was 12. But Might's sense of urgency has persisted, as he directs the Precision Medicine Institute at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. That urgency "can be carried into an agency like ARPA-H," he said. "It guides what I do as I apply for funding, because I'm trying to build the infrastructure that other parents need. So they don't have to build it from scratch like I did."
In early 2020, Moderna Inc. was a barely-known biotechnology company with an unproven approach. It wanted to produce messenger RNA molecules to carry instructions into the body, teaching it to ward off disease. Experts doubted the Boston-based company would meet success.
Today, Moderna is a pharmaceutical power thanks to its success developing an effective Covid-19 vaccine. The company is worth $124 billion, more than giants including GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, and evidence has emerged that Moderna's shots are more protective than those produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and other vaccine makers. Pressure is building on the company to deliver more of its doses to people around the world, especially in poorer countries, and Moderna is working on vaccines against other pathogens, including Zika, influenza and cytomegalovirus.
But Moderna encountered such difficulties over the course of its eleven-year history that some executives worried it wouldn't survive. Two unlikely scientists helped save the company. Their breakthroughs paved the way for Moderna's Covid-19 shots but their work has never been publicized nor have their contributions been properly appreciated.
Derrick Rossi, a scientist at MIT, and Noubar Afeyan, a Cambridge-based investor, launched Moderna in September 2010. Their idea was to create mRNA molecules capable of delivering instructions to the body's cells, directing them to make proteins to heal ailments and cure disease. Need a statin, immunosuppressive, or other drug or vaccine? Just use mRNA to send a message to the body's cells to produce it. Rossi and Afeyan were convinced injecting mRNA into the body could turn it into its own laboratory, generating specific medications or vaccines as needed.
At the time, the notion that one might be able to teach the body to make proteins bordered on heresy. Everyone knew mRNA was unstable and set off the body's immune system on its way into cells. But in the late 2000's, two scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, had figured out how to modify mRNA's chemical building blocks so the molecule could escape the notice of the immune system and enter the cell. Rossi and Afeyan couldn't convince the University of Pennsylvania to license Karikó and Weissman's patent, however, stymying Moderna's early ambitions. At the same time, the Penn scientists' technique seemed more applicable to an academic lab than a biotech company that needed to produce drugs or shots consistently and in bulk. Rossi and Afeyan's new company needed their own solution to help mRNA evade the body's defenses.
Some of Moderna's founders doubted Schrum could find success and they worried if their venture was doomed from the start.
The Scientist Who Modified mRNA: Jason Schrum
In 2010, Afeyan's firm subleased laboratory space in the basement of another Cambridge biotech company to begin scientific work. Afeyan chose a young scientist on his staff, Jason Schrum, to be Moderna's first employee, charging him with getting mRNA into cells without relying on Karikó and Weissman's solutions.
Schrum seemed well suited for the task. Months earlier, he had received a PhD in biological chemistry at Harvard University, where he had focused on nucleotide chemistry. Schrum even had the look of someone who might do big things. The baby-faced twenty-eight-year-old favored a relaxed, start-up look: khakis, button-downs, and Converse All-Stars.
Schrum felt immediate strain, however. He hadn't told anyone, but he was dealing with intense pain in his hands and joints, a condition that later would be diagnosed as degenerative arthritis. Soon Schrum couldn't bend two fingers on his left hand, making lab work difficult. He joined a drug trial, but the medicine proved useless. Schrum tried corticosteroid injections and anti-inflammatory drugs, but his left hand ached, restricting his experiments.
"It just wasn't useful," Schrum says, referring to his tender hand.
He persisted, nonetheless. Each day in the fall of 2010, Schrum walked through double air-locked doors into a sterile "clean room" before entering a basement laboratory, in the bowels of an office in Cambridge's Kendall Square neighborhood, where he worked deep into the night. Schrum searched for potential modifications of mRNA nucleosides, hoping they might enable the molecule to produce proteins. Like all such rooms, there were no windows, so Schrum had to check a clock to know if it was day or night. A colleague came to visit once in a while, but most of the time, Schrum was alone.
Some of Moderna's founders doubted Schrum could find success and they worried if their venture was doomed from the start. An established MIT scientist turned down a job with the start-up to join pharmaceutical giant Novartis, dubious of Moderna's approach. Colleagues wondered if mRNA could produce proteins, at least on a consistent basis.
As Schrum began testing the modifications in January 2011, he made an unexpected discovery. Karikó and Weissman saw that by turned one of the building blocks for mRNA, a ribonucleoside called uridine, into a slightly different form called pseudouridine, the cell's immune system ignored the mRNA and the molecule avoided an immune response. After a series of experiments in the basement lab, Schrum discovered that a variant of pseudouridine called N1- methyl-pseudouridine did an even better job reducing the cell's innate immune response. Schrum's nucleoside switch enabled even higher protein production than Karikó and Weissman had generated, and Schrum's mRNAs lasted longer than either unmodified molecules or the modified mRNA the Penn academics had used, startling the young researcher. Working alone in a dreary basement and through intense pain, he had actually improved on the Penn professors' work.
Years later, Karikó and Weissman who would win acclaim. In September 2021, the scientists were awarded the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. Some predict they eventually will win a Nobel prize. But it would be Schrum's innovation that would form the backbone of both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine, not the chemical modifications that Karikó and Weissman developed. For Schrum, necessity had truly been the mother of invention.
The Scientist Who Solved Delivery: Kerry Benenato
For several years, Moderna would make slow progress developing drugs to treat various diseases. Eventually, the company decided that mRNA was likely better suited for vaccines. By 2017, Moderna and the National Institutes of Health were discussing working together to develop mRNA–based vaccines, a partnership that buoyed Moderna's executives. There remained a huge obstacle in Moderna's way, however. It was up to Kerry Benenato to find a solution.
Benenato received an early hint of the hurdle in front of her three years earlier, when the organic chemist was first hired. When a colleague gave her a company tour, she was introduced to Moderna's chief scientific officer, Joseph Bolen, who seemed unusually excited to meet her.
"Oh, great!" Bolen said with a smile. "She's the one who's gonna solve delivery."
Bolen gave a hearty laugh and walked away, but Benenato detected seriousness in his quip.
It was a lot to expect from a 37-year-old scientist already dealing with insecurities and self-doubt. Benenato was an accomplished researcher who most recently had worked at AstraZeneca after completing post-doctoral studies at Harvard University. Despite her impressive credentials, Benenato battled a lack of confidence that sometimes got in her way. Performance reviews from past employers had been positive, but they usually produced similar critiques: Be more vocal. Do a better job advocating for your ideas. Give us more, Kerry.
Benenato was petite and soft-spoken. She sometimes stuttered or relied on "ums" and "ahs" when she became nervous, especially in front of groups, part of why she sometimes didn't feel comfortable speaking up.
"I'm an introvert," she says. "Self-confidence is something that's always been an issue."
To Benenato, Moderna's vaccine approach seemed promising—the team was packaging mRNAs in microscopic fatty-acid compounds called lipid nanoparticles, or LNPs, that protected the molecules on their way into cells. Moderna's shots should have been producing ample and long-lasting proteins. But the company's scientists were alarmed—they were injecting shots deep into the muscle of mice, but their immune systems were mounting spirited responses to the foreign components of the LNPs, which had been developed by a Canadian company.
This toxicity was a huge issue: A vaccine or drug that caused sharp pain and awful fevers wasn't going to prove very popular. The Moderna team was in a bind: Its mRNA had to be wrapped in the fatty nanoparticles to have a chance at producing plentiful proteins, but the body wasn't tolerating the microscopic encasements, especially upon repeated dosing.
The company's scientists had done everything they could to try to make the molecule's swathing material disappear soon after entering the cells, in order to avoid the unfortunate side effects, such as chills and headaches, but they weren't making headway. Frustration mounted. Somehow, the researchers had to find a way to get the encasements—made of little balls of fat, cholesterol, and other substances—to deliver their payload mRNA and then quickly vanish, like a parent dropping a teenager off at a party, to avoid setting off the immune system in unpleasant ways, even as the RNA and the proteins the molecule created stuck around.
Benenato wasn't entirely shocked by the challenges Moderna was facing. One of the reasons she had joined the upstart company was to help develop its delivery technology. She just didn't realize how pressing the issue was, or how stymied the researchers had become. Benenato also didn't know that Moderna board members were among those most discouraged by the delivery issue. In meetings, some of them pointed out that pharmaceutical giants like Roche Holding and Novartis had worked on similar issues and hadn't managed to develop lipid nanoparticles that were both effective and well tolerated by the body. Why would Moderna have any more luck?
Stephen Hoge insisted the company could yet find a solution.
"There's no way the only innovations in LNP are going to come from some academics and a small Canadian company," insisted Hoge, who had convinced the executives that hiring Benenato might help deliver an answer.
Benenato realized that while Moderna might have been a hot Boston-area start- up, it wasn't set up to do the chemistry necessary to solve their LNP problem. Much of its equipment was old or secondhand, and it was the kind used to tinker with mRNAs, not lipids.
"It was scary," she says.
When Benenato saw the company had a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, which allows chemists to see the molecular structure of material, she let out a sigh of relief. Then Benenato inspected the machine and realized it was a jalopy. The hulking, aging instrument had been decommissioned and left behind by a previous tenant, too old and banged up to bring with them.
Benenato began experimenting with different chemical changes for Moderna's LNPs, but without a working spectrometer she and her colleagues had to have samples ready by noon each day, so they could be picked up by an outside company that would perform the necessary analysis. After a few weeks, her superiors received an enormous bill for the outsourced work and decided to pay to get the old spectrometer running again.
After months of futility, Benenato became impatient. An overachiever who could be hard on herself, she was eager to impress her new bosses. Benenato felt pressure outside the office, as well. She was married with a preschool-age daughter and an eighteen-month-old son. In her last job, Benenato's commute had been a twenty-minute trip to Astra-Zeneca's office in Waltham, outside Boston; now she was traveling an hour to Moderna's Cambridge offices. She became anxious—how was she going to devote the long hours she realized were necessary to solve their LNP quandary while providing her children proper care? Joining Moderna was beginning to feel like a possible mistake.
She turned to her husband and father for help. They reminded her of the hard work she had devoted to establishing her career and said it would be a shame if she couldn't take on the new challenge. Benenato's husband said he was happy to stay home with the kids, alleviating some of her concerns.
Back in the office, she got to work. She wanted to make lipids that were easier for the body to chop into smaller pieces, so they could be eliminated by the body's enzymes. Until then, Moderna, like most others, relied on all kinds of complicated chemicals to hold its LNP packaging together. They weren't natural, though, so the body was having a hard time breaking them down, causing the toxicity.
Benenato began experimenting with simpler chemicals. She inserted "ester bonds"—compounds referred to in chemical circles as "handles" because the body easily grabs them and breaks them apart. Ester bonds had two things going for them: They were strong enough to help ensure the LNP remained stable, acting much like a drop of oil in water, but they also gave the body's enzymes something to target and break down as soon as the LNP entered the cell, a way to quickly rid the body of the potentially toxic LNP components. Benenato thought the inclusion of these chemicals might speed the elimination of the LNP delivery material.
This idea, Benenato realized, was nothing more than traditional, medicinal chemistry. Most people didn't use ester bonds because they were pretty unsophisticated. But, hey, the tricky stuff wasn't working, so Benenato thought she'd see if the simple stuff worked.
Benenato also wanted to try to replace a group of unnatural chemicals in the LNP that was contributing to the spirited and unwelcome response from the immune system. Benenato set out to build a new and improved chemical combination. She began with ethanolamine, a colorless, natural chemical, an obvious start for any chemist hoping to build a more complex chemical combination. No one relied on ethanolamine on its own.
Benenato was curious, though. What would happen if she used just these two simple modifications to the LNP: ethanolamine with the ester bonds? Right away, Benenato noticed her new, super-simple compound helped mRNA create some protein in animals. It wasn't much, but it was a surprising and positive sign. Benenato spent over a year refining her solution, testing more than one hundred variations, all using ethanolamine and ester bonds, showing improvements with each new version of LNP. After finishing her 102nd version of the lipid molecule, which she named SM102, Benenato was confident enough in her work to show it to Hoge and others.
They immediately got excited. The team kept tweaking the composition of the lipid encasement. In 2017, they wrapped it around mRNA molecules and injected the new combination in mice and then monkeys. They saw plentiful, potent proteins were being produced and the lipids were quickly being eliminated, just as Benenato and her colleagues had hoped. Moderna had its special sauce.
That year, Benenato was asked to deliver a presentation to Stephane Bancel, Moderna's chief executive, Afeyan, and Moderna's executive committee to explain why it made sense to use the new, simpler LNP formulation for all its mRNA vaccines. She still needed approval from the executives to make the change. Ahead of the meeting, she was apprehensive, as some of her earlier anxieties returned. But an unusual calm came over her as she began speaking to the group. Benenato explained how experimenting with basic, overlooked chemicals had led to her discovery.
She said she had merely stumbled onto the company's solution, though her bosses understood the efforts that had been necessary for the breakthrough. The board complimented her work and agreed with the idea of switching to the new LNP. Benenato beamed with pride.
"As a scientist, serendipity has been my best friend," she told the executives.
Over the next few years, Benenato and her colleagues would improve on their methods and develop even more tolerable and potent LNP encasement for mRNA molecules. Their work enabled Moderna to include higher doses of vaccine in its shots. In early 2020, Moderna developed Covid-19 shots that included 100 micrograms of vaccine, compared with 30 micrograms in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That difference appears to help the Moderna vaccine generate higher titers and provide more protection.
"You set out in a career in drug discovery to want to make a difference," Benenato says. "Seeing it come to reality has been surreal and emotional."
Editor's Note: This essay is excerpted from A SHOT TO SAVE THE WORLD: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine by Gregory Zuckerman, now on sale from Portfolio/Penguin.
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Kira Peikoff is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young sons. Follow her on Twitter @KiraPeikoff.