Medical Breakthroughs Set to be Fast-Tracked by Innovative New Health Agency
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @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 recent years, researchers of Alzheimer’s have made progress in figuring out the complex factors that lead to the disease. Yet, the root cause, or causes, of Alzheimer’s are still pretty much a mystery.
In fact, many people get Alzheimer’s even though they lack the gene variant we know can play a role in the disease. This is a critical knowledge gap for research to address because the vast majority of Alzheimer’s patients don’t have this variant.
A new study provides key insights into what’s causing the disease. The research, published in Nature Communications, points to a breakdown over time in the brain’s system for clearing waste, an issue that seems to happen in some people as they get older.
Michael Glickman, a biologist at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, helped lead this research. I asked him to tell me about his approach to studying how this breakdown occurs in the brain, and how he tested a treatment that has potential to fix the problem at its earliest stages.
Dr. Michael Glickman is internationally renowned for his research on the ubiquitin-proteasome system (UPS), the brain's system for clearing the waste that is involved in diseases such as Huntington's, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's. He is the head of the Lab for Protein Characterization in the Faculty of Biology at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. In the lab, Michael and his team focus on protein recycling and the ubiquitin-proteasome system, which protects against serious diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis, and diabetes. After earning his PhD at the University of California at Berkeley in 1994, Michael joined the Technion as a Senior Lecturer in 1998 and has served as a full professor since 2009.
Dr. Michael Glickman
When Drew Weissman received a call from Katalin Karikó in the early morning hours this past Monday, he assumed his longtime research partner was calling to share a nascent, nagging idea. Weissman, a professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Karikó, a professor at Szeged University and an adjunct professor at UPenn, both struggle with sleep disturbances. Thus, middle-of-the-night discourses between the two, often over email, has been a staple of their friendship. But this time, Karikó had something more pressing and exciting to share: They had won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The work for which they garnered the illustrious award and its accompanying $1,000,000 cash windfall was completed about two decades ago, wrought through long hours in the lab over many arduous years. But humanity collectively benefited from its life-saving outcome three years ago, when both Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech’s mRNA vaccines against COVID were found to be safe and highly effective at preventing severe disease. Billions of doses have since been given out to protect humans from the upstart viral scourge.
“I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” said Katalin Karikó. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”
Unlocking the power of mRNA
Weissman and Karikó unlocked mRNA vaccines for the world back in the early 2000s when they made a key breakthrough. Messenger RNA molecules are essentially instructions for cells’ ribosomes to make specific proteins, so in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers started wondering if sneaking mRNA into the body could trigger cells to manufacture antibodies, enzymes, or growth agents for protecting against infection, treating disease, or repairing tissues. But there was a big problem: injecting this synthetic mRNA triggered a dangerous, inflammatory immune response resulting in the mRNA’s destruction.
While most other researchers chose not to tackle this perplexing problem to instead pursue more lucrative and publishable exploits, Karikó stuck with it. The choice sent her academic career into depressing doldrums. Nobody would fund her work, publications dried up, and after six years as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Karikó got demoted. She was going backward.
“I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” Karikó told Stat in 2020. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”
A tale of tenacity
Collaborating with Drew Weissman, a new professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in the late 1990s helped provide Karikó with the tenacity to continue. Weissman nurtured a goal of developing a vaccine against HIV-1, and saw mRNA as a potential way to do it.
“For the 20 years that we’ve worked together before anybody knew what RNA is, or cared, it was the two of us literally side by side at a bench working together,” Weissman said in an interview with Adam Smith of the Nobel Foundation.
In 2005, the duo made their 2023 Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough, detailing it in a relatively small journal, Immunity. (Their paper was rejected by larger journals, including Science and Nature.) They figured out that chemically modifying the nucleoside bases that make up mRNA allowed the molecule to slip past the body’s immune defenses. Karikó and Weissman followed up that finding by creating mRNA that’s more efficiently translated within cells, greatly boosting protein production. In 2020, scientists at Moderna and BioNTech (where Karikó worked from 2013 to 2022) rushed to craft vaccines against COVID, putting their methods to life-saving use.
The future of vaccines
Buoyed by the resounding success of mRNA vaccines, scientists are now hurriedly researching ways to use mRNA medicine against other infectious diseases, cancer, and genetic disorders. The now ubiquitous efforts stand in stark contrast to Karikó and Weissman’s previously unheralded struggles years ago as they doggedly worked to realize a shared dream that so many others shied away from. Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman were brave enough to walk a scientific path that very well could have ended in a dead end, and for that, they absolutely deserve their 2023 Nobel Prize.