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."
Mammograms are necessary breast cancer checks for women as they reach the recommended screening age between 40 and 50 years. Yet, many find the procedure uncomfortable. “I have large breasts, and to be able to image the full breast, the radiographer had to manipulate my breast within the machine, which took time and was quite uncomfortable,” recalls Angela, who preferred not to disclose her last name.
Breast cancer is the most widespread cancer in the world, affecting 2.3 million women in 2020. Screening exams such as mammograms can help find breast cancer early, leading to timely diagnosis and treatment. If this type of cancer is detected before the disease has spread, the 5-year survival rate is 99 percent. But some women forgo mammograms due to concerns about radiation or painful compression of breasts. Other issues, such as low income and a lack of access to healthcare, can also serve as barriers, especially for underserved populations.
Researchers at the University of Canterbury and startup Tiro Medical in Christchurch, New Zealand are hoping their new device—which doesn’t involve any radiation or compression of the breasts—could increase the accuracy of breast cancer screening, broaden access and encourage more women to get checked. They’re digging into clues from the way buildings move in an earthquake to help detect more cases of this disease.
Earthquake engineering inspires new breast cancer screening tech
What’s underneath a surface affects how it vibrates. Earthquake engineers look at the vibrations of swaying buildings to identify the underlying soil and tissue properties. “As the vibration wave travels, it reflects the stiffness of the material between that wave and the surface,” says Geoff Chase, professor of engineering at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Chase is applying this same concept to breasts. Analyzing the surface motion of the breast as it vibrates could reveal the stiffness of the tissues underneath. Regions of high stiffness could point to cancer, given that cancerous breast tissue can be up to 20 times stiffer than normal tissue. “If in essence every woman’s breast is soft soil, then if you have some granite rocks in there, we’re going to see that on the surface,” explains Chase.
The earthquake-inspired device exceeds the 87 percent sensitivity of a 3D mammogram.
That notion underpins a new breast screening device, the brainchild of Chase. Women lie face down, with their breast being screened inside a circular hole and the nipple resting on a small disc called an actuator. The actuator moves up and down, between one and two millimeters, so there’s a small vibration, “almost like having your phone vibrate on your nipple,” says Jessica Fitzjohn, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury who collaborated on the device design with Chase.
Cameras surrounding the device take photos of the breast surface motion as it vibrates. The photos are fed into image processing algorithms that convert them into data points. Then, diagnostic algorithms analyze those data points to find any differences in the breast tissue. “We’re looking for that stiffness contrast which could indicate a tumor,” Fitzjohn says.
The device has been tested in a clinical trial of 14 women: one with healthy breasts and 13 with a tumor in one breast. The cohort was small but diverse, varying in age, breast volume and tumor size.
Results from the trial yielded a sensitivity rate, or the likelihood of correctly detecting breast cancer, of 85 percent. Meanwhile, the device’s specificity rate, or the probability of diagnosing healthy breasts, was 77 percent. By combining and optimizing certain diagnostic algorithms, the device reached between 92 and 100 percent sensitivity and between 80 and 86 percent specificity, which is comparable to the latest 3D mammogram technology. Called tomosynthesis, these 3D mammograms take a number of sharper, clearer and more detailed 3D images compared to the single 2D image of a conventional mammogram, and have a specificity score of 92 percent. Although the earthquake-inspired device’s specificity is lower, it exceeds the 87 percent sensitivity of a 3D mammogram.
The team hopes that cameras with better resolution can help improve the numbers. And with a limited amount of data in the first trial, the researchers are looking into funding for another clinical trial to validate their results on a larger cohort size.
Additionally, during the trial, the device correctly identified one woman’s breast as healthy, while her prior mammogram gave a false positive. The device correctly identified it as being healthy tissue. It was also able to capture the tiniest tumor at 7 millimeters—around a third of an inch or half as long as an aspirin tablet.
Diagnostic findings from the device are immediate.
When using the earthquake-inspired device, women lie face down, with their breast being screened inside circular holes.
University of Canterbury.
But more testing is needed to “prove the device’s ability to pick up small breast cancers less than 10 to 15 millimeters in size, as we know that finding cancers when they are small is the best way of improving outcomes,” says Richard Annand, a radiologist at Pacific Radiology in New Zealand. He explains that mammography already detects most precancerous lesions, so if the device will only be able to find large masses or lumps it won’t be particularly useful. While not directly involved in administering the clinical trial for the device, Annand was a director at the time for Canterbury Breastcare, where the trial occurred.
Meanwhile, Monique Gary, a breast surgical oncologist and medical director of the Grand View Health Cancer program in Pennsylvania, U.S., is excited to see new technologies advancing breast cancer screening and early detection. But she notes that the device may be challenging for “patients who are unable to lay prone, such as pregnant women as well as those who are differently abled, and this machine might exclude them.” She adds that it would also be interesting to explore how breast implants would impact the device’s vibrational frequency.
Diagnostic findings from the device are immediate, with the results available “before you put your clothes back on,” Chase says. The absence of any radiation is another benefit, though Annand considers it a minor edge “as we know the radiation dose used in mammography is minimal, and the advantages of having a mammogram far outweigh the potential risk of radiation.”
The researchers also conducted a separate ergonomic trial with 40 women to assess the device’s comfort, safety and ease of use. Angela was part of that trial and described the experience as “easy, quick, painless and required no manual intervention from an operator.” And if a person is uncomfortable being topless or having their breasts touched by someone else, “this type of device would make them more comfortable and less exposed,” she says.
While mammograms remain “the ‘gold standard’ in breast imaging, particularly screening, physicians need an option that can be used in combination with mammography.
Fitzjohn acknowledges that “at the moment, it’s quite a crude prototype—it’s just a block that you lie on.” The team prioritized function over form initially, but they’re now planning a few design improvements, including more cushioning for the breasts and the surface where the women lie on.
While mammograms remains “the ‘gold standard’ in breast imaging, particularly screening, physicians need an option that is good at excluding breast cancer when used in combination with mammography, has good availability, is easy to use and is affordable. There is the possibility that the device could fill this role,” Annand says.
Indeed, the researchers envision their new breast screening device as complementary to mammograms—a prescreening tool that could make breast cancer checks widely available. As the device is portable and doesn’t require specialized knowledge to operate, it can be used in clinics, pop-up screening facilities and rural communities. “If it was easily accessible, particularly as part of a checkup with a [general practitioner] or done in a practice the patient is familiar with, it may encourage more women to access this service,” Angela says. For those who find regular mammograms uncomfortable or can’t afford them, the earthquake-inspired device may be an option—and an even better one.
Broadening access could prompt more women to go for screenings, particularly younger women at higher risk of getting breast cancer because of a family history of the disease or specific gene mutations. “If we can provide an option for them then we can catch those cancers earlier,” Fitzjohn syas. “By taking screening to people, we’re increasing patient-centric care.”
With the team aiming to lower the device’s cost to somewhere between five and eight times less than mammography equipment, it would also be valuable for low-to-middle-income nations that are challenged to afford the infrastructure for mammograms or may not have enough skilled radiologists.
For Fitzjohn, the ultimate goal is to “increase equity in breast screening and catch cancer early so we have better outcomes for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer.”
A promising development in science in recent years has been the use technology to optimize something natural. One-upping nature's wisdom isn't easy. In many cases, we haven't - and maybe we can't - figure it out. But today's episode features a fascinating example: using tech to optimize psychedelic mushrooms.
These mushrooms have been used for religious, spiritual and medicinal purposes for thousands of years, but only in the past several decades have scientists brought psychedelics into the lab to enhance them and maximize their therapeutic value.
Today’s podcast guest, Doug Drysdale, is doing important work to lead this effort. Drysdale is the CEO of a company called Cybin that has figured out how to make psilocybin more potent, so it can be administered in smaller doses without side effects.
The natural form of psilocybin has been studied increasingly in the realm of mental health. Taking doses of these mushrooms appears to help people with anxiety and depression by spurring the development of connections in the brain, an example of neuroplasticity. The process basically shifts the adult brain from being fairly rigid like dried clay into a malleable substance like warm wax - the state of change that's constantly underway in the developing brains of children.
Neuroplasticity in adults seems to unlock some of our default ways of of thinking, the habitual thought patterns that’ve been associated with various mental health problems. Some promising research suggests that psilocybin causes a reset of sorts. It makes way for new, healthier thought patterns.
So what is Drysdale’s secret weapon to bring even more therapeutic value to psilocybin? It’s a process called deuteration. It focuses on the hydrogen atoms in psilocybin. These atoms are very light and don’t stick very well to carbon, which is another atom in psilocybin. As a result, our bodies can easily breaks down the bonds between the hydrogen and carbon atoms. For many people, that means psilocybin gets cleared from the body too quickly, before it can have a therapeutic benefit.
In deuteration, scientists do something simple but ingenious: they replace the hydrogen atoms with a molecule called deuterium. It’s twice as heavy as hydrogen and forms tighter bonds with the carbon. Because these pairs are so rock-steady, they slow down the rate at which psilocybin is metabolized, so it has more sustained effects on our brains.
Cybin isn’t Drysdale’s first go around at this - far from it. He has over 30 years of experience in the healthcare sector. During this time he’s raised around $4 billion of both public and private capital, and has been named Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Before Cybin, he was the founding CEO of a pharmaceutical company called Alvogen, leading it from inception to around $500 million in revenues, across 35 countries. Drysdale has also been the head of mergers and acquisitions at Actavis Group, leading 15 corporate acquisitions across three continents.
In this episode, Drysdale walks us through the promising research of his current company, Cybin, and the different therapies he’s developing for anxiety and depression based not just on psilocybin but another psychedelic compound found in plants called DMT. He explains how they seem to have such powerful effects on the brain, as well as the potential for psychedelics to eventually support other use cases, including helping us strive toward higher levels of well-being. He goes on to discuss his views on mindfulness and lifestyle factors - such as optimal nutrition - that could help bring out hte best in psychedelics.
Doug Drysdale full bio
Doug Drysdale twitter
Cybin development pipeline
Cybin's promising phase 2 research on depression
Johns Hopkins psychedelics research and psilocybin research
Mets owner Steve Cohen invests in psychedelic therapies
Doug Drysdale, CEO of Cybin