In February 2015, the health insurer Anthem revealed that criminal hackers had gained access to the company's servers, exposing the personal information of nearly 79 million patients. It's the largest known healthcare breach in history.
FBI agents worry that the vast amounts of healthcare data being generated for precision medicine efforts could leave the U.S. vulnerable to cyber and biological attacks.
That year, the data of millions more would be compromised in one cyberattack after another on American insurers and other healthcare organizations. In fact, for the past several years, the number of reported data breaches has increased each year, from 199 in 2010 to 344 in 2017, according to a September 2018 analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The FBI's Edward You sees this as a worrying trend. He says hackers aren't just interested in your social security or credit card number. They're increasingly interested in stealing your medical information. Hackers can currently use this information to make fake identities, file fraudulent insurance claims, and order and sell expensive drugs and medical equipment. But beyond that, a new kind of cybersecurity threat is around the corner.
Mr. You and others worry that the vast amounts of healthcare data being generated for precision medicine efforts could leave the U.S. vulnerable to cyber and biological attacks. In the wrong hands, this data could be used to exploit or extort an individual, discriminate against certain groups of people, make targeted bioweapons, or give another country an economic advantage.
Precision medicine, of course, is the idea that medical treatments can be tailored to individuals based on their genetics, environment, lifestyle or other traits. But to do that requires collecting and analyzing huge quantities of health data from diverse populations. One research effort, called All of Us, launched by the U.S. National Institutes of Health last year, aims to collect genomic and other healthcare data from one million participants with the goal of advancing personalized medical care.
Other initiatives are underway by academic institutions and healthcare organizations. Electronic medical records, genetic tests, wearable health trackers, mobile apps, and social media are all sources of valuable healthcare data that a bad actor could potentially use to learn more about an individual or group of people.
"When you aggregate all of that data together, that becomes a very powerful profile of who you are," Mr. You says.
A supervisory special agent in the biological countermeasures unit within the FBI's weapons of mass destruction directorate, it's Mr. You's job to imagine worst-case bioterror scenarios and figure out how to prevent and prepare for them.
That used to mean focusing on threats like anthrax, Ebola, and smallpox—pathogens that could be used to intentionally infect people—"basically the dangerous bugs," as he puts it. In recent years, advances in gene editing and synthetic biology have given rise to fears that rogue, or even well-intentioned, scientists could create a virulent virus that's intentionally, or unintentionally, released outside the lab.
"If a foreign source, especially a criminal one, has your biological information, then they might have some particular insights into what your future medical needs might be and exploit that."
While Mr. You is still tracking those threats, he's been traveling around the country talking to scientists, lawyers, software engineers, cyber security professionals, government officials and CEOs about new security threats—those posed by genetic and other biological data.
Mr. You says one possible situation he can imagine is the potential for nefarious actors to use an individual's sensitive medical information to extort or blackmail that person.
"If a foreign source, especially a criminal one, has your biological information, then they might have some particular insights into what your future medical needs might be and exploit that," he says. For instance, "what happens if you have a singular medical condition and an outside entity says they have a treatment for your condition?" You could get talked into paying a huge sum of money for a treatment that ends up being bogus.
Or what if hackers got a hold of a politician or high-profile CEO's health records? Say that person had a disease-causing genetic mutation that could affect their ability to carry out their job in the future and hackers threatened to expose that information. These scenarios may seem far-fetched, but Mr. You thinks they're becoming increasingly plausible.
On a wider scale, Kavita Berger, a scientist at Gryphon Scientific, a Washington, D.C.-area life sciences consulting firm, worries that data from different populations could be used to discriminate against certain groups of people, like minorities and immigrants.
For instance, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch in 2017 flagged a concerning trend in China's Xinjiang territory, a region with a history of government repression. Police there had purchased 12 DNA sequencers and were collecting and cataloging DNA samples from people to build a national database.
"The concern is that this particular province has a huge population of the Muslim minority in China," Ms. Berger says. "Now they have a really huge database of genetic sequences. You have to ask, why does a police station need 12 next-generation sequencers?"
Also alarming is the potential that large amounts of data from different groups of people could lead to customized bioweapons if that data ends up in the wrong hands.
Eleonore Pauwels, a research fellow on emerging cybertechnologies at United Nations University's Centre for Policy Research, says new insights gained from genomic and other data will give scientists a better understanding of how diseases occur and why certain people are more susceptible to certain diseases.
"As you get more and more knowledge about the genomic picture and how the microbiome and the immune system of different populations function, you could get a much deeper understanding about how you could target different populations for treatment but also how you could eventually target them with different forms of bioagents," Ms. Pauwels says.
Another reason hackers might want to gain access to large genomic and other healthcare datasets is to give their country a leg up economically. Many large cyber-attacks on U.S. healthcare organizations have been tied to Chinese hacking groups.
"This is a biological space race and we just haven't woken up to the fact that we're in this race."
"It's becoming clear that China is increasingly interested in getting access to massive data sets that come from different countries," Ms. Pauwels says.
A year after U.S. President Barack Obama conceived of the Precision Medicine Initiative in 2015—later renamed All of Us—China followed suit, announcing the launch of a 15-year, $9 billion precision health effort aimed at turning China into a global leader in genomics.
Chinese genomics companies, too, are expanding their reach outside of Asia. One company, WuXi NextCODE, which has offices in Shanghai, Reykjavik, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, has built an extensive library of genomes from the U.S., China and Iceland, and is now setting its sights on Ireland.
Another Chinese company, BGI, has partnered with Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and Sinai Health System in Toronto, and also formed a collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute to sequence all species on the planet. BGI has built its own advanced genomic sequencing machines to compete with U.S.-based Illumina.
Mr. You says having access to all this data could lead to major breakthroughs in healthcare, such as new blockbuster drugs. "Whoever has the largest, most diverse dataset is truly going to win the day and come up with something very profitable," he says.
Some direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies with offices in the U.S., like Dante Labs, also use BGI to process customers' DNA.
Experts worry that China could race ahead the U.S. in precision medicine because of Chinese laws governing data sharing. Currently, China prohibits the exportation of genetic data without explicit permission from the government. Mr. You says this creates an asymmetry in data sharing between the U.S. and China.
"This is a biological space race and we just haven't woken up to the fact that we're in this race," he said in January at an American Society for Microbiology conference in Washington, D.C. "We don't have access to their data. There is absolutely no reciprocity."
Protecting your data
While Mr. You has been stressing the importance of data security to anyone who will listen, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which makes scientific and policy recommendations on issues of national importance, has commissioned a study on "safeguarding the bioeconomy."
In the meantime, Ms. Berger says organizations that deal with people's health data should assess their security risks and identify potential vulnerabilities in their systems.
As for what individuals can do to protect themselves, she urges people to think about the different ways they're sharing healthcare data—such as via mobile health apps and wearables.
"Ask yourself, what's the benefit of sharing this? What are the potential consequences of sharing this?" she says.
Mr. You also cautions people to think twice before taking consumer DNA tests. They may seem harmless, he says, but at the end of the day, most people don't know where their genetic information is going. "If your genetic sequence is taken, once it's gone, it's gone. There's nothing you can do about it."
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.