A decade ago, Elizabeth Summers' options for birth control suddenly narrowed. Doctors diagnosed her with Factor V Leiden, a rare genetic disorder, after discovering blood clots in her lungs. The condition increases the risk of clotting, so physicians told Summers to stay away from the pill and other hormone-laden contraceptives. "Modern medicine has generally failed to provide me with an effective and convenient option," she says.
But new birth control options are emerging for women like Summers. These alternatives promise to provide more choices to women who can't ingest hormones or don't want to suffer their unpleasant side effects.
These new products have their own pros and cons. Still, doctors are welcoming new contraceptives following a long drought in innovation. "It's been a long time since we've had something new in the world of contraception," says Heather Irobunda, an obstetrician and gynecologist at NYC Health and Hospitals.
On social media, Irobunda often fields questions about one of these new options, a lubricating gel called Phexxi. San Diego-based Evofem, the company behind Phexxi, has been advertising the product on Hulu and Instagram after the gel was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in May 2020. The company's trendy ads target women who feel like condoms diminish the mood, but who also don't want to mess with an IUD or hormones.
Here's how it works: Phexxi is inserted via a tampon-like device up to an hour before sex. The gel regulates vaginal pH — essentially, the acidity levels — in a range that's inhospitable to sperm. It sounds a lot like spermicide, which is also placed in the vagina prior to sex to prevent pregnancy. But spermicide can damage the vagina's cell walls, which can increase the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
"Not only is innovation needed, but women want a non-hormonal option."
Phexxi isn't without side effects either. The most common one is vaginal burning, according to a late-stage trial. It's also possible to develop a urinary tract infection while using the product. That same study found that during typical use, Phexxi is about 86 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. The efficacy rate is comparable to condoms but lower than birth control pills (91 percent) and significantly lower than an IUD (99 percent).
Phexxi – which comes in a pack of 12 – represents a tiny but growing part of the birth control market. Pharmacies dispensed more than 14,800 packs from April through June this year, a 65 percent increase over the previous quarter, according to data from Evofem.
"We've been able to demonstrate that not only is innovation needed, but women want a non-hormonal option," says Saundra Pelletier, Evofem's CEO.
Beyond contraception, the company is carrying out late-stage tests to gauge Phexxi's effectiveness at preventing the sexually transmitted infections chlamydia and gonorrhea.
Phexxi is inserted via a tampon-like device up to an hour before sex.
A New Pill
The first birth control pill arrived in 1960, combining the hormones estrogen and progestin to stop sperm from joining with an egg, giving women control over their fertility. Subsequent formulations sought to ease side effects, by way of lower amounts of estrogen. But some women still experience headaches and nausea – or more serious complications like blood clots. On social media, women recently noted that birth control pills are much more likely to cause blood clots than Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine that was briefly paused to evaluate the risk of clots in women under age 50. What will it take, they wondered, for safer birth control?
Mithra Pharmaceuticals of Belgium sought to create a gentler pill. In April, the FDA approved Mithra's Nextstellis, which includes a naturally occurring estrogen, the first new estrogen in the U.S. in 50 years. Nextstellis selectively acts on tissues lining the uterus, while other birth control pills have a broader target.
A Phase 3 trial showed a 98 percent efficacy rate. Andrew London, an obstetrician and gynecologist, who practices at several Maryland hospitals, says the results are in line with some other birth control pills. But, he added, early studies indicate that Nextstellis has a lower risk of blood clotting, along with other potential benefits, which additional clinical testing must confirm.
"It's not going to be worse than any other pill. We're hoping it's going to be significantly better," says London.
The estrogen in Nexstellis, called estetrol, was skipped over by the pharmaceutical industry after its discovery in the 1960s. Estetrol circulates between the mother and fetus during pregnancy. Decades later, researchers took a new look, after figuring out how to synthesize estetrol in a lab, as well as produce estetrol from plants.
"That allowed us to really start to investigate the properties and do all this stuff you have to do for any new drug," says Michele Gordon, vice president of marketing in women's health at Mayne Pharma, which licensed Nextstellis.
Bonnie Douglas, who followed the development of Nextstellis as part of a search for better birth control, recently switched to the product. "So far, it's much more tolerable," says Douglas. Previously, the Midwesterner was so desperate to find a contraceptive with fewer side effects that she turned to an online pharmacy to obtain a different birth control pill that had been approved in Canada but not in the U.S.
Even if a contraceptive lands FDA approval, access poses a barrier. Getting insurers to cover new contraceptives can be difficult. For the uninsured, state and federal programs can help, and companies should keep prices in a reasonable range, while offering assistance programs. So says Kelly Blanchard, president of the nonprofit Ibis Reproductive Health. "For innovation to have impact, you want to reach as many folks as possible," she says.
In addition, companies developing new contraceptives have struggled to attract venture capital. That's changing, though.
In 2015, Sabrina Johnson founded DARÉ Bioscience around the idea of women's health. She estimated the company would be fully funded in six months, based on her track record in biotech and the demand for novel products.
But it's been difficult to get male investors interested in backing new contraceptives. It took Johnson two and a half years to raise the needed funds, via a reverse merger that took the company public. "There was so much education that was necessary," Johnson says, adding: "The landscape has changed considerably."
Johnson says she would like to think DARÉ had something to do with the shift, along with companies like Organon, a spinout of pharma company Merck that's focused on reproductive health. In surveying the fertility landscape, DARÉ saw limited non-hormonal options. On-demand options – like condoms – can detract from the moment. Copper IUDs must be inserted by a doctor and removed if a woman wants to return to fertility, and this method can have onerous side effects.
So, DARÉ created Ovaprene, a hormone-free device that's designed to be inserted into the vagina monthly by the user. The mesh product acts as a barrier, while releasing a chemical that immobilizes sperm. In an early study, the company reported that Ovaprene prevented almost all sperm from entering the cervical canal. The results, DARÉ believes, indicate high efficacy.
A late-stage study, slated to kick off next year, will be the true judge. Should Ovaprene eventually win regulatory approval, drug giant Bayer will handle commercializing the device.
Other new forms of birth control in development are further out, and that's assuming they perform well in clinical trials. Among them: a once-a-month birth control pill, along with a male version of the birth control pill. The latter is often brought up among women who say it's high time that men take a more proactive role in birth control.
For Summers, her search for a safe and convenient birth control continues. She tried Phexxi, which caused irritation. Still, she's excited that a non-hormonal option now exists. "I'm sure it will work for others," she says.
Robert Thomas was a devoted runner, gym goer, and crew member on a sailing team in San Diego when, in his 40s, he noticed that his range of movement was becoming more limited.
He thought he was just getting older, but when he was hiking an uphill trail in Lake Tahoe, he kept tripping over rocks. "I'd never had this happen before," Robert says. "I knew something was wrong but didn't know what it was."
It wasn't until age 50 when he was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. The genetic disorder damages the peripheral nerves, which connect the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. This network of nerves is responsible for relaying information and signals about sensation, movement, and motor coordination. Over time, the disease causes debilitating muscle weakness and the loss of limb control.
Charcot-Marie-Tooth usually presents itself in childhood or in a person's teens, but in some patients, like Robert, onset can be later in life. Symptoms may include muscle cramping, tingling, or burning. Many patients also have high foot arches or hammer toes — toes that curl from the middle joint instead of pointing forward. Those affected often have difficulty walking and may lose sensation in their lower legs, feet, hands, or forearms. One of the most common rare diseases, it affects around 130,000 people in the United States and 2.8 million worldwide.
Like many people with Charcot-Marie-Tooth, or CMT, Robert wears corrective braces on his legs to help with walking. Now 61, he can't run or sail anymore because of the disease, but he still works out regularly and can hike occasionally. CMT also affects his grip, so he has to use special straps while doing some exercises.
For the past few years, Robert has been participating in a clinical trial for an investigational CMT drug. He takes the liquid formulation every morning and evening using an oral syringe. Scientists are following patients like Robert to learn if their symptoms stabilize or improve while on the drug. Dubbed PXT300, the drug was designed by French biopharmaceutical company Pharnext and is the farthest along in development for CMT. If approved, it would be the first drug for the disease.
Currently, there's no cure for CMT, only supportive treatments like pain medication. Some individuals receive physical and occupational therapy. A drug for CMT could be a game-changer for patients whose quality of life is severely affected by the disease.
CMT arises from mutations in genes that are responsible for creating and maintaining the myelin sheath — the insulating layer around nerves. Pharnext's drug is meant to treat patients with CMT1A, the most common form of the disease, which represents about half of CMT cases. Around 5% of those with CMT1A become severely disabled and end up in wheelchairs. People with CMT1A have an extra copy of the gene PMP22, which makes a protein that's needed to maintain the myelin sheath around peripheral nerves.
Typically, an individual inherits one copy of PMP22 from each parent. But a person with CMT1A receives a copy of PMP22 from one parent and two copies from a parent with the disease. This extra copy of the gene results in excess protein production, which damages the cells responsible for preserving and regenerating the myelin sheath, called Schwann cells.
The myelin sheath helps ensure that a signal from the brain gets carried to nerves in the muscles so that a part of the body can carry out a particular action or movement. This sheath is like the insulation on an electrical cord and the action is like a light bulb. If the insulation is fine, the light bulb turns on. But if the insulation is frayed, the light will flicker.
"The same happens to these patients," says David Horn Solomon, CEO of Pharnext. "The signal to their muscle is weak and flickers." Over time, their muscles become weaker and thinner.
The PMP22 gene has proven difficult to target with a drug because it's located in a protected space — the Schwann cells that make up the insulation around nerves. "There's not an easy way to tamp it down," Solomon says.
Another company, Acceleron Pharma of Cambridge, Massachusetts, was developing an injectable CMT drug meant to increase the strength of leg muscles. But the company halted development last year after the experimental drug failed in a mid-stage trial. While the drug led to a statistically significant increase in muscle volume, it didn't translate to improvements in muscle function or quality of life for trial participants.
Made by Design
Pharnext's drug, PXT3003, is a combination of three existing drugs — baclofen, a muscle relaxant; naltrexone, a drug that decreases the desire for alcohol and opioids; and sorbitol, a type of sugar alcohol.
The company designed the drug using its artificial intelligence platform, which screened 20,000 existing drugs to predict combinations that could inhibit the PMP22 gene and thereby lower protein production. The AI system narrowed the search to several hundreds of combinations and Pharnext tested around 75 of them in the lab before landing on baclofen, naltrexone, and sorbitol. Individually, the drugs don't have much effect on the PMP22 gene. But combined, they work to lower how much protein the gene makes.
"How the drug inside the cell reduces expression isn't quite clear yet," says Florian Thomas, director of the Hereditary Neuropathy Center, and founding chair and professor in the department of neurology at Hackensack University Medical Center and Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine in New Jersey (no relation to Robert Thomas, the CMT patient). "By reducing the amount of protein being produced, we hopefully can stabilize the nerves."
In rodents genetically engineered to have the PMP22 gene, the drug reduced protein levels and delayed onset of muscle weakness when given to rats. In another animal study, the drug increased the size of the myelin sheath around nerves in rats.
"Like humans with CMT, one of the problems the animals have is they can't grip things, their grip strength is poor," Solomon says. But when treated with Pharnext's drug, "the grip strength of these animals improves dramatically even over 12 weeks."
Human trials look encouraging, too. But the company ran into a manufacturing issue during a late-stage trial. The drug requires refrigeration, and as a result of temperature changes, crystals formed inside vials containing the high dose of the drug. The study was a double-blind trial, meaning neither the trial participants nor investigators were supposed to know who received the high dose of the drug, who received the low dose, and who received a placebo. In these types of studies, the placebo and experimental drug should look the same so that investigators can't tell them apart. But because only the high dose contained crystals, not the low dose or placebo, regulators said the trial data could be biased.
Pharnext is now conducting a new randomized, double-blind trial to prove that its drug works. The study is recruiting individuals aged 16 through 65 years old with mild to moderate CMT. The company hopes to show that the drug can stop patients' symptoms from worsening, or in the best case scenario, possibly even improve them. The company doesn't think the drug will be able to help people with severe forms of the disease.
"In neurologic disease, you're looking for plasticity, where there's still the possibility of stabilization or reversal," Solomon says. Plasticity refers to the ability of the nervous system to change and adapt in response to stimuli.
Allison Moore, a CMT patient and founder and CEO of the Hereditary Neuropathy Foundation, has been following drug development for CMT since she founded the organization in 2001. She says many investigational drugs haven't moved forward because they've shown little success in animals. The fact that Pharnext's drug has made it to a late-stage human trial is promising, she says.
"It's really exciting," Moore says. "There's a chance that if you take the drug early before you're very severe, you'll end up not developing the disease to a level that's super disabling."
CMT has damaged Moore's peroneal nerve, a main nerve in the foot. As a result, she has foot drop, the inability to lift the front part of her foot, and needs to wear leg braces to help her walk. "The idea that you could take this early on and that it could stop progression, that's the hope that we have."
Thomas, the neurologist, says a drug doesn't have to be a cure to have a significant impact on patients. "If I have a CMT patient who's 50 years old, that patient will be more disabled by age 60," he says. "If I can treat that person with a drug, and that person is just as disabled at age 60 as they were at age 50, that's transformative in my mind."
While Robert Thomas says he hasn't noticed a dramatic improvement since he's been on the drug, he does think it's helping. Robert is now in an open-label study, which means he and his health provider are aware that he's receiving the drug.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, manufacturing and supply chain disruptions meant that Robert was without the trial drug for two months. When his medication ran out, his legs felt unstable again and walking was harder. "There was a clear distinction between being on and off that medication," he says.
Pharnext's current trial will take about a year and a half to complete. After that, the FDA will decide on whether to approve the drug for CMT patients.
As scientists learn more about the PMP22 gene and the more than 100 other genes that when mutated cause CMT, more precise treatments could be possible. For instance, scientists have used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to correct a CMT-causing mutation in human cells in the lab. The results were published August 16 in the journal Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology.
Pharnext is also interested in pursuing genetic treatments for CMT, but in the meantime, repurposed drugs may be the best shot at helping patients until more advanced treatments are available.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce one of the two components that make up CRISPR — a cutting protein that snips out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."