Junjiu Huang and his team performed a miracle. A few miracles, actually. The researchers at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China used the precise new DNA editing tool called CRISPR-CAS9 to edit a human embryo, replacing a single base. In doing so, they edited out beta-thalassemia, a blood disorder that reduces the production of hemoglobin, which can result in pale skin, fatigue, higher risk of blood clots, and other symptoms.
The race is on, and it's one everyone is going to try to win.
Huang's group, which did not respond to an email requesting comment for this story, injected 86 embryos and observed them for 48 hours. After that period -- a time long enough for CRISPR to split the DNA, other molecules to replace the base, and the embryos to grow to eight cells -- they tested 54 of the 71 that survived. Of those, only a few had the replacement base, according to a report of the study published in Protein & Cell. The experiment stopped there as the embryos, which had been acquired from local fertility clinics, were non-viable and not implanted.
But procreation was not the point. Far from it, in fact. The point was to demonstrate that it could be done, that in some far off (or not so far off) future, doctors could use CRISPR to eliminate diseases like Tay-Sachs, Huntington's, and cystic fibrosis that are caused by genetic mutations. Going a step further, perhaps they could eventually even tailor embryos that will develop into adults with specific traits like height and IQ.
Experts agree that we are far from that point, years if not decades away from leveraging CRISPR to cure diseases and decades if not centuries from being able to build designer babies. In that frame, Huang's achievement is just a small step, a blip on the timeline of human achievement. But seen in another light, it's yet another sign that we need to start talking about DNA modification now, establishing protocols, procedures, and plans that guide the subject before we get so far down the road that momentum is impossible to stop.
"The Chinese generally don't have the religious objections to embryo research that have held back research in the West."
It's essential to do so now because the idea of DNA modification -- a realization that humanity can control its evolution -- is compelling and attractive. Imagine a world where doctors and scientists could get rid of disease before it begins or ensure a baby would arrive with an Einstein-level IQ. That's intriguing, and also terrifying. What are the rules? How do we know when to stop? What guides the process? And how can we prevent mistakes or unwanted mutations? To borrow from another famous quotation, with great power comes great responsibility.
These aren't questions for Huang and the Chinese scientific community alone. A team from Oregon recently edited viable human embryos, eliminating a mutation that can lead to heart failure while preventing any unintended consequences. Just as importantly, every embryo they edited produced the intended genetic changes, a vital step since a partial success rate, known as mosaicism, could have devastating consequences to a future child.
In London at the Francis Crick Institute, researcher Kathy Niakan used CRISPR-CAS9 to "turn off" a gene that produces the protein OCT4. Without the protein, the fertilized egg could not produce a blastocyst, which is a key structure in early mammalian development that gives rise to an embryo and placenta. The recent study wasn't designed to go further, but the use of CRISPR was important. "One way to find out what a gene does in the developing embryo is to see what happens when it isn't working," said Dr. Niakan, who was the first scientist in the world to be granted regulatory approval to edit the genes of a human embryo for research. "Now that we have demonstrated an efficient way of doing this, we hope that other scientists will use it to find out the roles of other genes. If we knew the key genes that embryos need to develop successfully, we could improve IVF treatments and understand some causes of pregnancy failure. It may take many years to achieve such an understanding. Our study is just the first step."
The point is, CRISPR is here and it's not going anywhere. Scientists will continue to use it to learn about how humans develop. Yet different rules regarding CRISPR and embryo research in countries around the world will impact who gets there first. "I've heard the U.S.-China gene editing research parallel paths as Sputnik 2.0," said Kevin Doxzen, Science Communications Specialist at the University of California, Berkeley's Innovative Genomics Institute. The race is on, and it's one everyone is going to try to win.
Based on number of researchers and ease of regulations, the Chinese are the favorites to advance the science the furthest, the fastest.
Based on number of researchers and ease of regulations, the Chinese are the favorites to advance the science the furthest, the fastest. "The Chinese generally don't have the religious (predominantly Christian) or moral objections to embryo research that have held back research in the West," said Dr. Julian Savulescu, the Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics and Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Collective Responsibility for Infectious Disease at the University of Oxford. "This kind of research should be done, with the right sort of ethical oversight. The concern over China leading the way is that institutional oversight mechanisms are probably not as developed as in the West but so far, there is no evidence of breaches in standards of research ethics around the published research."
Or, put another way by bioethicist Dr. Arthur Caplan, founding director of NYU Langone Health's Division of Medical Ethics: "The Chinese, because they don't care and don't have moral reservations about embryo work, are doing what they want." This lack of aversion to working with embryos manifests itself in a couple of ways. The absence of moral qualms is one. Funding is another. Huang's study, and others like it, receive funding from the government. His, for example, was supported by two grants from the National Basic Research Program and three from the National Natural Science Foundation of China.
The U.S., on the other hand, bans any federal funding for research using human embryos. A law passed in 1996 states that federal dollars can't be used for: "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses." This restriction can shift incentives as many private institutions or commercial enterprises may have financial motivations or other goals beyond furthering basic research for the sake of general knowledge.
Embryo gene modification recently performed in the U.K. would merit 15 years in prison in Australia.
The embryo research ban is even more strict elsewhere. The Oviedo Convention, enacted in 1997, effectively prohibits germline engineering in members of the European Union. "In Italy, you can't destroy an embryo for any reason," said Alessandro Bertero, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington's Department of Pathology who used to study in Italy. "It's illegal, and you'll go to jail." Later, Bertero was one of the researchers who worked with Dr. Niakan in London, an investigation that was allowed by the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. (In Australia, Niakan and her colleagues would face 15 years in jail due to the 2002 Prohibition of Human Cloning Act, which prohibits altering the genomes of embryonic cells.)
Despite the moral and legal reservations in the Western world, every person I spoke with for this story believed that better, more advanced studies and learning is happening in the U.S. and Europe. "The best studies in my opinion are from the labs in California and Oregon," Bertero said. "The quality of the work [in the Chinese study] – not being critical, but to be scientifically critical -- was just quick and dirty. It was, 'Let's just show that we have done it and get it out.' That doesn't mean that the quality of the work was good."
"If the Chinese or someone else starts beating our brains out, we're not going to want to stand by idly and not do these things."
How long that remains the case, however, is an open question. A significant number of groups in China are working on germline editing in human embryos. The concern is that the Chinese will emerge as a leader sooner rather than later because they can do research with embryos more easily than their Western counterparts.
For Caplan, the NYU professor, the embryo ban in the U.S. isn't based on science; it's rooted in something else. "It's 96 percent political," he said, laughing. "It has basically ground to a halt because no one wants to see repercussions take place if federal funding is involved. The NIH isn't involved. And they won't be."
What, in his mind, would get Americans to start realizing the benefits that embryo research would provide? "The perception that other countries were moving quickly to get the advantages of CRISPR and other gene modification techniques, finding more industrial and more medical purposes," he said. "If the Chinese or someone else starts beating our brains out, we're not going to want to stand by idly and not do these things."
Doing so would involve difficult conversations about the role of embryos in research. But these are philosophical questions that need to be approached at some point. From a U.S. perspective, doing so sooner while the American scientists still hold the technological and informational edge, is vital. Ignoring the issue doesn't make it go away.
Experts think a few changes should be made. The ban on federal funding should be lifted. Scientists and regulators should push for things like allowing federal funds to be used for the creation of new embryos for research purposes and the use of spare IVF embryos for research when the embryo would not be implanted into a woman. (Privately funded scientists can proceed in states that encourage embryonic stem cell research, like New York, New Jersey, and California, but not in restrictive ones like Louisiana and South Dakota, which prohibit creating or destroying embryos for research.) Policymakers could ban reproductive gene editing for now but look at it again after a certain period. A highly anticipated report issued earlier this year from an international guidance committee left the door open to eventual clinical trials with edited embryos. As of now, however, Congress will not allow the Food and Drug Administration to consider such trials. This is the future and it's the scientific community's responsibility to develop the ethical framework now.
"The US and Europe have the technological history and capacity to lead this research and should do so, ethically. We ought to be revising our laws and ethical guidelines to facilitate this kind of research," Professor Savulescu said. "But the challenge is to think constructively and ethically about this new technology, and to be leaders, not followers."
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.