After a Diagnosis, Patients Are Finding Solace—and Empowerment—in a Sensitive Corner of Social Media
Matt Fuchs is a health and science writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He has written on a variety of health topics, including profiles of older athletes defying their ages, for publications such as The Washington Post, The Washington Post Magazine, and Medium's The Startup. He is also a science fiction author. Follow him on Twitter, @fuchswriter.
When Kimberly Richardson of Chicago underwent chemotherapy in 2013 for ovarian cancer, her hip began to hurt. Her doctor assigned six months of physical therapy, but the pain persisted.
She took the mystery to Facebook, where she got 200 comments from cancer survivors all pointing to the same solution: Claritin. Two days after starting the antihistamine, her hip felt fine. Claritin, it turns out, reduces bone marrow swelling, a side effect of a stimulant given after chemo.
Richardson isn't alone in using social media for health. Thirty-six percent of adults with chronic diseases have benefited from health advice on the internet, or know others who have. The trend has likely accelerated during COVID-19. "With increases in anxiety and loneliness, patients find comfort in peer support," said Chris Renfro-Wallace, the chief operating officer of PatientsLikeMe, a popular online community.
Sites like PatientsLikeMe and several others are giving rise to a patient-centered view of healthcare, challenging the idea that MD stands for medical deity. They're engaging people in new ways, such as virtual clinical trials. But with misinformation spreading online about health issues, including COVID-19, there's also reason for caution.
Engaged by Design
Following her diagnosis at age 50, Richardson searched the Web. "All I saw were infographics saying in five years I'd be dead."
Eventually, she found her Facebook groups and a site called Inspire, where she met others with her rare granulosa cell tumor. "You get 15 minutes with your doctor, but on social media you can keep posting until you satisfy your question."
Virtual communities may be especially helpful for people with rarely diagnosed diseases, who wouldn't otherwise meet. When Katherine Leon of Virginia suffered chest pain after the birth of her second son, doctors said it was spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, involving a torn artery. But she had no risk factors for heart disease. Feeling like she was "wandering in the woods" with doctors who hadn't experienced her situation, she searched online and stumbled on communities like Inspire with members who had. The experience led her to start her own Alliance and the world's largest registry for advancing research on SCAD.
"Inspire is really an extension of yourself," she said. If designed well, online sites can foster what psychologist Keith Sawyer called group mind, a dynamic where participants balance their own voices with listening to others, maximizing community engagement in health. To achieve it, participants must have what Sawyer called a "blending of egos," which may be fostered when sites let users post anonymously. They must also share goals and open communication. The latter priority has driven Brian Loew, Inspire's CEO, to safeguard the privacy of health information exchanged on the site, often asking himself, "Would I be okay if a family member had this experience?"
The vibe isn't so familial on some of Facebook's health-focused groups. There, people might sense marketers and insurers peering over their shoulders. In 2018, a researcher discovered that companies could exploit personal information on a private Facebook community for BRCA-positive women. Members of the group started a nonprofit, the Light Collective, to help peer-to-peer support platforms improve their transparency.
PatientsLikeMe and Inspire nurture the shared experience by hosting pages on scores of diseases, allowing people to better understand treatment options for multiple conditions—and find others facing the same set of issues. Four in ten American adults have more than one chronic disease.
Sawyer observed that groups are further engaged when there's a baseline of common knowledge. To that end, some platforms take care in structuring dialogues among members to promote high-quality information, stepping in to moderate when necessary. On Inspire, members get emails when others reply to their posts, instead of instant messaging. The communication lag allows staff to notice misinformation and correct it. Facebook conversations occur in real-time among many more people; "moderation is almost impossible," said Leon.
Even on PatientsLikeMe and Inspire, deciding which content to police can be tough, as variations across individuals may result in conflicting but equally valid posts. Leon's left main artery was 90 percent blocked, requiring open heart surgery, whereas others with SCAD have angina, warranting a different approach. "It's a real range of experience," she explained. "That's probably the biggest challenge: supporting everyone where they are."
Critically, these sites don't treat illnesses. "If a member asks a medical question, we typically tell them to go to their doctor," said Loew, the Inspire CEO.
Increasingly, it may be the other way around.
The Patient Will See You Now
"Some doctors embrace the idea of an educated patient," said Loew. "The more information, the better." Others, he said, aren't thrilled about patients learning on their own.
"Doctors were behind the eight ball," said Shikha Jain, an oncologist in Chicago. "We were encouraged for years to avoid social media due to patient privacy issues. There's been a drastic shift in the last few years."
Jain recently co-founded IMPACT, a grassroots organization that networks with healthcare workers across Illinois for greater awareness of health issues. She thinks doctors must meet patients where they are—increasingly, online—and learn about the various platforms where patients connect. Doctors can then suggest credible online sources for their patients' conditions. Learning about different sites takes time, Jain said, "but that's the nature of being a physician in this day and age."
At stake is the efficiency of doctor-patient interactions. "I like when patients bring in research," Jain said. "It opens up the dialogue and lets them inform the decision-making process." Richardson, the cancer survivor, agreed. "We shouldn't make the physician the villain in this conversation." Interviewed over Zoom, she was engaging but quick to challenge the assumptions behind some questions; her toughness was palpable, molded by years of fighting disease—and the healthcare system. Many doctors are forced by that system into faster office visits, she said. "If patients help their doctor get to the heart of the issue in a shorter time, now we're going down a narrower road of tests."
These conversations could be enhanced by PatientsLikeMe's Doctor Visit Guide. It uses algorithms to consolidate health data that members track on the site into a short report they can share with their physicians. "It gives the doctor a richer data set to really see how a person has been doing," said Renfro-Wallace.
Doctors aren't the only ones benefiting from these sites.
A few platforms like Inspire make money by connecting their members to drug companies, so they can participate in the companies' clinical trials to test out new therapies. A cynic might say the sites are just fronts for promoting the pharmaceuticals.
The need is real, though, as many clinical trials suffer from low participation, and the experimental treatments can improve health. The key for Loew, Inspire's CEO, is being transparent about his revenue model. "When you sign up, we assume you didn't read the fine print [in the terms of agreement]." So, when Inspire tells members about openings in trials, it's a reminder the site works with pharma.
"When I was first on Inspire, all of that was invisible to me," said Leon. "It didn't dawn on me for years." Richardson believes many don't notice pharma's involvement because they're preoccupied by their medical issues.
One way Inspire builds trust is by partnering with patient advocacy groups, which tend to be nonprofit and science-oriented, said Craig Lipset, the former head of clinical innovation for Pfizer. When he developed a rare lung disease, he joined the board of a foundation that partners with Inspire's platform. The section dedicated to his disease is emblazoned with his foundation's logo and colors. Contrast that with other sites that build communities at the direct behest of drug companies, he said.
Insurance companies are also eyeing these communities. Last month, PatientsLikeMe raised $26 million in financing from investors including Optum Ventures, which belongs to the same health care company that owns a leading health insurance company, UnitedHealthcare. PatientsLikeMe is an independent company, though, and data is shared with UnitedHealth only if patients provide consent. The site is using the influx of resources to gamify improvements in health, resembling programs run by UnitedHealth that assign nutrition and fitness "missions," with apps for tracking progress. Soon, PatientsLikeMe will roll out a smarter data tracking system that gives members actionable insights and prompts them to take actions based on their conditions, as well as competitions to motivate healthier behaviors.
Such as a race to vaccinate, perhaps.
Dealing with Misinformation
An advantage of health-focused communities is the intimacy of their gatherings, compared to behemoths like Facebook. Loew, Inspire's head, is mindful of Dunbar's rule: humans can manage only about 150 friends. Inspire's social network mapping suggests many connections among members, but of different strength; Loew hopes to keep his site's familial ambiance even while expanding membership. Renfro-Wallace is exploring video and voice-only meetings to enrich the shared experiences on PatientsLikeMe, while respecting members' privacy.
But a main driver of growth and engagement online is appealing to emotion rather than reason; witness Facebook during the pandemic. "We know that misinformation and scary things spread far more rapidly than something positive," said Ann Lewandowski, the executive director of Wisconsin Immunization Neighborhood, a coalition of health providers and associations countering vaccine hesitancy across the state.
"Facebook's moderation mechanism is terrible," she said. Vaccine advocates in her region who try to flag misinformation on Facebook often have their content removed because the site's algorithm associates their posts with the distortions they're trying to warn people about.
In the realm of health, where accessing facts can mean life or death—and where ad-based revenue models conflict with privacy needs—there's probably a ceiling on how large social media sites should scale. Loew views Inspire as co-existing, not competing with Facebook.
Propagandists had months to perfect campaigns to dissuade people from mRNA vaccines. But even Lewandowski's doctor was misinformed about vaccine side effects for her condition, multiple sclerosis. She sees potential for health-focused sites to convene more virtual forums, in which patient advocacy groups educate doctors and patients on vaccine safety.
Inspire is raising awareness about COVID vaccines through a member survey with an interactive data visualization. Sampling thousands of members, the survey found vaccines are tolerated well among patients with cancer, autoimmune issues, and other serious conditions. Analytics for online groups are evolving quickly, said Lipset. "Think about the acceleration in research when you take the emerging capability for aggregating health data and mash it up with patients engaged in sharing."
Lipset recently co-founded the Decentralized Trials and Research Alliance to accelerate clinical trials and make them more accessible to patients—even from home, without risking the virus. Sites like PatientsLikeMe share this commitment, collaborating with Duke's ALS Clinic to let patients join a trial from home with just two clinic visits. Synthetic control groups were created by PatientsLikeMe's algorithms, eliminating the need for a placebo arm, enabling faster results.
As for Richardson, the ovarian cancer patient, being online has given her another type of access—to experts. She was diagnosed this year with breast cancer. "This time is totally different," she said. On Twitter, she's been direct messaging cancer researchers, whose replies have informed her disease-management strategy. When her oncologists prescribed 33 radiation treatments, she counter-proposed upping the dosage over fewer treatments. Her doctors agreed, cutting unnecessary trips from home. "I'm immuno-compromised," she said. "It's like Russian roulette. You're crossing your finger you won't get the virus."
After years of sticking up for her own health, Richardson is now positioned to look out for others. She collaborated with the University of Illinois Cancer Center on a training module that lets patients take control of their health. She's sharing it online, in a virtual community near you. "It helps you make intelligent decisions," she said. "When you speak your physician's language, it shifts the power in the room."
Matt Fuchs is a health and science writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He has written on a variety of health topics, including profiles of older athletes defying their ages, for publications such as The Washington Post, The Washington Post Magazine, and Medium's The Startup. He is also a science fiction author. Follow him on Twitter, @fuchswriter.
Rochelle "Shelley" Buffenstein has one of the world's largest, if not the largest, lab-dwelling colonies of the naked mole rat. (No one has done a worldwide tabulation, but she has 4,500 of them.) Buffenstein has spent decades studying the little subterranean-dwelling rodents. Over the years, she and her colleagues have uncovered one surprising discovery after another, which has led them to re-orient the whole field of anti-aging research.
Naked mole rats defy everything we thought we knew about aging. These strange little rodents from arid regions of Africa, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, live up to ten times longer than their size would suggest. And unlike virtually every other animal, they don't lose physical or cognitive abilities with age, and even retain their fertility up until the end of life. They appear to have active defenses against the ravages of time, suggesting that aging may not be inevitable. Could these unusual creatures teach humans how to extend life and ameliorate aging?
Buffenstein, who is senior principle investigator at Calico Life Sciences, has dedicated her life to finding out. Her early interest in the animals of what is now Zimbabwe led to her current position as a cutting-edge anti-aging researcher at Calico, the Google-funded health venture launched in 2013. The notoriously secretive company is focused on untangling the mysteries of why animals and people age, and whether there are ways to slow or temporarily arrest the process.
The small, wrinkly animal, which lives in underground burrows in the hot, arid regions of Africa, is hardly the beauty queen of the mammalian kingdom. Furless, buck-toothed and tiny-eyed, the creatures look like they could use a good orthodontist, a protective suit of clothes and possibly, some spectacles to enhance their eyesight. But these rats more than make up for their unimpressive looks with their superlative ability to adapt to some of the most inhospitable conditions on earth.
Based on the usual rule that body size predicts lifespan, naked mole rats shouldn't live that long. After all, similarly-sized rodents like mice have a life expectancy of two years or less. But Buffenstein was one of the first scientists to recognize that naked mole rats live an extraordinarily long time, with her oldest animal approaching 39 years of age. In addition, they never become geriatric in the human sense, defying the common signs of aging — age-related diseases, cognitive decline and even menopause. In fact, the queens, or females that do all the breeding in a bee-like underground colony, remain fertile and give birth to healthy pups up until what would be considered very old age in humans. And the naked mole rat has other curious abilities, such as the ability to endure extreme low-oxygen, or hypoxic, conditions like those they encounter in their underground nests.
"One thing we've learned from these animals is that they stay healthy until the very end."
It's not that the naked mole rat isn't subject to the vicissitudes of life, or the normal wear and tear of biological processes. Over the years, Buffenstein and her colleagues have discovered that, while the process of oxidative stress — thought for 50 years to be the main cause of aging — occurs in the naked mole rat just as in any other animal, its damage does not accumulate with age. Oxidative stress occurs during normal cell metabolism when oxygen "free radicals" with one or more unpaired electrons wreak havoc on large cellular molecules, leaving microscopic debris in their wake that clogs up the gears of healthy cell function. Somehow, naked mole rats have an enhanced ability to clear out the damaged cells and molecules before they can set off the usual chain reaction of cell dysfunction and death, according to a 2013 paper in which Buffenstein is the lead author.
Oxidative stress is not the only factor known to be problematic in aging. Slowly accumulating damage to DNA typically leads to protein malfunction and improper folding. In humans and most other animals, these protein fragments can accumulate in cells and gum up the works. Only not so much in naked mole rats, which are able to maintain normal protein folding throughout their long life. After years of discoveries like these, Buffenstein has gradually reframed her focus from "what goes wrong to produce aging?" to "what goes right in the naked mole rat to help it defy the normal wear and tear of life?" Buffenstein's research suggests that the tiny mammals have a unique ability to somehow clear out damaged protein fragments and other toxic debris before they can cause disease and aging.
How She Got Here
Buffenstein ascribes her initial acquaintance with the naked mole rat to serendipity. Back in 1979, her postgraduate mentor Jenny Jarvis at the University of Cape Town in South Africa kept a small colony of rats in her office while studying the mechanisms that lead to the animals' unusual adaptive capabilities. It was Buffenstein's job to take care of them. Working with Jarvis, Buffenstein focused on understanding their unique adaptations to the extreme conditions of their natural habitat.
They studied the unusual behaviors regulating the rat colonies. For instance, they observed that designated "workers" dig the entire colony's underground tunnels and a single reproducing female breeds with only a small number of males. Buffenstein also examined how these animals are able to survive without the "sunshine hormone" — vitamin D — and their unusual modes of regulating their internal temperatures and converting food into energy. Though classified as mammals, the rodents simply don't conform to the mammalian handbook, having found ingenuous ways to alter their bodies and behavior that is fine-tuned to the scorching heat and aridity of their environment.
To escape the heat, they simply burrow underground and live in elaborate tunnels. To cope with the low-oxygen conditions underground, they slowed their metabolism and learned to live for extended periods of time in such hypoxic conditions that an ordinary animal would quickly suffocate. But it was slowly dawning on Buffenstein that the small creatures were exceptional in additional ways.
When Buffenstein got her first academic position at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Jarvis said she could take some of the naked mole rats with her. When she did, Buffenstein noticed that the animals were living far longer than similarly sized rodents. "At that stage, they were about ten years old. Little did I know how long they would eventually show us they could live," she says.
In 1997, after accepting a position at the City College of New York, Buffenstein moved to the U.S. and took her rat colony with her. There she was able to pursue an evolving narrative about the humble naked mole rat that continued to defy expectations. As the years passed, it was becoming more and more evident that her observations could have major implications for aging research. Eventually, she took a position at the Barshop Institute for Aging and Longevity Studies in San Antonio, Texas.
One early observation of Buffenstein's suggested that the species most often used in aging research—mice, roundworms, fruit flies and yeast—have short lifespans and poor defenses against aging. These animals provide important insights into how aging works, and have revealed possible targets for intervention. But they don't show what goes right in apparently non-aging animals like the naked mole rat.
Buffenstein's years of studying the rats has laid the foundation for a whole new perspective in aging research.
"My hypothesis," she says, "is that naked mole rats are very good at removing damaged macromolecules and cells, thereby maintaining homeostasis and cell and tissue function. All the repair pathways examined by us and others in the field point to more efficient repair and more rapid responses to damaging agents." These include things like free radicals and radiation.
Some researchers today are building on Buffenstein's foundational discoveries to home in on possible anti-aging mechanisms that lead to the extraordinary resilience of naked mole rats. University of Cambridge researcher and co-founder of the institution's Naked Mole-Rat Initiative, Ewan St. John Smith, is studying the animal's resistance to cancer.
In a 2020 paper published in Nature, Smith and his colleagues established that naked mole rats harbor cancer-causing genes, and these genes occasionally create cancer cells. But something in the rats shuts the multiplication process down before the cells can grow out of control and form tumors. Now, scientists want to know what mechanisms, exactly, are at play in preventing the cells from invading healthy tissues. Smith has hypothesized that the answer is somehow embedded in interactions in the cells' microenvironment.
He also thinks the animal's immune system could just be very effective at seeking out and destroying cancer cells. Several current cancer therapies work by boosting the body's immune system so it can attack and eliminate the toxic cells. It's possible that the naked mole rat's immune system naturally goes into hyper-drive when cancer cells appear, enabling it to nip the disease in the bud before tumors can form. A pharmacologist by training, Smith thinks that if there is some chemical mediator in the naked mole rat that supercharges its immune cells, perhaps that mediator can be synthesized in a drug to treat humans for cancer.
The naked mole rat's extreme tolerance to hypoxia could also play a role. "Interestingly," he says, "when cells become cancerous, they also become hypoxic, and naked mole rats are known to be very resistant to hypoxia.
He notes that a form of low-level hypoxia is also present in the bodies and brains of both aged mice and older humans. It's commonly seen in the brains of humans with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of age-related dementia. This suggests that hypoxia in humans — and in other mammals — may have a role to play in Alzheimer's and the aging process itself. Resistance to hypoxia could be why the naked mole rat, in Smith's words, "chugs along quite happily" in conditions that in humans are associated with disease and decline.
Smith cheerfully acknowledges his debt to Buffenstein for laying so much of the groundwork in a field rife with possible implications for anti-aging. "Shelley is amazing," he says. "Naked mole rats have a queen and I always refer to her as the queen of the naked mole rat world." In fact, Buffenstein gave Smith his first colony of rats, which he's since grown to about 150. "Some of them will still be around when I retire," he jokes.
Vera Gorbunova, a professor of biology and oncology at the University of Rochester who studies both longevity and cancer in naked mole rats, credits Buffenstein with getting others to study the animals for anti-aging purposes. Gorbunova believes that "cancer and aging go hand-in-hand" and that longer-lived animals have better, more accurate DNA repair.
Gorbunova is especially interested in the naked mole rat's ability to secrete a superabundance of a "super-sugar" molecule called hyaluronan, a ubiquitous additive to skin creams for its moisturizing effect. Gorbunova and others have observed that the presence of high concentrations of hyaluronan in the naked mole rat's extracellular matrix — the chemical-rich solution between cells — prevents the overcrowding of cells. This, perhaps, could be the key to the animal's ability to stop tumors from forming.
Hyaluronan is also present in the extracellular matrix of humans, but the naked mole rat molecule is more than five times larger than the versions found in humans or mice, and is thought to play a significant part in the animal's DNA repair. But just rubbing a cream containing hyaluronan over your skin won't stop cancer or aging. High concentrations of the substance in the extracellular matrix throughout your body would likely be needed.
Gorbunova notes that the naked mole rat offers a multitude of possibilities that could eventually lead to drugs to slow human aging. "I'm optimistic that there are many different strategies, because the naked mole rat likely has many processes going on that fight aging," she says. "I think that in a relatively short time, there will be bonafide treatments to test in animals. One thing we've learned from these animals is that they stay healthy until the very end."
So if naked mole rats don't become frail with age or develop age-related diseases, what does kill them? The answer, unfortunately, is usually other naked mole rats. Buffenstein has long noted that even though they live in highly cooperative colonies, they can be quite cantankerous when there's a disruption in the hierarchy, a sentiment echoed by Gorbunova. "Sometimes there are periods of peace and quiet, but if something happens to the queen, all hell breaks loose," she says. "If the queen is strong, everybody knows their place," but if the queen dies, the new queen is inevitably decided by violent competition.
To the casual observer, a strange, wrinkly rodent like the naked mole rat might seem to have little to teach us about ourselves, but Buffenstein is confident that her discoveries could have major implications for human longevity research. Today, at Calico's labs in San Francisco, she's focused entirely on the determining how anti-aging defense mechanisms in the rats could lead to similar defenses being stimulated or introduced in humans.
"The million-dollar question is, what are the mechanisms protecting against aging, and can these be translated into therapies to delay or abrogate human aging, too?"
Buffenstein fired up a new generation of scientists with multiple discoveries, especially the fundamental one that naked mole rats are subject to the same wear and tear over time as the rest of us, but somehow manage to reverse it. These days, the trailblazer is at work on untangling the molecular mechanisms involved in the animal's resistance to cardiac aging. On top of everything else, the small creature has a unique ability to fight off the scourge of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the industrialized world.
After all, the point is not to extend old age, but to slow down aging itself so that frailty and disability are compressed into a brief period after a long-extended period of vitality. By switching the focus from what goes wrong to mechanisms that defend against aging in the first place, the discoveries of Buffenstein and a new generation of researchers who are building on her groundbreaking research promise to be a driving force in the quest to extend not only life, but healthy, vigorous life in humans.
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 the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip 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."