COVID-19 Could Brighten the Public Spotlight on Biotech—and Accelerate Progress
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Since March, 35 patients in the care of Dr. Gregory Jicha, a neurologist at the University of Kentucky, have died of Alzheimer's disease or related dementia.
Meanwhile, with 233 active clinical trials underway to find treatments, Jicha wonders why mainstream media outlets don't do more to highlight potential solutions to the physical, emotional and economic devastation of these diseases. "Unfortunately, it's not until we're right at the cusp of a major discovery that anybody pays attention to these very promising agents," he says.
Heightened awareness would bring more resources for faster progress, according to Jicha. Otherwise, he's concerned that current research pipelines will take over a decade.
In recent years, newspapers with national readerships have devoted more technology reporting to key developments in social media, artificial intelligence, wired gadgets and telecom. Less prominent has been news about biotech—innovations based on biology research—and new medicines emerging from this technology. That's the impression of Jicha as well as Craig Lipset, former head of clinical innovation at Pfizer. "Scientists and clinicians are entirely invested [in biotech], yet no one talks about their discoveries," he says.
With the popular press rightly focusing on progress with a vaccine for COVID-19 this year, notable developments in biomarkers, Alzheimer's and cancer research, gene therapies for cystic fibrosis, and therapeutics related to biological age may be going unreported. Jennifer Goldsack, Executive Director of the nonprofit Digital Medicine Society, is confused over the media's soft touch with biotech. "I'm genuinely interested in understanding what editors of technology sections think the public wants to be reading."
The Numbers on Media Coverage
A newspaper's health section is a sensible fit for biotech reporting. In 2020, these departments have concentrated largely on COVID-19—as they should—while sections on technology and science don't necessarily pick up on other biotech news. Emily Mullin, staff writer for the tech magazine OneZero, has observed a gap in newspaper coverage. "You have a lot of [niche outlets] reporting biotech on the business side for industry experts, and you have a lot of reporting heavily from the science side focused on [readers who are] scientists. But there aren't a lot of outlets doing more humanizing coverage of biotech."
Indeed, the volume of coverage by top-tier media outlets in the U.S. for non-COVID biotech has dropped 32 percent since the pandemic spiked in March, according to an analysis run for this article by Commetric, a company that looks at media reputation for clients in many sectors including biotech and artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, the volume of coverage for AI has held steady, up one percent.
Commetric's CEO, Magnus Hakansson, thinks important biotech stories were omitted from mainstream coverage even before the world fell into the grips of the virus. "Apart from COVID, it's been extremely difficult for biotech companies to push out their discoveries," he says. "People in biotech have to be quite creative when they want to communicate [progress in] different therapeutic areas, and that is a problem."
In mid-February, just before the pandemic dominated the news cycle, researchers used machine learning to find a powerful new antibiotic capable of killing strains of disease-causing bacteria that had previously resisted all known antibiotics. Science-focused outlets hailed the work as a breakthrough, but some nationally-read newspapers didn't mention it. "There is this very silent crisis around antibiotic resistance that no one is aware of," says Goldsack. "We could be 50 years away from not being able to give elective surgeries because we are at such a high risk of being unable to control infection."
Could mainstream media strike a better balance between cynicism toward biotech and hyping animal studies that probably won't ever benefit the humans reading about them?
What's to Gain from More Mainstream Biotech
A brighter public spotlight on biotech could result in greater support and faster progress with research, says Lipset. "One of the biggest delays in drug development is patient recruitment. Patients don't know about the opportunities," he said, because, "clinical research pipelines aren't talked about in the mainstream news." Only about eight percent of oncology patients participate.
The current focus on COVID-19, while warranted, could also be excluding lines of research that seem separate from the virus, but are actually relevant. In September, Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute of Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told me about eight different observational studies finding decreased COVID-19 severity among people taking a drug called metformin, which is believed to slow down the major hallmarks of biological aging, such as inflammation. Once a vaccine is approved and distributed, biologically older people could supplement it with metformin.
"Shining the spotlight on this research now could really be critical because COVID has shown what happens in older adults and how they're more at risk," says Jenna Bartley, a researcher of aging and immunology at the University of Connecticut, but she believes mainstream media sometimes miss stories on anti-aging therapies or portray them inaccurately.
The question remains why.
The Theranos Effect and Other Image Problems
Before the pandemic, Mullin, the biotech writer at OneZero, looked into a story for her editor about a company with a new test for infectious diseases. The company said its test, based on technology for editing genes, was fast, easy to use, and could be tailored to any pathogen. Mullin told her editor the evidence for the test's validity was impressive.
He wondered if readers would agree. "This is starting to sound like Theranos," he said.
The brainchild of entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos was valued at $9 billion in 2014. Time Magazine named Holmes one of its most influential people, and the blood-testing company was heavily covered by the media as a game changer for health outcomes—until Holmes was exposed by the Wall Street Journal as a fraud and criminally charged.
In the OneZero article, Mullin and her editor were careful to explain the gene-editing tech was legit, explicitly distinguishing it from Theranos. "I was like, yes—but this actually works! And they can show it works."
While the Holmes scandal explains some of the mistrust, it's part of a bigger pattern. The public's hopes for biotech have been frustrated repeatedly in recent decades, fostering a media mantra of fool me twice, shame on me. A recent report by Commetric noted that after the bursting of the biotech market bubble in the early 2000s, commentators grew deeply skeptical of the field. An additional source of caution may be the number of researchers in biotech with conflicts of interest such as patents or their own startups. "It's a landmine," Mullin said. "We're conditioned to think that scientists are out for the common good, but they have their own biases."
Yet another source of uncertainty: the long regulatory road and cost for new therapies to be approved by the FDA. The process can take 15 years and over a billion dollars; the percentage of drugs actually crossing the final strand of red tape is notoriously low.
"The only time stories have reached the news is when there's a sensational headline about the cure for cancer," said Lipset, "when, in fact it's about mice, and then things drop off." Meanwhile, consumer protection hurdles for some technologies, such as computer chips, are less onerous than the FDA gauntlet for new medicines. The media may view research breakthroughs in digital tech as more impactful because they're likelier to find their way into commercially available products.
And whereas a handful of digital innovations have been democratized for widespread consumption—96 percent of Americans now own a cell phone, and 72 percent use social media—journalists at nationally-read newspapers may see biotech as less attainable for the average reader. Sure, we're all aging, but will the healthcare system grant everyone fair access to treatments for slowing the aging process? Current disparities in healthcare sow reason for doubt.
And yet. Recall Lipset's point that more press coverage would drive greater participation in clinical trials, which could accelerate them and diversify participants. Could mainstream media strike a better balance between cynicism toward biotech and hyping animal studies that probably won't ever benefit the humans reading about them?
Biotech in a Post-COVID World
Imagine it's early 2022. Hopefully, much of the population is protected from the virus through some combination of vaccines, therapeutics, and herd immunity. We're starting to bounce back from the social and economic shocks of 2020. COVID-19 headlines recede from the front pages, then disappear altogether. Gradually, certain aspects of life pick up where they left off in 2019, while a few changes forced by the pandemic prove to be more lasting, some for the better.
Among its possible legacies, the virus could usher in a new era of biotech development and press coverage, with these two trends reinforcing each other. While government has mismanaged its response to the virus, the level of innovation, collaboration and investment in pandemic-related biotech has been compared to the Manhattan Project. "There's no question that vaccine acceleration is a success story," said Kevin Schulman, a professor of medicine and economics at Stanford. "We could use this experience to build new economic models to correct market failures. It could carry over to oncology or Alzheimer's."
As Winston Churchill said, never let a good crisis go to waste.
Lipset thinks the virus has primed us to pay attention, bringing biotech into the public's consciousness like never before. He's amazed at how many neighbors and old friends from high school are coming out of the woodwork to ask him how clinical trials work. "What happens next is interesting. Does this open a window of opportunity to get more content out? People's appetites have been whetted."
High-profile wins could help to sustain interest, such as deployment of rapid tests of COVID-19 to be taken at home, a version of which the FDA authorized on November 18th. The idea bears resemblance to the Theranos concept, also designed as a portable analysis, except this test met the FDA's requirements and has a legitimate chance of changing people's lives. Meanwhile, at least two vaccines are on track to gain government approval in record time. The unprecedented speed could be a catalyst for streamlining inefficiencies in the FDA's approval process in non-emergency situations.
Tests for COVID-19 represent what some view as the future of managing diseases: early detection. This paradigm may be more feasible—and deserving of journalistic ink—than research on diseases in advanced stages, says Azra Raza, professor of medicine at Columbia University. "Journalists have to challenge this conceit of thinking we can cure end-stage cancer," says Raza, author of The First Cell. Beyond animal studies and "exercise helps" articles, she thinks writers should focus on biotech for catching the earliest footprints of cancer when it's more treatable. "Not enough people appreciate the extent of this tragedy, but journalists can help us do it. COVID-19 is a great moment of truth telling."
Another pressing truth is the need for vaccination, as half of Americans have said they'll skip them due to concerns about safety and effectiveness. It's not the kind of stumbling block faced by iPhones or social media algorithms. AI stirs plenty of its own controversy, but the public's interest in learning about AI and engaging with it seems to grow regardless. "Who are the publicists doing such a good job for AI that biotechnology is lacking?" Lipset wonders.
The job description of those publicists, whoever they are, could be expanding. Scientists are increasingly using AI to measure the effects of new medicines that target diseases—including COVID-19—and the pathways of aging. Mullin noted the challenge of reporting breakthroughs in the life sciences in ways the public understands. With many newsrooms tightening budgets, fewer writers have science backgrounds, and "biotech is daunting for journalists," she says. "It's daunting for me and I work in this area." Now factor in the additional expertise required to understand biotech and AI. "I learned the ropes for how to read a biotech paper, but I have no idea how to read an AI paper."
Nevertheless, Mullin believes reporters have a duty to scrutinize whether this convergence of AI and biotech will foster better outcomes. "Is it just the shiny new tool we're employing because we can? Will algorithms help eliminate health disparities or contribute to them even more? We need to pay attention."
When I greeted Rodney Gorham, age 63, in an online chat session, he replied within seconds: “My pleasure.”
“Are you moving parts of your body as you type?” I asked.
This time, his response came about five minutes later: “I position the cursor with the eye tracking and select the same with moving my ankles.” Gorham, a former sales representative from Melbourne, Australia, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that impairs the brain’s nerve cells and the spinal cord, limiting the ability to move. ALS essentially “locks” a person inside their own body. Gorham is conversing with me by typing with his mind only–no fingers in between his brain and his computer.
The brain-computer interface enabling this feat is called the Stentrode. It's the brainchild of Synchron, a company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. After Gorham’s neurologist recommended that he try it, he became one of the first volunteers to have an 8mm stent, laced with small electrodes, implanted into his jugular vein and guided by a surgeon into a blood vessel near the part of his brain that controls movement.
After arriving at their destination, these tiny sensors can detect neural activity. They relay these messages through a small receiver implanted under the skin to a computer, which then translates the information into words. This minimally invasive surgery takes a day and is painless, according to Gorham. Recovery time is typically short, about two days.
When a paralyzed patient thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts.
When a paralyzed patient such as Gorham thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts. This pattern is detected by the Stentrode and relayed to a computer that learns to associate this pattern with the patient’s physical movements. The computer recognizes thoughts about kicking, making a fist and other movements as signals for clicking a mouse or pushing certain letters on a keyboard. An additional eye-tracking device controls the movement of the computer cursor.
The process works on a letter by letter basis. That’s why longer and more nuanced responses often involve some trial and error. “I have been using this for about two years, and I enjoy the sessions,” Gorham typed during our chat session. Zafar Faraz, field clinical engineer at Synchron, sat next to Gorham, providing help when required. Gorham had suffered without internet access, but now he looks forward to surfing the web and playing video games.
Gorham, age 63, has been enjoying Stentrode sessions for about two years.
The BCI revolution
In the summer of 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive the FDA’s Investigational Device Exemption, which allows research trials on the Stentrode in human patients. This past summer, the company, together with scientists from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at Utrecht University, published a paper offering a framework for how to develop BCIs for patients with severe paralysis – those who can't use their upper limbs to type or use digital devices.
Three months ago, Synchron announced the enrollment of six patients in a study called COMMAND based in the U.S. The company will seek approval next year from the FDA to make the Stentrode available for sale commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are making progress in the field of BCIs. In August, Neuralink announced a $280 million financing round, the biggest fundraiser yet in the field. Last December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round. “One thing I can promise you, in five years from now, we’re not going to be where we are today. We're going to be in a very different place,” says Elad I. Levy, professor of neurosurgery and radiology at State University of New York in Buffalo.
The risk of hacking exists, always. Cybercriminals, for example, might steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices while extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“The prospect of bestowing individuals with paralysis a renewed avenue for communication and motor functionality is a step forward in neurotech,” says Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. “It is an exciting breakthrough in a world of devastating, scary diseases,” says Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “To connect with the world when you are trapped inside your body is incredible.”
While the benefits for the paraplegic community are promising, the Stentrode’s long-term effectiveness and overall impact needs more research on safety. “Potential risks like inflammation, damage to neural tissue, or unexpected shifts in synaptic transmission due to the implant warrant thorough exploration,” Nelson says.
There are also concens about data privacy concerns and the policies of companies to safeguard information processed through BCIs. “Often, Big Tech is ahead of the regulators because the latter didn’t envisage such a turn of events...and companies take advantage of the lack of legal framework to push forward,” McArthur says. Hacking is another risk. Cybercriminals could steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices. Extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“We have to protect patient identity, patient safety and patient integrity,” Levy says. “In the same way that we protect our phones or computers from hackers, we have to stay ahead with anti-hacking software.” Even so, Levy thinks the anticipated benefits for the quadriplegic community outweigh the potential risks. “We are on the precipice of an amazing technology. In the future, we would be able to connect patients to peripheral devices that enhance their quality of life.”
In the near future, the Stentrode could enable patients to use the Stentrode to activate their wheelchairs, iPods or voice modulators. Synchron's focus is on using its BCI to help patients with significant mobility restrictions—not to enhance the lives of healthy people without any illnesses. Levy says we are not prepared for the implications of endowing people with superpowers.
I wondered what Gorham thought about that. “Pardon my question, but do you feel like you have sort of transcended human nature, being the first in a big line of cybernetic people doing marvelous things with their mind only?” was my last question to Gorham.
A slight smile formed on his lips. In less than a minute, he typed: “I do a little.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.