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."
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.
Man Who Got the First Fecal Transplant to Cure Melanoma Shares His Experience
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
"I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads," Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" --Diwakar Davar.
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar and his team knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of Clostridioides difficile, a persistant intestinal infection, and they wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
The ABCDE of melanoma detection
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral fecal microbiota product for C. difficile, hopefully paving the way for more.
An older version of this hit article was first published on May 18, 2021
Scientists want the salamander's secret: how they regenerate tissue
All organisms have the capacity to repair or regenerate tissue damage. None can do it better than salamanders or newts, which can regenerate an entire severed limb.
That feat has amazed and delighted man from the dawn of time and led to endless attempts to understand how it happens – and whether we can control it for our own purposes. An exciting new clue toward that understanding has come from a surprising source: research on the decline of cells, called cellular senescence.
Senescence is the last stage in the life of a cell. Whereas some cells simply break up or wither and die off, others transition into a zombie-like state where they can no longer divide. In this liminal phase, the cell still pumps out many different molecules that can affect its neighbors and cause low grade inflammation. Senescence is associated with many of the declining biological functions that characterize aging, such as inflammation and genomic instability.
Oddly enough, newts are one of the few species that do not accumulate senescent cells as they age, according to research over several years by Maximina Yun. A research group leader at the Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology and Genetics, in Dresden, Germany, Yun discovered that senescent cells were induced at some stages of regeneration of the salamander limb, “and then, as the regeneration progresses, they disappeared, they were eliminated by the immune system,” she says. “They were present at particular times and then they disappeared.”
Senescent cells added to the edges of the wound helped the healthy muscle cells to “dedifferentiate,” essentially turning back the developmental clock of those cells into more primitive states.
Previous research on senescence in aging had suggested, logically enough, that applying those cells to the stump of a newly severed salamander limb would slow or even stop its regeneration. But Yun stood that idea on its head. She theorized that senescent cells might also play a role in newt limb regeneration, and she tested it by both adding and removing senescent cells from her animals. It turned out she was right, as the newt limbs grew back faster than normal when more senescent cells were included.
Senescent cells added to the edges of the wound helped the healthy muscle cells to “dedifferentiate,” essentially turning back the developmental clock of those cells into more primitive states, which could then be turned into progenitors, a cell type in between stem cells and specialized cells, needed to regrow the muscle tissue of the missing limb. “We think that this ability to dedifferentiate is intrinsically a big part of why salamanders can regenerate all these very complex structures, which other organisms cannot,” she explains.
Yun sees regeneration as a two part problem. First, the cells must be able to sense that their neighbors from the lost limb are not there anymore. Second, they need to be able to produce the intermediary progenitors for regeneration, , to form what is missing. “Molecularly, that must be encoded like a 3D map,” she says, otherwise the new tissue might grow back as a blob, or liver, or fin instead of a limb.
Another recent study, this time at the Mayo Clinic, provides evidence supporting the role of senescent cells in regeneration. Looking closely at molecules that send information between cells in the wound of a mouse, the researchers found that senescent cells appeared near the start of the healing process and then disappeared as healing progressed. In contrast, persistent senescent cells were the hallmark of a chronic wound that did not heal properly. The function and significance of senescence cells depended on both the timing and the context of their environment.
The paper suggests that senescent cells are not all the same. That has become clearer as researchers have been able to identify protein markers on the surface of some senescent cells. The patterns of these proteins differ for some senescent cells compared to others. In biology, such physical differences suggest functional differences, so it is becoming increasingly likely there are subsets of senescent cells with differing functions that have not yet been identified.
There are disagreements within the research community as to whether newts have acquired their regenerative capacity through a unique evolutionary change, or if other animals, including humans, retain this capacity buried somewhere in their genes.
Scientists initially thought that senescent cells couldn’t play a role in regeneration because they could no longer reproduce, says Anthony Atala, a practicing surgeon and bioengineer who leads the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina. But Yun’s study points in the other direction. “What this paper shows clearly is that these cells have the potential to be involved in tissue regeneration [in newts]. The question becomes, will these cells be able to do the same in humans.”
As our knowledge of senescent cells increases, Atala thinks we need to embrace a new analogy to help understand them: humans in retirement. They “have acquired a lot of wisdom throughout their whole life and they can help younger people and mentor them to grow to their full potential. We're seeing the same thing with these cells,” he says. They are no longer putting energy into their own reproduction, but the signaling molecules they secrete “can help other cells around them to regenerate.”
There are disagreements within the research community as to whether newts have acquired their regenerative capacity through a unique evolutionary change, or if other animals, including humans, retain this capacity buried somewhere in their genes. If so, it seems that our genes are unable to express this ability, perhaps as part of a tradeoff in acquiring other traits. It is a fertile area of research.
Dedifferentiation is likely to become an important process in the field of regenerative medicine. One extreme example: a lab has been able to turn back the clock and reprogram adult male skin cells into female eggs, a potential milestone in reproductive health. It will be more difficult to control just how far back one wishes to go in the cell's dedifferentiation – part way or all the way back into a stem cell – and then direct it down a different developmental pathway. Yun is optimistic we can learn these tricks from newts.
A growing field of research is using drugs called senolytics to remove senescent cells and slow or even reverse disease of aging.
“Senolytics are great, but senolytics target different types of senescence,” Yun says. “If senescent cells have positive effects in the context of regeneration, of wound healing, then maybe at the beginning of the regeneration process, you may not want to take them out for a little while.”
“If you look at pretty much all biological systems, too little or too much of something can be bad, you have to be in that central zone” and at the proper time, says Atala. “That's true for proteins, sugars, and the drugs that you take. I think the same thing is true for these cells. Why would they be different?”
Our growing understanding that senescence is not a single thing but a variety of things likely means that effective senolytic drugs will not resemble a single sledge hammer but more a carefully manipulated scalpel where some types of senescent cells are removed while others are added. Combinations and timing could be crucial, meaning the difference between regenerating healthy tissue, a scar, or worse.