It turns out that, despite the destruction and heartbreak caused by the COVID pandemic, there is a silver lining: Scientists from academia, government, and industry worked together and, using the tools of biotechnology, created multiple vaccines that surely will put an end to the worst of the pandemic sometime in 2021. In short, they proved that science works, particularly that which comes from industry. Though politicians and the public love to hate Big Ag and Big Pharma, everybody comes begging for help when the going gets tough.
The change in public attitude is tangible. A headline in the Financial Times declared, "Covid vaccines offer Big Pharma a chance of rehabilitation." In its analysis, the FT says that the pharmaceutical industry is widely reviled because of the high prices it charges for its drugs, among other things, but the speed with which the industry developed COVID vaccines may allow for its reputation to be refurbished.
The Media's Role in Promoting Anti-Biotech Activism
Of course, the media is partly to blame for the pharmaceutical industry's dismal reputation in the first place because of journalists' penchant for oversimplifying complicated stories and pinning blame on an easy scapegoat. While the pharmaceutical industry is far from angelic and places a hefty price tag on its products in the U.S., often gone unmentioned is the fact that high drug prices are the result of multiple factors, including lack of competition (even among generic drugs), foreign price controls that allow citizens of other countries to "free load" off of American consumers, and a deliberately opaque drug supply chain (that involves not only profit-maximizing pharmaceutical manufacturers but "middlemen" like distributors). But why delve into such nuance when it's easier to point to villains like Martin Shkreli?
Big Ag has been subjected to identical mistreatment by the media, with outlets such as the New York Times among the biggest offenders. One article it published compared pesticides to "Nazi-made sarin gas," and another spread misinformation about a high-profile biotech scientist. The website Undark, whose stated mission is "true journalistic coverage of the sciences," once published an opinion piece written by a person who works for an anti-GMO organization and another criticizing Monsanto for its reasonable efforts to defend itself from disinformation. These aren't cherry-picked examples. Overall, the media clearly has taken sides: Science is great, unless it's science from industry.
If the scientific community can use the powerful techniques of biotechnology to cure a previously unknown infectious disease in less than a year, then why shouldn't it be able to cure genetic diseases in humans?
Now, the very same media – which has portrayed the pharmaceutical and biotech industries in the worst possible light, often for political or ideological reasons – is wondering why so many Americans are reluctant to get a COVID vaccine. Perhaps their reportage has something to do with it.
Tech Strikes Back
For years, the agricultural, pharmaceutical, and biotech industries fought back, but to no avail. GMOs are feared, pharma is hated, and biotech is misunderstood. Regulatory red tape abounds. But that may be all about to change, not because of a clever PR campaign, but thanks to the successful coronavirus vaccines produced by the pharma/biotech industry.
All of the major vaccines were created using biotechnology, broadly defined as the use of living systems and organisms to develop products intended to improve human life or the planet. The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines rely on mRNA (messenger RNA), which is essentially a molecular "photocopy" of the more familiar genetic material DNA. The mRNA molecules were tweaked using biotech and then shown to be 95% effective at preventing COVID in human volunteers. The AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine is based on an older technology that genetically modifies a harmless virus to resemble an immunological target, in this case, SARS-CoV-2. Their vaccine is 62% to 90% effective.
Even better, the pharma/biotech industry showed that it can work hand-in-hand with the government, for instance the FDA, to produce vaccines in record-breaking time. Operation Warp Speed provided some financing to facilitate this process. History will look back at this endeavor and likely conclude that the unprecedented level of cooperation to develop a vaccine in less than 12 months was one of the greatest triumphs in public health history. (The bungled slow rollout is another story.)
Perhaps the most important lesson that society will learn is that the scientific method works.
The pharma/biotech industry has thus gained tremendous momentum. For the first time it seems, those who are opposed to scientific progress and biotechnology are on the defensive. If the scientific community can use the powerful techniques of biotechnology to cure a previously unknown infectious disease in less than a year, then why shouldn't it be able to cure genetic diseases in humans? Or create genetically modified crops that are resistant to insects and drought? Or use genetically modified mosquitoes to help fight against killer diseases like malaria? The arguments against biotechnology have been made exponentially weaker by the success of the coronavirus vaccine.
Perhaps the most important lesson that society will learn is that the scientific method works. We observed (by collecting samples of an unknown virus and sequencing its genome), hypothesized (by predicting which parts of the virus would trigger an immune response), experimented (by recruiting tens of thousands of volunteers into clinical trials), and concluded (that the vaccines worked). It was a thing of pure beauty.
Thanks to all the players involved – from Big Government to Big Pharma – we are beginning the process of being rescued from a modern-day plague. Let us hope that this scientific success also deals a fatal blow to the forces of ignorance that have held back technological progress for decades.
[Editor's Note: LeapsMag is an editorially independent publication that receives program support from Leaps by Bayer. LeapsMag's founding in 2017 predates Bayer's acquisition of Monsanto in 2018. All content published on LeapsMag is strictly free of influence, censorship, and oversight from its corporate sponsor. Read more about LeapsMag's organizational independence here.]
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."