For the deaf, talent and hard work may not be enough to succeed in the sciences. According to the National Science Foundation, deaf Americans are vastly underrepresented in the STEM fields, a discrepancy that has profound economic implications.
The problem with STEM careers for the deaf and hard-of-hearing is that there are not enough ASL signs available.
Deaf and hard-of-hearing professionals in the sciences earn 31 percent more than those employed in other careers, according to a 2010 study by the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) in Rochester, N.Y., the largest technical college for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. But at the same time, in 2017, U.S. students with hearing disabilities earned only 1.1 percent of the 39,435 doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering.
One reason so few deaf students gravitate to science careers and may struggle to complete doctoral programs is the communication chasm between deaf and hard-of-hearing scientists and their hearing colleagues.
Lorne Farovitch is a doctoral candidate in biomedical science at the University of Rochester of New York. Born deaf and raised by two deaf parents, he communicated solely in American Sign Language (ASL) until reaching graduate school. There, he became frustrated at the large chunk of his workdays spent communicating with hearing lab mates and professors, time he would have preferred spending on his scientific work.
The problem with STEM careers for the deaf and hard-of-hearing is that there are not enough ASL signs available, says Farovitch. Names, words, or phrases that don't exist in ASL must be finger spelled — the signer must form a distinct hand shape to correspond with each letter of the English alphabet, a tedious and time-consuming process. For instance, it requires 12 hand motions to spell out the word M-I-T-O-C-H-O-N-D-R-I-A. Imagine repeating those motions countless times a day.
To bust through this linguistic quagmire, Farovitch, along with a team of deaf STEM professionals, linguists, and interpreters, have been cooking up signs for terms like Anaplasma phagocytophilum, the tick-borne bacterium Farovitch studies. The sign creators are then videotaped performing the new signs. Those videos are posted on two crowd-sourcing sites, ASLcore.org and ASL Clear.
The beauty of ASL is you can express an entire concept in a single sign, rather than by the name of a word.
"If others don't pick it up and use it, a sign goes extinct," says Farovitch. Thus far, more than 1,000 STEM terms have been developed on ASL Clear and 500 vetted and approved by the deaf STEM community, according to Jeanne Reis, project director of the ASL Clear Project, based at The Learning Center for the Deaf in Framingham, Mass.
The beauty of ASL is you can express an entire concept in a single sign, rather than by the name of a word. The signs are generally intuitive and wonderfully creative. To express "DNA" Farovitch uses two fingers of each hand touching the tips of the opposite hand; then he draws both the hands away to suggest the double helix form of the hereditary material present in most organisms.
"If you can show it, you can understand the concept better,'' says the Canadian-born scientist. "I feel I can explain science better now."
The hope is that as ASL science vocabulary expands more, deaf and hard-of-hearing students will be encouraged to pursue the STEM fields. "ASL is not just a tool; it's a language. It's a vital part of our lives," Farovitch explains through his interpreter.
The deaf community is diverse—within and beyond the sciences. Sarah Latchney, PhD, an environmental toxicologist, is among the approximately 90 percent of deaf people born to hearing parents. Hers made sure she learned ASL at an early age but they also sent Latchney to a speech therapist to learn to speak and read lips. Latchney is so adept at both that she can communicate one-on-one with a hearing person without an interpreter.
Like Favoritch, Latchney has developed "conceptually accurate" ASL signs but she has no plans to post them on the crowd-sourcing sites. "I don't want to fix [my signs]; it works for me," she explains.
Young scientists like Farovitch and Latchney stress the need for interpreters who are knowledgeable about science. "When I give a presentation I'm a nervous wreck that I'll have an interpreter who may not have a science background," Latchney explains. "Many times what I've [signed] has been misinterpreted; either my interpreter didn't understand the question or didn't frame it correctly."
To enlarge the pool of science-savvy interpreters, the University of Rochester will offer a new masters degree program: ASL Interpreting in Medicine and Science (AIMS), which will train interpreters who have a strong background in the biological sciences.
Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990, opportunities in higher education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students have opened up in the form of federally funded financial aid and the creation of student disability services on many college campuses. Still, only 18 percent of deaf adults have graduated from college, compared to 33 percent of the general population, according to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2015.
The University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology, home to NTID, have jointly created two programs to increase the representation of deaf and hard-of-hearing professionals in the sciences. The Rochester Bridges to the Doctorate Program, which Farovitch is enrolled in, prepares deaf scholars for biomedical PhD programs. The Rochester Postdoctoral Partnership readies deaf postdoctoral scientists to successfully attain academic research and teaching careers. Both programs are funded by the National Institutes of Science. In the last five years, the University of Rochester has gone from zero deaf postdoctoral and graduate students to nine.
"Deafness is not a problem, it's just a difference."
It makes sense for these two private universities to support strong programs for the deaf: Rochester has the highest per capita population of deaf or hard-of-hearing adults younger than 65 in the nation, according to the U.S. Census. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are about 136,000 post-secondary level students who are deaf or hard of hearing.
"Deafness is not a problem, it's just a difference," says Farovitch. "We just need a different way to communicate. It doesn't mean we require more work."
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."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.