Scarcely a week goes by without the announcement of another breakthrough owing to advancing biotechnology. Recent examples include the use of gene editing tools to successfully alter human embryos or clone monkeys; new immunotherapy-based treatments offering longer lives or even potential cures for previously deadly cancers; and the creation of genetically altered mosquitos using "gene drives" to quickly introduce changes into the population in an ecosystem and alter the capacity to carry disease.
The environment for conducting science is dramatically different today than it was in the 1970s, 80s, or even the early 2000s.
Each of these examples puts pressure on current policy guidelines and approaches, some existing since the late 1970s, which were created to help guide the introduction of controversial new life sciences technologies. But do the policies that made sense decades ago continue to make sense today, or do the tools created during different eras in science demand new ethics guidelines and policies?
Advances in biotechnology aren't new of course, and in fact have been the hallmark of science since the creation of the modern U.S. National Institutes of Health in the 1940s and similar government agencies elsewhere. Funding agencies focused on health sciences research with the hope of creating breakthroughs in human health, and along the way, basic science discoveries led to the creation of new scientific tools that offered the ability to approach life, death, and disease in fundamentally new ways.
For example, take the discovery in the 1970s of the "chemical scissors" in living cells called restriction enzymes, which could be controlled and used to introduce cuts at predictable locations in a strand of DNA. This led to the creation of tools that for the first time allowed for genetic modification of any organism with DNA, which meant bacteria, plants, animals, and even humans could in theory have harmful mutations repaired, but also that changes could be made to alter or even add genetic traits, with potentially ominous implications.
The scientists involved in that early research convened a small conference to discuss not only the science, but how to responsibly control its potential uses and their implications. The meeting became known as the Asilomar Conference for the meeting center where it was held, and is often noted as the prime example of the scientific community policing itself. While the Asilomar recommendations were not sufficient from a policy standpoint, they offered a blueprint on which policies could be based and presented a model of the scientific community setting responsible controls for itself.
But the environment for conducting science changed over the succeeding decades and it is dramatically different today than it was in the 1970s, 80s, or even the early 2000s. The regime for oversight and regulation that has provided controls for the introduction of so-called "gene therapy" in humans starting in the mid-1970s is beginning to show signs of fraying. The vast majority of such research was performed in the U.S., U.K., and Europe, where policies were largely harmonized. But as the tools for manipulating humans at the molecular level advanced, they also became more reliable and more precise, as well as cheaper and easier to use—think CRISPR—and therefore more accessible to more people in many more countries, many without clear oversight or policies laying out responsible controls.
There is no precedent for global-scale science policy, though that is exactly what this moment seems to demand.
As if to make the point through news headlines, scientists in China announced in 2017 that they had attempted to perform gene editing on in vitro human embryos to repair an inherited mutation for beta thalassemia--research that would not be permitted in the U.S. and most European countries and at the time was also banned in the U.K. Similarly, specialists from a reproductive medicine clinic in the U.S. announced in 2016 that they had performed a highly controversial reproductive technology by which DNA from two women is combined (so-called "three parent babies"), in a satellite clinic they had opened in Mexico to avoid existing prohibitions on the technique passed by the U.S. Congress in 2015.
In both cases, genetic changes were introduced into human embryos that if successful would lead to the birth of a child with genetically modified germline cells—the sperm in boys or eggs in girls—with those genetic changes passed on to all future generations of related offspring. Those are just two very recent examples, and it doesn't require much imagination to predict the list of controversial possible applications of advancing biotechnologies: attempts at genetic augmentation or even cloning in humans, and alterations of the natural environment with genetically engineered mosquitoes or other insects in areas with endemic disease. In fact, as soon as this month, scientists in Africa may release genetically modified mosquitoes for the first time.
The technical barriers are falling at a dramatic pace, but policy hasn't kept up, both in terms of what controls make sense and how to address what is an increasingly global challenge. There is no precedent for global-scale science policy, though that is exactly what this moment seems to demand. Mechanisms for policy at global scale are limited–-think UN declarations, signatory countries, and sometimes international treaties, but all are slow, cumbersome and have limited track records of success.
But not all the news is bad. There are ongoing efforts at international discussion, such as an international summit on human genome editing convened in 2015 by the National Academies of Sciences and Medicine (U.S.), Royal Academy (U.K.), and Chinese Academy of Sciences (China), a follow-on international consensus committee whose report was issued in 2017, and an upcoming 2nd international summit in Hong Kong in November this year.
These efforts need to continue to focus less on common regulatory policies, which will be elusive if not impossible to create and implement, but on common ground for the principles that ought to guide country-level rules. Such principles might include those from the list proposed by the international consensus committee, including transparency, due care, responsible science adhering to professional norms, promoting wellbeing of those affected, and transnational cooperation. Work to create a set of shared norms is ongoing and worth continued effort as the relevant stakeholders attempt to navigate what can only be called a brave new world.
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.