Although recent data has shown the coronavirus poses a greater risk to young people than previously understood, the ensuing COVID-19 disease is clearly far more dangerous for older people than it is for the young.
If we want to lower the COVID-19 fatality rate, we must also make fortifying our most vulnerable hosts a central part of our approach.
While our older adults have accrued tremendous knowledge, wisdom, and perspective over the years, their bodies have over time become less able to fight off viruses and other insults. The shorthand name for this increased susceptibility is aging.
We may have different names for the diseases which disproportionately kill us -- cancer, heart disease, and dementia among them – but what is really killing us is age. The older we are, the greater the chance we'll die from one or another of these afflictions. Eliminate any one completely - including cancer - and we won't on average live that much longer. But if we slow aging on a cellular level, we can counter all of these diseases at once, including COVID-19.
Every army needs both offensive and defensive capabilities. In our war against COVID-19, our offense strategy is to fight the virus directly. But strengthening our defense requires making us all more resistant to its danger. That's why everyone needs to be eating well, exercising, and remaining socially connected. But if we want to lower the COVID-19 fatality rate, we must also make fortifying our most vulnerable hosts a central part of our approach. That's where our new fight against this disease and the emerging science of aging intersect.
Once the domain of charlatans and delusionists, the millennia-old fantasy of extending our healthy lifespans has over the past century become real. But while the big jump in longevity around the world over the past hundred years or so is mostly attributable to advances in sanitation, nutrition, basic healthcare, and worker safety, advances over the next hundred will come from our increasing ability to hack the biology of aging itself.
A few decades ago, scientists began recognizing that some laboratory animals on calorie-restricted diets tended to live healthier, longer lives. Through careful experiments derived from these types of insights, scientists began identifying specific genetic, epigenetic, and metabolic pathways that influence how we age. A range of studies have recently suggested that systemic knobs might metaphorically be turned to slow the cellular aging process, making us better able to fight off diseases and viral attacks.
Among the most promising of these systemic interventions is a drug called metformin, which targets many of the hallmarks of aging and extends health span and lifespan in animals. Metformin has been around since the Middle Ages and has been used in Europe for over 60 years to treat diabetes. This five-cent pill became the most prescribed drug in the world after being approved by the FDA in 1994.
With so many people taking it, ever larger studies began suggesting metformin's positive potential effects preventing diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and dementia. In fact, elderly people on metformin for their diabetes have around a 20 percent lower mortality than age-matched subjects without diabetes. Results like these led scientists to hypothesize that metformin wasn't just impacting a few individual diseases but instead having a systemic impact on entire organisms.
Another class of drug that seems to slow the systemic process of aging in animal models and very preliminary human trials inhibits a nutrient-sensing cellular protein called mTOR. A new category of drugs called rapalogues has been shown to extend healthspan and lifespan in every type of non-human animal so far tested. Two recent human studies indicated that rapalogues increased resistance to the flu and decreased the severity of respiratory tract infections in older adults.
If COVID-19 is primarily a severe disease of aging, then countering aging should logically go a long way in countering the disease.
These promising early indications have inspired a recently launched long-term study exploring how metformin and rapalogues might delay the onset of multiple, age-related diseases and slow the biological process of aging in humans. Under normal circumstances, studies like this seeking to crack the biological code of aging would continue to proceed slowly and carefully over years, moving from animal experiments to cautious series of human trials. But with deaths rising by the day, particularly of older people, these are not times for half measures. Wartimes have always demanded new ways of doing important things at warp speeds.
If COVID-19 is primarily a severe disease of aging, then countering aging should logically go a long way in countering the disease. We need to find out. Fast.
Although it would be a mistake for older people to just begin taking drugs like these without any indication, pushing to massively speed up our process for assessing whether these types of interventions can help protect older people is suddenly critical.
To do this, we need U.S. government agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to step up. BARDA currently only funds COVID-19 clinical trials of drugs that can be dosed once and provide 60 days of protection. Metformin and rapalogues are not considered for BARDA funding because they are dosed once daily. This makes no sense because a drug that provides 60 days of protection from the coronavirus after a single dose does not yet exist, while metformin and rapalogues have already passed extensive safety tests. Instead, BARDA should consider speeding up trials with currently available drugs that could help at least some of the elderly populations at risk.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control are ramping up their approval processes and even then needs to prioritize efforts, they too must find a better balance between appropriate regulatory caution and the dire necessities of our current moment. Drugs like metformin and rapalogues that have shown preliminary efficacy ought to be fast-tracked for careful consideration.
One day we will develop a COVID-19 vaccine to help everyone. But that could be at least a year from now, if not more. Until we get there and even after we do, speeding up our process of fortifying our older populations mush be a central component of our wartime strategy.
And when the war is won and life goes back to a more normal state, we'll get the added side benefit of a few more months and ultimately years with our parents and grandparents.
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.