Drugs That Trick Older People’s Bodies to Behave Younger Might Boost the Effectiveness of a COVID-19 Vaccine
In our April 23rd editorial for this magazine, we argued that addressing the COVID-19 pandemic requires that we both fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus and fortify the human hosts who are most vulnerable to it.
Two recent phase 2 studies in older adults have suggested that a new category of drugs called rapalogues can in some cases increase the immunization capacity of older adults.
Because people over 70 account for more than 80 percent of reported COVID-19 deaths globally, this means we must do everything possible to protect our elders.
A range of recent studies have suggested that systemic knobs might metaphorically be turned to slow the cellular aging process, making us better able to fight off the many diseases correlated with aging. These types of systemic changes might be used to stem the specific decline in immunity caused by aging and to increases the biological capacity of elderly people to effectively fight viral infection.
But while helping make older people more resilient in the face of a viral infection is critical, that's not the only way geroscience can help in our fight against this deadly pandemic.
As we move toward hopefully developing one or more COVID-19 vaccines, researchers must more fully appreciate the ways in which traditional vaccines can be less effective in older people than in younger ones.
Repeated studies have shown that the flu vaccine, for example, has lower efficacy in older people than in younger ones. Older people tend to develop fewer antibodies after being vaccinated because a subset of their white blood cells, called T cells, have become less responsive over time. Some inflammatory peptides that increase with aging are also preventing the action of those T cells.
This is why there's a distinct possibility that a future COVD-19 vaccine, particularly one utilizing the traditional attenuated virus approach, could be less effective in older people than in younger ones.
Given the extreme urgency of developing vaccines that work well for everyone, we need to make sure that researchers are exploring all of the ways our elders can be best protected. While generating a vaccine that works equally well for people of all ages would be ideal, we can't count on that.
One way to bridge this gap might be to trick the bodies of older people into behaving as if they are younger just at the moment what a vaccine is delivered by giving them pre-immunization boosters.
Two recent phase 2 studies in older adults have suggested that a new category of drugs called rapalogues can in some cases increase the immunization capacity of older adults. Use of the drug for a short time period before flu shot immunization increased the antibody production for the flu and resulted in a 52 percent decrease in the occurrence of severe diseases needing medical help or hospitalization. This short-term pre-immunization intervention can also decrease the severity of serious respiratory tract infections, the deadliest manifestations of COVID-19, by similar magnitude. These patients also had almost half the incidence of the non-COVID-19 coronaviruses associated with the common cold.
The fact that those people were protected by treatment before hospitalization suggests metformin may have a role in boosting the vaccination of older people.
An inexpensive generic drug called metformin similarly targets the decline in immunity and inflammation (and extends health span and lifespan) in animals and has been used for decades to protect against the flu. A recent paper from a hospital in Wuhan, China showed that mortality of elderly COVID-19 diabetic patients on metformin was 25 percent less than that of patients with diabetes but not on metformin.
Another study from the U.S. showed that COVID-19 patients on metformin had a 20 percent decrease in mortality and lower inflammation. The fact that those people were protected by treatment before hospitalization suggests metformin may have a role in boosting the vaccination of older people.
We don't yet know whether rapalogues or metformin could be used as COVID-19 immunization boosters, not least because we don't have those vaccines. But we can and should make sure that all vaccine trials including older subjects also consider offering a subset of those subjects appropriate doses of rapalogues or metformin to explore whether doing so can boost the efficacy of a given vaccine.
If we weren't in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century, we would have more time to test our vaccines slowly and sequentially. In the context of the current crisis, however, testing whether immunization boosters might increase the efficacy of potential COVID-19 vaccines for older adults is at the very least a hypothesis worth exploring.
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.