Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
Becky Cummings had multiple reasons to get vaccinated against COVID-19 while tending to her firstborn, Clark, who arrived in September 2020 at 27 weeks.
The 29-year-old intensive care unit nurse in Greensboro, North Carolina, had witnessed the devastation day in and day out as the virus took its toll on the young and old. But when she was offered the vaccine, she hesitated, skeptical of its rapid emergency approval.
Exclusion of pregnant and lactating mothers from clinical trials fueled her concerns. Ultimately, though, she concluded the benefits of vaccination outweighed the risks of contracting the potentially deadly virus.
"Long story short," Cummings says, in December "I got vaccinated to protect myself, my family, my patients, and the general public."
At the time, Cummings remained on the fence about breastfeeding, citing a lack of evidence to support its safety after vaccination, so she pumped and stashed breast milk in the freezer. Her son is adjusting to life as a preemie, requiring mother's milk to be thickened with formula, but she's becoming comfortable with the idea of breastfeeding as more research suggests it's safe.
"If I could pop him on the boob," she says, "I would do it in a heartbeat."
Now, a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found "robust secretion" of specific antibodies in the breast milk of mothers who received a COVID-19 vaccine, indicating a potentially protective effect against infection in their infants.
The presence of antibodies in the breast milk, detectable as early as two weeks after vaccination, lasted for six weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
"We believe antibody secretion into breast milk will persist for much longer than six weeks, but we first wanted to prove any secretion at all after vaccination," says Ilan Youngster, the study's corresponding author and head of pediatric infectious diseases at Shamir Medical Center in Zerifin, Israel.
That's why the research team performed a preliminary analysis at six weeks. "We are still collecting samples from participants and hope to soon be able to comment about the duration of secretion."
As with other respiratory illnesses, such as influenza and pertussis, secretion of antibodies in breast milk confers protection from infection in infants. The researchers expect a similar immune response from the COVID-19 vaccine and are expecting the findings to spur an increase in vaccine acceptance among pregnant and lactating women.
A COVID-19 outbreak struck three families the research team followed in the study, resulting in at least one non-breastfed sibling developing symptomatic infection; however, none of the breastfed babies became ill. "This is obviously not empirical proof," Youngster acknowledges, "but still a nice anecdote."
Leaps.org inquired whether infants who derive antibodies only through breast milk are likely to have a lower immunity than infants whose mothers were vaccinated while they were in utero. In other words, is maternal transmission of antibodies stronger during pregnancy than during breastfeeding, or about the same?
"This is a different kind of transmission," Youngster explains. "When a woman is infected or vaccinated during pregnancy, some antibodies will be transferred through the placenta to the baby's bloodstream and be present for several months." But in the nursing mother, that protection occurs through local action. "We always recommend breastfeeding whenever possible, and, in this case, it might have added benefits."
A study published online in March found COVID-19 vaccination provided pregnant and lactating women with robust immune responses comparable to those experienced by their nonpregnant counterparts. The study, appearing in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, documented the presence of vaccine-generated antibodies in umbilical cord blood and breast milk after mothers had been vaccinated.
Natali Aziz, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Stanford University School of Medicine, notes that it's too early to draw firm conclusions about the reduction in COVID-19 infection rates among newborns of vaccinated mothers. Citing the two aforementioned research studies, she says it's biologically plausible that antibodies passed through the placenta and breast milk impart protective benefits. While thousands of pregnant and lactating women have been vaccinated against COVID-19, without incurring adverse outcomes, many are still wondering whether it's safe to breastfeed afterward.
It's important to bear in mind that pregnant women may develop more severe COVID-19 complications, which could lead to intubation or admittance to the intensive care unit. "We, in our practice, are supporting pregnant and breastfeeding patients to be vaccinated," says Aziz, who is also director of perinatal infectious diseases at Stanford Children's Health, which has been vaccinating new mothers and other hospitalized patients at discharge since late April.
Earlier in April, Huntington Hospital in Long Island, New York, began offering the COVID-19 vaccine to women after they gave birth. The hospital chose the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine for postpartum patients, so they wouldn't need to return for a second shot while acclimating to life with a newborn, says Mitchell Kramer, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology.
The hospital suspended the program when the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paused use of the J&J vaccine starting April 13, while investigating several reports of dangerous blood clots and low platelet counts among more than 7 million people in the United States who had received that vaccine.
In lifting the pause April 23, the agencies announced the vaccine's fact sheets will bear a warning of the heightened risk for a rare but serious blood clot disorder among women under age 50. As a result, Kramer says, "we will likely not be using the J&J vaccine for our postpartum population."
So, would it make sense to vaccinate infants when one for them eventually becomes available, not just their mothers? "In general, most of the time, infants do not have as good of an immune response to vaccines," says Jonathan Temte, associate dean for public health and community engagement at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.
"Many of our vaccines are held until children are six months of age. For example, the influenza vaccine starts at age six months, the measles vaccine typically starts one year of age, as do rubella and mumps. Immune response is typically not very good for viral illnesses in young infants under the age of six months."
So far, the FDA has granted emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children as young as 16 years old. The agency is considering data from Pfizer to lower that age limit to 12. Studies are also underway in children under age 12. Meanwhile, data from Moderna on 12-to 17-year-olds and from Pfizer on 12- to 15-year-olds have not been made public. (Pfizer announced at the end of March that its vaccine is 100 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 in the latter age group, and FDA authorization for this population is expected soon.)
"There will be step-wise progression to younger children, with infants and toddlers being the last ones tested," says James Campbell, a pediatric infectious diseases physician and head of maternal and child clinical studies at the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Vaccine Development.
"Once the data are analyzed for safety, tolerability, optimal dose and regimen, and immune responses," he adds, "they could be authorized and recommended and made available to American children." The data on younger children are not expected until the end of this year, with regulatory authorization possible in early 2022.
For now, Vonnie Cesar, a family nurse practitioner in Smyrna, Georgia, is aiming to persuade expectant and new mothers to get vaccinated. She has observed that patients in metro Atlanta seem more inclined than their rural counterparts.
To quell some of their skepticism and fears, Cesar, who also teaches nursing students, conceived a visual way to demonstrate the novel mechanism behind the COVID-19 vaccine technology. Holding a palm-size physical therapy ball outfitted with clear-colored push pins, she simulates the spiked protein of the coronavirus. Slime slathered at the gaps permeates areas around the spikes—a process similar to how our antibodies build immunity to the virus.
These conversations often lead hesitant patients to discuss vaccination with their husbands or partners. "The majority of people I'm speaking with," she says, "are coming to the conclusion that this is the right thing for me, this is the common good, and they want to make sure that they're here for their children."
When Kimberly Richardson of Chicago underwent chemotherapy in 2013 for ovarian cancer, her hip began to hurt. Her doctor assigned six months of physical therapy, but the pain persisted.
She took the mystery to Facebook, where she got 200 comments from cancer survivors all pointing to the same solution: Claritin. Two days after starting the antihistamine, her hip felt fine. Claritin, it turns out, reduces bone marrow swelling, a side effect of a stimulant given after chemo.
Richardson isn't alone in using social media for health. Thirty-six percent of adults with chronic diseases have benefited from health advice on the internet, or know others who have. The trend has likely accelerated during COVID-19. "With increases in anxiety and loneliness, patients find comfort in peer support," said Chris Renfro-Wallace, the chief operating officer of PatientsLikeMe, a popular online community.
Sites like PatientsLikeMe and several others are giving rise to a patient-centered view of healthcare, challenging the idea that MD stands for medical deity. They're engaging people in new ways, such as virtual clinical trials. But with misinformation spreading online about health issues, including COVID-19, there's also reason for caution.
Engaged by Design
Following her diagnosis at age 50, Richardson searched the Web. "All I saw were infographics saying in five years I'd be dead."
Eventually, she found her Facebook groups and a site called Inspire, where she met others with her rare granulosa cell tumor. "You get 15 minutes with your doctor, but on social media you can keep posting until you satisfy your question."
Virtual communities may be especially helpful for people with rarely diagnosed diseases, who wouldn't otherwise meet. When Katherine Leon of Virginia suffered chest pain after the birth of her second son, doctors said it was spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, involving a torn artery. But she had no risk factors for heart disease. Feeling like she was "wandering in the woods" with doctors who hadn't experienced her situation, she searched online and stumbled on communities like Inspire with members who had. The experience led her to start her own Alliance and the world's largest registry for advancing research on SCAD.
"Inspire is really an extension of yourself," she said. If designed well, online sites can foster what psychologist Keith Sawyer called group mind, a dynamic where participants balance their own voices with listening to others, maximizing community engagement in health. To achieve it, participants must have what Sawyer called a "blending of egos," which may be fostered when sites let users post anonymously. They must also share goals and open communication. The latter priority has driven Brian Loew, Inspire's CEO, to safeguard the privacy of health information exchanged on the site, often asking himself, "Would I be okay if a family member had this experience?"
The vibe isn't so familial on some of Facebook's health-focused groups. There, people might sense marketers and insurers peering over their shoulders. In 2018, a researcher discovered that companies could exploit personal information on a private Facebook community for BRCA-positive women. Members of the group started a nonprofit, the Light Collective, to help peer-to-peer support platforms improve their transparency.
PatientsLikeMe and Inspire nurture the shared experience by hosting pages on scores of diseases, allowing people to better understand treatment options for multiple conditions—and find others facing the same set of issues. Four in ten American adults have more than one chronic disease.
Sawyer observed that groups are further engaged when there's a baseline of common knowledge. To that end, some platforms take care in structuring dialogues among members to promote high-quality information, stepping in to moderate when necessary. On Inspire, members get emails when others reply to their posts, instead of instant messaging. The communication lag allows staff to notice misinformation and correct it. Facebook conversations occur in real-time among many more people; "moderation is almost impossible," said Leon.
Even on PatientsLikeMe and Inspire, deciding which content to police can be tough, as variations across individuals may result in conflicting but equally valid posts. Leon's left main artery was 90 percent blocked, requiring open heart surgery, whereas others with SCAD have angina, warranting a different approach. "It's a real range of experience," she explained. "That's probably the biggest challenge: supporting everyone where they are."
Critically, these sites don't treat illnesses. "If a member asks a medical question, we typically tell them to go to their doctor," said Loew, the Inspire CEO.
Increasingly, it may be the other way around.
The Patient Will See You Now
"Some doctors embrace the idea of an educated patient," said Loew. "The more information, the better." Others, he said, aren't thrilled about patients learning on their own.
"Doctors were behind the eight ball," said Shikha Jain, an oncologist in Chicago. "We were encouraged for years to avoid social media due to patient privacy issues. There's been a drastic shift in the last few years."
Jain recently co-founded IMPACT, a grassroots organization that networks with healthcare workers across Illinois for greater awareness of health issues. She thinks doctors must meet patients where they are—increasingly, online—and learn about the various platforms where patients connect. Doctors can then suggest credible online sources for their patients' conditions. Learning about different sites takes time, Jain said, "but that's the nature of being a physician in this day and age."
At stake is the efficiency of doctor-patient interactions. "I like when patients bring in research," Jain said. "It opens up the dialogue and lets them inform the decision-making process." Richardson, the cancer survivor, agreed. "We shouldn't make the physician the villain in this conversation." Interviewed over Zoom, she was engaging but quick to challenge the assumptions behind some questions; her toughness was palpable, molded by years of fighting disease—and the healthcare system. Many doctors are forced by that system into faster office visits, she said. "If patients help their doctor get to the heart of the issue in a shorter time, now we're going down a narrower road of tests."
These conversations could be enhanced by PatientsLikeMe's Doctor Visit Guide. It uses algorithms to consolidate health data that members track on the site into a short report they can share with their physicians. "It gives the doctor a richer data set to really see how a person has been doing," said Renfro-Wallace.
Doctors aren't the only ones benefiting from these sites.
A few platforms like Inspire make money by connecting their members to drug companies, so they can participate in the companies' clinical trials to test out new therapies. A cynic might say the sites are just fronts for promoting the pharmaceuticals.
The need is real, though, as many clinical trials suffer from low participation, and the experimental treatments can improve health. The key for Loew, Inspire's CEO, is being transparent about his revenue model. "When you sign up, we assume you didn't read the fine print [in the terms of agreement]." So, when Inspire tells members about openings in trials, it's a reminder the site works with pharma.
"When I was first on Inspire, all of that was invisible to me," said Leon. "It didn't dawn on me for years." Richardson believes many don't notice pharma's involvement because they're preoccupied by their medical issues.
One way Inspire builds trust is by partnering with patient advocacy groups, which tend to be nonprofit and science-oriented, said Craig Lipset, the former head of clinical innovation for Pfizer. When he developed a rare lung disease, he joined the board of a foundation that partners with Inspire's platform. The section dedicated to his disease is emblazoned with his foundation's logo and colors. Contrast that with other sites that build communities at the direct behest of drug companies, he said.
Insurance companies are also eyeing these communities. Last month, PatientsLikeMe raised $26 million in financing from investors including Optum Ventures, which belongs to the same health care company that owns a leading health insurance company, UnitedHealthcare. PatientsLikeMe is an independent company, though, and data is shared with UnitedHealth only if patients provide consent. The site is using the influx of resources to gamify improvements in health, resembling programs run by UnitedHealth that assign nutrition and fitness "missions," with apps for tracking progress. Soon, PatientsLikeMe will roll out a smarter data tracking system that gives members actionable insights and prompts them to take actions based on their conditions, as well as competitions to motivate healthier behaviors.
Such as a race to vaccinate, perhaps.
Dealing with Misinformation
An advantage of health-focused communities is the intimacy of their gatherings, compared to behemoths like Facebook. Loew, Inspire's head, is mindful of Dunbar's rule: humans can manage only about 150 friends. Inspire's social network mapping suggests many connections among members, but of different strength; Loew hopes to keep his site's familial ambiance even while expanding membership. Renfro-Wallace is exploring video and voice-only meetings to enrich the shared experiences on PatientsLikeMe, while respecting members' privacy.
But a main driver of growth and engagement online is appealing to emotion rather than reason; witness Facebook during the pandemic. "We know that misinformation and scary things spread far more rapidly than something positive," said Ann Lewandowski, the executive director of Wisconsin Immunization Neighborhood, a coalition of health providers and associations countering vaccine hesitancy across the state.
"Facebook's moderation mechanism is terrible," she said. Vaccine advocates in her region who try to flag misinformation on Facebook often have their content removed because the site's algorithm associates their posts with the distortions they're trying to warn people about.
In the realm of health, where accessing facts can mean life or death—and where ad-based revenue models conflict with privacy needs—there's probably a ceiling on how large social media sites should scale. Loew views Inspire as co-existing, not competing with Facebook.
Propagandists had months to perfect campaigns to dissuade people from mRNA vaccines. But even Lewandowski's doctor was misinformed about vaccine side effects for her condition, multiple sclerosis. She sees potential for health-focused sites to convene more virtual forums, in which patient advocacy groups educate doctors and patients on vaccine safety.
Inspire is raising awareness about COVID vaccines through a member survey with an interactive data visualization. Sampling thousands of members, the survey found vaccines are tolerated well among patients with cancer, autoimmune issues, and other serious conditions. Analytics for online groups are evolving quickly, said Lipset. "Think about the acceleration in research when you take the emerging capability for aggregating health data and mash it up with patients engaged in sharing."
Lipset recently co-founded the Decentralized Trials and Research Alliance to accelerate clinical trials and make them more accessible to patients—even from home, without risking the virus. Sites like PatientsLikeMe share this commitment, collaborating with Duke's ALS Clinic to let patients join a trial from home with just two clinic visits. Synthetic control groups were created by PatientsLikeMe's algorithms, eliminating the need for a placebo arm, enabling faster results.
As for Richardson, the ovarian cancer patient, being online has given her another type of access—to experts. She was diagnosed this year with breast cancer. "This time is totally different," she said. On Twitter, she's been direct messaging cancer researchers, whose replies have informed her disease-management strategy. When her oncologists prescribed 33 radiation treatments, she counter-proposed upping the dosage over fewer treatments. Her doctors agreed, cutting unnecessary trips from home. "I'm immuno-compromised," she said. "It's like Russian roulette. You're crossing your finger you won't get the virus."
After years of sticking up for her own health, Richardson is now positioned to look out for others. She collaborated with the University of Illinois Cancer Center on a training module that lets patients take control of their health. She's sharing it online, in a virtual community near you. "It helps you make intelligent decisions," she said. "When you speak your physician's language, it shifts the power in the room."
Matt Fuchs is a health and science writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He has written on a variety of health topics, including profiles of older athletes defying their ages, for publications such as The Washington Post, The Washington Post Magazine, and Medium's The Startup. He is also a science fiction author. Follow him on Twitter, @fuchswriter.