Lurking among the swaying palm trees, sugary sands and azure waters of the Florida Keys is the most dangerous animal on earth: the mosquito.
While there are thousands of varieties of mosquitoes, only a small percentage of them are responsible for causing disease. One of the leading culprits is Aedes aegypti, which thrives in the warm standing waters of South Florida, Central America and other tropical climes, and carries the viruses that cause yellow fever, dengue, chikungunya and Zika.
Dengue, a leading cause of death in many Asian and Latin American countries, causes bleeding and pain so severe that it's referred to as "breakbone fever." Chikungunya and yellow fever can both be fatal, and Zika, when contracted by a pregnant woman, can infect her fetus and cause devastating birth defects, including a condition called microcephaly. Babies born with this condition have abnormally small heads and lack proper brain development, which leads to profound, lifelong disabilities.
Decades of efforts to eradicate the disease-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito from the Keys and other tropical locales have had limited impact. Since the advent of pesticides, homes and neighborhoods have been drenched with them, but after each spraying, the mosquito population quickly bounces back, and the pesticides have to be sprayed over and over. But thanks to genetic engineering, new approaches are underway that could possibly prove safer, cheaper and more effective than any pesticide.
One of those approaches involves, ironically, releasing more mosquitoes in the Florida Keys.
The kill-switch will ensure that the female offspring die before they reach maturity and thus, be unable to reproduce.
British biotech company Oxitec has engineered male mosquitoes to have a genetic "kill-switch" that could potentially crash the local population of Aedes aegypti, at least in the short-term. The modified males that are being released are intended to mate with wild females.
Males don't bite; it's the female that's deadly, always seeking out blood to gorge on to help mature her eggs. After settling her filament-thin legs on her prey, she sinks a needlelike proboscis into the skin and sucks the blood until her translucent belly is bloated and glowing red.
The kill-switch will ensure that the female offspring die before they reach maturity and thus, be unable to reproduce. In some experiments using genetically modified mosquitoes, the small number of females that survived were rendered unable to bite. The modification prevented the proboscis, the sickle-like needle that pierces the skin, from forming properly. But this isn't the case with Oxitec's mosquitoes; in the Oxitec release, the females simply die off before they can mate.
The modified mosquitoes are the second genetically engineered insect to be released in the U.S. by Oxitec. The first was a modified diamondback moth, an agricultural pest that doesn't bite humans. But with the mosquitoes, there are many questions about the long-term effects on wild ecosystems, other species in the food chain, and human health. With the Keys initiative, there has been vociferous opposition from environmental groups and some local residents, but some scientists and public health experts say that genetically modified insects pose less of a risk than the diseases they carry and the powerful, indiscriminant pesticides used to combat them.
Oxitec spent a decade developing the technology and engaging in a massive public education campaign before beginning the field test in April. Eventually, the company will release 750,000 of the insects from six locations on three islands of the Florida Keys. Although the release has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, the company was never able to obtain unanimous approval among local residents, some of whom worry that the experiment could cause irreversible damage to the ecosystem.
The company has already begun distributing multiple blue and white boxes containing the eggs of thousands of the mosquitoes which, when water is added, will hatch legions of modified males.
There are a number of techniques available to genetically engineer animals and plants to minimize disease and maximize crop yields. According to Kevin Gorman, chief development officer for Oxitec, the company's mosquitoes were altered by injecting genetic material into the eggs, testing them, then re-injecting them if not enough of the new genes were incorporated into the developing embryos. "We insert genes, but take nothing away," he says.
Gorman points out that the Oxitec mosquitoes will only pass the kill-switch genes on to some of their offspring, and that they will die out fairly quickly. They should temporarily lessen diseases by reducing the local population of Aedes aegypti, but to have a long-term effect, repeated introductions of the altered mosquitoes would have to take place.
Critics say the Oxitec experiment is a precursor to a far more consequential, and more troubling development: the introduction of gene drives in modified species that aggressively tilt inheritance factors in a decided direction.
Gene drives coupled with the recent development of the gene-editing technique, CRISPR-Cas9, promise to be far more targeted and powerful than previous gene altering efforts. Gene drives override the normal laws of inheritance by harnessing natural processes involved in reproduction. The technique targets small sections of the animal's DNA and replaces it with an altered allele, or trait-determining snippet. Normally, when two members of a species mate, the offspring have a 50 percent chance of receiving an allele because they will receive one from each parent. But in a gene drive, each offspring ends up getting two copies of a desired allele from a single parent—the modified parent. The method "drives" the modified DNA into up to 100 percent of the animals' offspring.
In the case of gene drive mosquitoes, the modified males will mate with wild females. Upon fertilization of the egg, the offspring will start off with one copy of the targeted allele from each parent. But an enzyme, called Cas9, is introduced and acts as a kind of molecular scissors to cut, or damage, the "wild" allele. Then the developing embryo's genetic repair mechanisms kick in and, to repair the damage, copy the undamaged allele from the modified parent. In this way, the offspring ends up with two copies of the modified allele, and it will pass the modification on to virtually all of its progeny.
There is some debate among researchers and others about what constitutes a gene drive, but leaders in the nascent field, such as Andrea Crisanti, generally agree that the defining factor is the heritability of a change introduced into a species. A gene drive is not a particular gene or suite of genes, but a program that proliferates in a species because it is inherited by virtually all offspring.
An illustration of how gene drives spread an altered gene through a population.
Mariuswalter, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Of the experts who spoke with Leaps.org for this article, there was disagreement on whether the Oxitec mosquitoes carry a gene drive, but Gorman says they don't because they carry no inheritance advantage. The mosquitoes have baked-in limitations on their potential impact on the tropical ecosystem because the kill-switch should only temporarily affect the local population of Aedes aegypti. The modified mosquitoes will die pretty quickly. But modified organisms that do carry gene drives have the potential to spread widely and persist for an unknown period of time.
Since it has such a reproductive advantage, animals modified by CRISPR and carrying gene drives can quickly replace wild species that compete with them. On the other hand, if the gene drive carries a kill-switch, it can theoretically cause a whole species to collapse.
This makes many people uneasy in an age of mass extinctions, when animals and ecosystems are already under extreme stress due to climate change and the ceaseless destruction of their habitats. Ecosystems are intricate, delicately balanced mosaics where one animal's competitor is another animal's food. The interconnectedness of nature is only partially understood and still contains many mysteries as to what effects human intervention could eventually cause.
But there's a compelling case to be made for the use of gene drives in general. Economies throughout the world are often based on the ecosystem and its animals, which rely on a natural food chain that was evolved over billions of years. But diseases carried by mosquitoes and other animals cause massive damage, both economically and in terms of human suffering.
Malaria alone is a case in point. In 2019, the World Health Organization reported 229 million cases of malaria, which led to 449,000 deaths worldwide. Over 70 percent of those deaths were in children under the age of 12. Efforts to combat malaria-carrying mosquitoes rely on fogging the home with chemical pesticides and sleeping under pesticide-soaked nets, and while this has reduced the occurrence of malaria in recent years, the result is nowhere near as effective as eradicating the Anopheles gambiae mosquito that carries the disease.
Pesticides, a known carcinogen for animals and humans, are a blunt instrument, says Anthony Shelton, a biologist and entomologist at Cornell University. "There are no pesticides so specific that they just get the animal you want to target. They get pollinators. They get predators and parasites. They negatively affect the ecosystem, and they get into our bodies." And it's not uncommon for insects to develop resistance to pesticides, necessitating the continuous development of new, more powerful chemicals to control them.
"The harm of insecticides is not debatable," says Shelton. With gene drives, the potential harm is less clear.
Shelton also points out that although genetic modification sounds radical, people have been altering the genes of animals since before recorded history, through the selective breeding of farm and domesticated animals. While critics of genetic modification decry the possibility of changing the trajectory of evolution in animals, "We've been doing it for centuries," says Shelton. "Gene drives are just a much faster way to do what we've been doing all along."
Still, one might argue that farms are closed experiments, because animals enclosed within farms don't mate with wild animals. This limits the impact of human changes on the larger ecosystem. And getting new genes to work their way through multiple generations in longer-lived animals through breeding can take centuries, which imposes the element of time to ascertain the relative benefits of any introduced change. Gene drives fast-forward change in ways that have never been harnessed before.
The unique thing about gene drives, Shelton says, is that they only affect the targeted species, because those animals will only breed with their own species. Although the Oxitec mosquitoes are modified but not imbued with a gene drive, they illustrate the point. Aedes aegypti will only mate with its own species, and not with any of the other 3,000 varieties of mosquito. According to Shelton, "If they were to disappear, it would have no effect on the fish, bats and birds that feed on them." But should gene drives become widely used, this won't always be true of animals that play a larger part in the food chain. This will be especially true if gene drives are used in mammals.
One factor, cited by both proponents of gene drives and those who want a complete moratorium on them, is that once a gene drive is released into the wild, animals tend to evolve strategies to resist them. In a 2017 article in Nature, Philip Messer, a population geneticist at Cornell, says that gene drives create "the ideal conditions for resistant organisms to flourish."
Sometimes, when CRISPR is used and the Cas9 enzyme cuts an allele soon after egg fertilization, the animal's repair mechanism, rather than creating a straight copy of the desired allele, inserts random DNA letters. The gene drive won't recognize the new sequence, and the change will slip through. In this way, nature has a way of overriding gene drives.
In caged experiments using CRISPR-modified mosquitoes, while the gene drive initially worked, resistance has developed fairly rapidly. Scientists working for Target Malaria, the massive anti-malaria enterprise funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are now working on developing a new version of a gene drive that is not so vulnerable to genetic resistance. But cage conditions are not representative of complex natural ecosystems, and to figure out how a modified species is going to affect the big picture, ultimately they will have to be tested in the wild.
Because there are so many unknowns, such testing is just too dangerous to undertake, according to environmentalists such as Dana Perls of the Friends of the Earth, an international consortium of environmental organizations headquartered in Amsterdam. "There's no safe way to experiment in the wild," she says. "Extinction is permanent, and to drive any species to extinction could have major environmental problems. At a time when we're seeing species disappearing at a high rate, we need to focus on safe processes and a slow approach rather than assume there's a silver bullet."
She cites a number of possible harmful outcomes from genetic modification, including the possible creation of dangerous hybrids that could be more effective at spreading disease and more resistant to pesticides. She points to a 2019 paper in Scientific Reports in which Yale researchers suggested there's evidence that genetically modified species can interbreed with organisms outside their own species. The researchers claimed that when Oxitec tested its modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Brazil, the release resulted in a dangerous hybrid due to the altered animals breeding with two other varieties of mosquito. They suggested that the hybrid mosquito was more robust than the original gene drive mosquitoes.
The paper contributed to breathless headlines in the media and made a big splash with the anti-GMO community. However, it turned out that when other scientists reviewed the data, they found it didn't support the authors' claims. In a short time, the editors of Nature ran an Editorial Expression of Concern for the article, noting that of the insects examined by the researchers, none of them contained the transgenes of the released mosquitoes. Among multiple concerns, Nature found that the researchers didn't follow the released population for more than a short time, and that previous work from the same authors had shown that after a short time, transgenes would have faded from the population.
Of course, unintended consequences are always a concern any time we interfere with nature, says Michael Montague, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Health Security. "Unpredictability is part of living in the world," he says. Still, he's relatively comfortable with the limited Florida Keys release.
"Even if one type of mosquito was eliminated in the Keys, the ecosystem wouldn't notice," he says. This is because of the thousands of other species of mosquito. He says that while the Keys initiative is ultimately a test, "Oxitec has done their due diligence."
Montague addressed another concern voiced by Perls. The Oxitec mosquitoes were developed so that the female larvae will only hatch in water containing the antibiotic tetracycline. Perls and others caution that, because of the widespread use of antibiotics, the drug inevitably makes its way into the water system, and could be present in the standing pools of water that mosquitoes mate and lay their eggs in.
It's highly unlikely that tetracycline would exist in concentrations high enough to make any difference, says Montague. "But even if it did happen, and the modified females hatched out and mated with wild males, many of their offspring would inherit the modification and only be able to hatch in tetracycline-laced water. The worst-case scenario would be that the pest control didn't work. Net effect: Zero," he says.
As for comparing GMO mosquitoes with insecticides, Montague says, "We 100 percent know insecticides have a harmful effect on human health, whereas modified [male] mosquitoes don't bite humans. They're essentially a chemical-free insecticide, and if there were to be some harmful effect on human health, it would have to be some complicated, convoluted effect" that no one has predicted.
It's not clear, though, given the transitory nature of self-limiting genetically modified insects, whether any effects on the ecosystem would be long-lasting. Certainly in the case of the Oxitec mosquitoes, any effect on the environment would likely be subtle. However, there are other species that are far more important to the food chain, and humans have been greatly impacting them for centuries, sometimes with disastrous effects.
The world's oceans are particularly vulnerable to the effects of human actions. "Codfish used to dominate the North Atlantic ecosystem," says Montague, but due to overfishing, there were huge changes to that ecosystem, including the expansion of their prey—lobsters, crabs and shrimp. The whole system got out of balance." The fish illustrate the international nature of the issues related to gene drives, because wild species have few boundaries and a change in one region can easily spread far and wide.
On the other hand, gene drives can be used for beneficial purposes beyond eliminating disease-carrying species. They could also be used to combat invasive species, fight crop-destroying insects, promote biodiversity, and give a leg up to endangered species that would otherwise die out.
Today nearly 90 percent of the world's islands have been invaded by disease-carrying rodents that have over-multiplied and are driving other island species to extinction. Common rodents such as rats and mice normally encounter a large number of predators in mainland territories, and this controls their numbers. Once they are introduced into island ecosystems, however, they have few predators and often become invasive. Because of this, they are a prevalent cause of the extinction of both animals and plants globally. The primary way to combat them has been to spread powerful toxicants that, when ingested, cause death. Not only has this inhumane practice had limited impact, the toxicants can be eaten by untargeted species and are toxic to humans.
The Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents program (GBIRd), an international consortium of scientists, ethicists, regulatory experts, sociologists, conservationists and others, is exploring the possible development of a genetically modified mouse that could be introduced to islands where rodents are invasive. Similar to the Oxitec mosquitoes, the mice would carry a modification that results in the appearance of only one sex, and they would also carry a gene drive. Theoretically, once they mate with the wild mice, all of the surviving offspring would be either male or female, and the species would disappear from the islands, giving other, threatened species an opportunity to revive.
GBIRd is moving slowly by design and is currently focused on asking if a genetically engineered mouse should be developed. The program is a potential model for how gene drives can be ethically developed with maximum foresight and the least impact on complex ecosystems. By first releasing a genetically engineered mouse on an island — likely years from now — the impact would naturally be contained within a limited locale.
Regulating GM Insects
While multiple agencies in the U.S. were involved in approving the release of the Oxitec mosquitoes, most experts agree that there is not a straightforward path to regulating genetically modified organisms released into the environment. Clearly, international regulation is needed as genetically modified organisms are released into open environments like the air and the ocean.
The United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity, which oversees environmental issues at an international level, recently met to continue a process of hammering out voluntary protocols concerning gene drives. Multiple nations have already signed on to already-established protocols, but the United States has not and, according to Montague, is not expected to. "The U.S. will never be signatory to CBD agreements because agricultural companies are huge businesses" that may not see them as in their best interests, he says. Bans or limitations on the release of genetically modified organisms could limit crop yields, for example, thereby limiting profits.
Even if every nation signed on to international regulations of gene drives, cooperation is voluntary. The regulations wouldn't prevent bad actors from using the technology in nefarious ways, such as developing gene drives that can be used as weapons, according to Perls. An example would be unleashing a genetically modified invasive insect to destroy the crops of enemy nations. Or the releasing of a swarm of disease-carrying insects. But in this scenario, it would be very hard to limit the genetically modified species to a specific environment, and the bad actors could be unleashing disaster on themselves.
Because of the risks of misuse, scientists disagree on whether to openly share their gene drive research with others. But Montague believes that there should be a universal registry of gene drives, because "one gene drive can mess up another one. Two groups using the same species should know about each other," he says.
Ultimately, the decision of whether and when to release gene drives into nature rests with not one group, but with society as a whole. This includes not only diverse experts and regulatory bodies, but the general public, a group Oxitec spent considerable time and resources interacting with for their Florida Keys project. In the end, they gained approval for the initiative by a majority of Keys residents, but never gained a total consensus.
There's no escaping the fact that the use of gene drives is a nascent field, and even geneticists and regulators are still grapping with the best ways to develop, oversee, regulate, and control them. Much more data is needed to fully ascertain its risks and benefits.
Experts agree that the Oxitec venture isn't likely to have a noticeable effect on the larger ecosystem unless something truly catastrophic goes wrong. But following the GMO mosquitoes over time will give scientists more real-world data about the long-term effects of genetically altered species. If the release doesn't work, nothing about the ecosystem will change and Aedes aegypti will continue to be a menace to human health. But if something goes horribly wrong, it could hinder the field for years, if not forever.
On the other hand, if the Oxitec mosquitoes and other early initiatives achieve their goals of reducing disease, increasing crop yields, and protecting biodiversity, in the words of Anthony Shelton, "Maybe, 25 to 50 years from now, people will wonder what all the fuss was about."
Correction: The original version of this article mistakenly stated that the modified Oxitec mosquitoes would not be able to form a proper proboscis to bite humans. That is true for some modified mosquitoes but not the Oxitec ones, whose female offspring die off before they reach maturity. Additionally, the Oxitec release was not approved by the FDA and CDC, as originally stated. The FDA and CDC withdrew their role and passed the oversight to other regulatory entities.
In early 2020, Moderna Inc. was a barely-known biotechnology company with an unproven approach. It wanted to produce messenger RNA molecules to carry instructions into the body, teaching it to ward off disease. Experts doubted the Boston-based company would meet success.
Today, Moderna is a pharmaceutical power thanks to its success developing an effective Covid-19 vaccine. The company is worth $124 billion, more than giants including GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, and evidence has emerged that Moderna's shots are more protective than those produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and other vaccine makers. Pressure is building on the company to deliver more of its doses to people around the world, especially in poorer countries, and Moderna is working on vaccines against other pathogens, including Zika, influenza and cytomegalovirus.
But Moderna encountered such difficulties over the course of its eleven-year history that some executives worried it wouldn't survive. Two unlikely scientists helped save the company. Their breakthroughs paved the way for Moderna's Covid-19 shots but their work has never been publicized nor have their contributions been properly appreciated.
Derrick Rossi, a scientist at MIT, and Noubar Afeyan, a Cambridge-based investor, launched Moderna in September 2010. Their idea was to create mRNA molecules capable of delivering instructions to the body's cells, directing them to make proteins to heal ailments and cure disease. Need a statin, immunosuppressive, or other drug or vaccine? Just use mRNA to send a message to the body's cells to produce it. Rossi and Afeyan were convinced injecting mRNA into the body could turn it into its own laboratory, generating specific medications or vaccines as needed.
At the time, the notion that one might be able to teach the body to make proteins bordered on heresy. Everyone knew mRNA was unstable and set off the body's immune system on its way into cells. But in the late 2000's, two scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, had figured out how to modify mRNA's chemical building blocks so the molecule could escape the notice of the immune system and enter the cell. Rossi and Afeyan couldn't convince the University of Pennsylvania to license Karikó and Weissman's patent, however, stymying Moderna's early ambitions. At the same time, the Penn scientists' technique seemed more applicable to an academic lab than a biotech company that needed to produce drugs or shots consistently and in bulk. Rossi and Afeyan's new company needed their own solution to help mRNA evade the body's defenses.
Some of Moderna's founders doubted Schrum could find success and they worried if their venture was doomed from the start.
The Scientist Who Modified mRNA: Jason Schrum
In 2010, Afeyan's firm subleased laboratory space in the basement of another Cambridge biotech company to begin scientific work. Afeyan chose a young scientist on his staff, Jason Schrum, to be Moderna's first employee, charging him with getting mRNA into cells without relying on Karikó and Weissman's solutions.
Schrum seemed well suited for the task. Months earlier, he had received a PhD in biological chemistry at Harvard University, where he had focused on nucleotide chemistry. Schrum even had the look of someone who might do big things. The baby-faced twenty-eight-year-old favored a relaxed, start-up look: khakis, button-downs, and Converse All-Stars.
Schrum felt immediate strain, however. He hadn't told anyone, but he was dealing with intense pain in his hands and joints, a condition that later would be diagnosed as degenerative arthritis. Soon Schrum couldn't bend two fingers on his left hand, making lab work difficult. He joined a drug trial, but the medicine proved useless. Schrum tried corticosteroid injections and anti-inflammatory drugs, but his left hand ached, restricting his experiments.
"It just wasn't useful," Schrum says, referring to his tender hand.
He persisted, nonetheless. Each day in the fall of 2010, Schrum walked through double air-locked doors into a sterile "clean room" before entering a basement laboratory, in the bowels of an office in Cambridge's Kendall Square neighborhood, where he worked deep into the night. Schrum searched for potential modifications of mRNA nucleosides, hoping they might enable the molecule to produce proteins. Like all such rooms, there were no windows, so Schrum had to check a clock to know if it was day or night. A colleague came to visit once in a while, but most of the time, Schrum was alone.
Some of Moderna's founders doubted Schrum could find success and they worried if their venture was doomed from the start. An established MIT scientist turned down a job with the start-up to join pharmaceutical giant Novartis, dubious of Moderna's approach. Colleagues wondered if mRNA could produce proteins, at least on a consistent basis.
As Schrum began testing the modifications in January 2011, he made an unexpected discovery. Karikó and Weissman saw that by turned one of the building blocks for mRNA, a ribonucleoside called uridine, into a slightly different form called pseudouridine, the cell's immune system ignored the mRNA and the molecule avoided an immune response. After a series of experiments in the basement lab, Schrum discovered that a variant of pseudouridine called N1- methyl-pseudouridine did an even better job reducing the cell's innate immune response. Schrum's nucleoside switch enabled even higher protein production than Karikó and Weissman had generated, and Schrum's mRNAs lasted longer than either unmodified molecules or the modified mRNA the Penn academics had used, startling the young researcher. Working alone in a dreary basement and through intense pain, he had actually improved on the Penn professors' work.
Years later, Karikó and Weissman who would win acclaim. In September 2021, the scientists were awarded the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. Some predict they eventually will win a Nobel prize. But it would be Schrum's innovation that would form the backbone of both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine, not the chemical modifications that Karikó and Weissman developed. For Schrum, necessity had truly been the mother of invention.
The Scientist Who Solved Delivery: Kerry Benenato
For several years, Moderna would make slow progress developing drugs to treat various diseases. Eventually, the company decided that mRNA was likely better suited for vaccines. By 2017, Moderna and the National Institutes of Health were discussing working together to develop mRNA–based vaccines, a partnership that buoyed Moderna's executives. There remained a huge obstacle in Moderna's way, however. It was up to Kerry Benenato to find a solution.
Benenato received an early hint of the hurdle in front of her three years earlier, when the organic chemist was first hired. When a colleague gave her a company tour, she was introduced to Moderna's chief scientific officer, Joseph Bolen, who seemed unusually excited to meet her.
"Oh, great!" Bolen said with a smile. "She's the one who's gonna solve delivery."
Bolen gave a hearty laugh and walked away, but Benenato detected seriousness in his quip.
It was a lot to expect from a 37-year-old scientist already dealing with insecurities and self-doubt. Benenato was an accomplished researcher who most recently had worked at AstraZeneca after completing post-doctoral studies at Harvard University. Despite her impressive credentials, Benenato battled a lack of confidence that sometimes got in her way. Performance reviews from past employers had been positive, but they usually produced similar critiques: Be more vocal. Do a better job advocating for your ideas. Give us more, Kerry.
Benenato was petite and soft-spoken. She sometimes stuttered or relied on "ums" and "ahs" when she became nervous, especially in front of groups, part of why she sometimes didn't feel comfortable speaking up.
"I'm an introvert," she says. "Self-confidence is something that's always been an issue."
To Benenato, Moderna's vaccine approach seemed promising—the team was packaging mRNAs in microscopic fatty-acid compounds called lipid nanoparticles, or LNPs, that protected the molecules on their way into cells. Moderna's shots should have been producing ample and long-lasting proteins. But the company's scientists were alarmed—they were injecting shots deep into the muscle of mice, but their immune systems were mounting spirited responses to the foreign components of the LNPs, which had been developed by a Canadian company.
This toxicity was a huge issue: A vaccine or drug that caused sharp pain and awful fevers wasn't going to prove very popular. The Moderna team was in a bind: Its mRNA had to be wrapped in the fatty nanoparticles to have a chance at producing plentiful proteins, but the body wasn't tolerating the microscopic encasements, especially upon repeated dosing.
The company's scientists had done everything they could to try to make the molecule's swathing material disappear soon after entering the cells, in order to avoid the unfortunate side effects, such as chills and headaches, but they weren't making headway. Frustration mounted. Somehow, the researchers had to find a way to get the encasements—made of little balls of fat, cholesterol, and other substances—to deliver their payload mRNA and then quickly vanish, like a parent dropping a teenager off at a party, to avoid setting off the immune system in unpleasant ways, even as the RNA and the proteins the molecule created stuck around.
Benenato wasn't entirely shocked by the challenges Moderna was facing. One of the reasons she had joined the upstart company was to help develop its delivery technology. She just didn't realize how pressing the issue was, or how stymied the researchers had become. Benenato also didn't know that Moderna board members were among those most discouraged by the delivery issue. In meetings, some of them pointed out that pharmaceutical giants like Roche Holding and Novartis had worked on similar issues and hadn't managed to develop lipid nanoparticles that were both effective and well tolerated by the body. Why would Moderna have any more luck?
Stephen Hoge insisted the company could yet find a solution.
"There's no way the only innovations in LNP are going to come from some academics and a small Canadian company," insisted Hoge, who had convinced the executives that hiring Benenato might help deliver an answer.
Benenato realized that while Moderna might have been a hot Boston-area start- up, it wasn't set up to do the chemistry necessary to solve their LNP problem. Much of its equipment was old or secondhand, and it was the kind used to tinker with mRNAs, not lipids.
"It was scary," she says.
When Benenato saw the company had a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, which allows chemists to see the molecular structure of material, she let out a sigh of relief. Then Benenato inspected the machine and realized it was a jalopy. The hulking, aging instrument had been decommissioned and left behind by a previous tenant, too old and banged up to bring with them.
Benenato began experimenting with different chemical changes for Moderna's LNPs, but without a working spectrometer she and her colleagues had to have samples ready by noon each day, so they could be picked up by an outside company that would perform the necessary analysis. After a few weeks, her superiors received an enormous bill for the outsourced work and decided to pay to get the old spectrometer running again.
After months of futility, Benenato became impatient. An overachiever who could be hard on herself, she was eager to impress her new bosses. Benenato felt pressure outside the office, as well. She was married with a preschool-age daughter and an eighteen-month-old son. In her last job, Benenato's commute had been a twenty-minute trip to Astra-Zeneca's office in Waltham, outside Boston; now she was traveling an hour to Moderna's Cambridge offices. She became anxious—how was she going to devote the long hours she realized were necessary to solve their LNP quandary while providing her children proper care? Joining Moderna was beginning to feel like a possible mistake.
She turned to her husband and father for help. They reminded her of the hard work she had devoted to establishing her career and said it would be a shame if she couldn't take on the new challenge. Benenato's husband said he was happy to stay home with the kids, alleviating some of her concerns.
Back in the office, she got to work. She wanted to make lipids that were easier for the body to chop into smaller pieces, so they could be eliminated by the body's enzymes. Until then, Moderna, like most others, relied on all kinds of complicated chemicals to hold its LNP packaging together. They weren't natural, though, so the body was having a hard time breaking them down, causing the toxicity.
Benenato began experimenting with simpler chemicals. She inserted "ester bonds"—compounds referred to in chemical circles as "handles" because the body easily grabs them and breaks them apart. Ester bonds had two things going for them: They were strong enough to help ensure the LNP remained stable, acting much like a drop of oil in water, but they also gave the body's enzymes something to target and break down as soon as the LNP entered the cell, a way to quickly rid the body of the potentially toxic LNP components. Benenato thought the inclusion of these chemicals might speed the elimination of the LNP delivery material.
This idea, Benenato realized, was nothing more than traditional, medicinal chemistry. Most people didn't use ester bonds because they were pretty unsophisticated. But, hey, the tricky stuff wasn't working, so Benenato thought she'd see if the simple stuff worked.
Benenato also wanted to try to replace a group of unnatural chemicals in the LNP that was contributing to the spirited and unwelcome response from the immune system. Benenato set out to build a new and improved chemical combination. She began with ethanolamine, a colorless, natural chemical, an obvious start for any chemist hoping to build a more complex chemical combination. No one relied on ethanolamine on its own.
Benenato was curious, though. What would happen if she used just these two simple modifications to the LNP: ethanolamine with the ester bonds? Right away, Benenato noticed her new, super-simple compound helped mRNA create some protein in animals. It wasn't much, but it was a surprising and positive sign. Benenato spent over a year refining her solution, testing more than one hundred variations, all using ethanolamine and ester bonds, showing improvements with each new version of LNP. After finishing her 102nd version of the lipid molecule, which she named SM102, Benenato was confident enough in her work to show it to Hoge and others.
They immediately got excited. The team kept tweaking the composition of the lipid encasement. In 2017, they wrapped it around mRNA molecules and injected the new combination in mice and then monkeys. They saw plentiful, potent proteins were being produced and the lipids were quickly being eliminated, just as Benenato and her colleagues had hoped. Moderna had its special sauce.
That year, Benenato was asked to deliver a presentation to Stephane Bancel, Moderna's chief executive, Afeyan, and Moderna's executive committee to explain why it made sense to use the new, simpler LNP formulation for all its mRNA vaccines. She still needed approval from the executives to make the change. Ahead of the meeting, she was apprehensive, as some of her earlier anxieties returned. But an unusual calm came over her as she began speaking to the group. Benenato explained how experimenting with basic, overlooked chemicals had led to her discovery.
She said she had merely stumbled onto the company's solution, though her bosses understood the efforts that had been necessary for the breakthrough. The board complimented her work and agreed with the idea of switching to the new LNP. Benenato beamed with pride.
"As a scientist, serendipity has been my best friend," she told the executives.
Over the next few years, Benenato and her colleagues would improve on their methods and develop even more tolerable and potent LNP encasement for mRNA molecules. Their work enabled Moderna to include higher doses of vaccine in its shots. In early 2020, Moderna developed Covid-19 shots that included 100 micrograms of vaccine, compared with 30 micrograms in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That difference appears to help the Moderna vaccine generate higher titers and provide more protection.
"You set out in a career in drug discovery to want to make a difference," Benenato says. "Seeing it come to reality has been surreal and emotional."
Editor's Note: This essay is excerpted from A SHOT TO SAVE THE WORLD: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine by Gregory Zuckerman, now on sale from Portfolio/Penguin.
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Kira Peikoff is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young sons. Follow her on Twitter @KiraPeikoff.