Is the value of "personalized medicine" over-promised? Why is the quality of health care declining for many people despite the pace of innovation? Do patients and doctors have conflicting priorities? What is the best path forward?
"How do we generate evidence for value, which is what everyone is asking for?"
Some of the country's leading medical experts recently debated these questions at the prestigious annual Personalized Medicine Conference, held at Harvard Medical School in Boston, and LeapsMag was there to bring you the inside scoop.
Personalized Medicine: Is It Living Up to the Hype?
The buzzworthy phrase "personalized medicine" has been touted for years as the way of the future—customizing care to patients based on their predicted responses to treatments given their individual genetic profiles or other analyses. Since the initial sequencing of the human genome around fifteen years ago, the field of genomics has exploded as the costs have dramatically come down – from $2.7 billion to $1000 or less today. Given cheap access to such crucial information, the medical field has been eager to embrace an ultramodern world in which preventing illnesses is status quo, and treatments can be tailored for maximum effectiveness. But whether that world has finally arrived remains debatable.
"I've been portrayed as an advocate for genomics, because I'm excited about it," said Robert C. Green, Director of the Genomes2People Research Program at Harvard Medical School, the Broad Institute, and Brigham and Women's Hospital. He qualified his advocacy by saying that he tries to remain 'equipoised' or balanced in his opinions about the future of personalized medicine, and expressed skepticism about some aspects of its rapid commercialization.
"I have strong feelings about some of the [precision medicine] products that are rushing out to market in both the physician-mediated space and the consumer space," Green said, and challenged the value and sustainability of these products, such as their clinical utility and ability to help produce favorable health outcomes. He asked what most patients and providers want to know, which is, "What are the medical, behavioral, and economic outcomes? How do we generate evidence for value, which is what everyone is asking for?" He later questioned whether the use of 'sexy' and expensive diagnostic technologies is necessarily better than doing things the old-fashioned way. For instance, it is much easier and cheaper to ask a patient directly about their family history of disease, instead of spending thousands of dollars to obtain the same information with pricey diagnostic tests.
"Our mantra is to try to do data-driven health...to catch disease when it occurs early."
Michael Snyder, Professor & Chair of the Department of Genetics and Director of the Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine at Stanford University, called himself more of an 'enthusiast' about precision medicine products like wearable devices that can digitally track vital signs, including heart rate and blood oxygen levels. "I'm certainly not equipoised," he said, adding, "Our mantra is to try to do data-driven health. We are using this to try to understand health and catch disease when it occurs early."
Snyder then shared his personal account about how his own wearable device alerted him to seek treatment while he was traveling in Norway. "My blood oxygen was low and my heart rate was high, so that told me something was up," he shared. After seeing a doctor, he discovered he was suffering from Lyme disease. He then shared other similar success stories about some of the patients in his department. Using wearable health sensors, he said, could significantly reduce health care costs: "$245 billion is spent every year on diabetes, and if we reduce that by ten percent we just saved $24 billion."
From left, Robert Green, Michael Snyder, Sandro Galea, and Thomas Miller.
(Courtesy Rachele Hendricks-Sturrup)
A Core Reality: Unresolved Societal Issues
Sandro Galea, Dean and Professor at Boston University's School of Public Health, coined himself as a 'skeptic' but also an 'enormous fan' of new technologies. He said, "I want to make sure that you all [the audience] have the best possible treatment for me when I get sick," but added, "In our rush and enthusiasm to embrace personalized and precision medicine approaches, we have done that at the peril of forgetting a lot of core realities."
"There's no one to pay for health care but all of us."
Galea stressed the need to first address certain difficult societal issues because failing to do so will deter precision medicine cures in the future. "Unless we pay attention to domestic violence, housing, racism, poor access to care, and poverty… we are all going to lose," he said. Then he quoted recent statistics about the country's growing gap in both health and wealth, which could potentially erode patient and provider interest in personalized medicine.
Thomas Miller, the founder and partner of a venture capital firm dedicated to advancing precision medicine, agreed with Galea and said that "there's no one to pay for health care but all of us." He recalled witnessing 'abuse' of diagnostic technologies that he had previously invested in. "They were often used as mechanisms to provide unnecessary care rather than appropriate care," he said. "The trend over my 30-year professional career has been that of sensitivity over specificity."
In other words: doctors rely too heavily on diagnostic tools that are sensitive enough to detect signs of a disease, but not accurate enough to confirm the presence of a specific disease. "You will always find that you're sick from something," Miller said. He lamented the counter-productivity and waste brought on by such 'abuse' and added, "That's money that could be used to address some of the problems that you [Galea] just talked about."
Do Patients and Providers Have Conflicting Priorities?
Distrust in the modern health care system is not new in the United States. That fact that medical errors were the third leading cause of death in 2016 may have fueled this mistrust even more. And the level of mistrust appears correlated with race; a recent survey of 118 adults between 18 to 75 years old showed that black respondents were less likely to trust their doctors than the non-Hispanic white respondents. The black respondents were also more concerned about personal privacy and potentially harmful hospital experimentation.
"The vast majority of physicians in this country are incentivized to keep you sick."
As if this context weren't troubling enough, some of the panelists suggested that health care providers and patients have misaligned goals, which may be financially driven.
For instance, Galea stated that health care is currently 'curative' even though that money is better spent on prevention versus cures. "The vast majority of physicians in this country are incentivized to keep you sick," he declared. "They are paid by sick patient visits. Hospital CEOs are paid by the number of sick people they have in their beds." He highlighted this issue as a national priority and mentioned some case studies showing that the behaviors of hospital CEOs quickly change when payment is based on the number of patients in beds versus the number of patients being kept out of the beds. Green lauded Galea's comment as "good sense."
Green also cautioned the audience about potential financial conflicts of interest held by proponents of precision medicine technologies. "Many of the people who are promoting genomics and personalized medicine are people who have financial interests in that arena," he warned. He emphasized that those who are perhaps curbing the over-enthusiasm do not have financial interests at stake.
What is the Best Path Forward for Personalized Medicine?
As useful as personalized medicine may be for selecting the best course of treatment, there is also the flip side: It can allow doctors to predict who will not respond well—and this painful reality must be acknowledged.
Miller argued, "We have a duty to call out therapies that won't work, that will not heal, that need to be avoided, and that will ultimately lead to you saying to a patient, 'There is nothing for you that will work.'"
Although that may sound harsh, it captures the essence of this emerging paradigm, which is to maximize health by using tailored methods that are based on comparative effectiveness, evidence of outcomes, and patient preferences. After all, as Miller pointed out, it wouldn't do much good to prescribe someone a regimen with little reason to think it might help.
For the hype around personalized medicine to be fully realized, Green concluded, "We have to prove to people that [the value of it] is true."
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.