Biologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov is famous—and controversial--in the world of cutting-edge fertility treatments. A decade ago, he pioneered mitochondrial replacement therapy, paving the way for the world's first "three-parent" babies to be born free of a devastating inherited disease.
He sees his work toward embryo gene therapy as not only moral, but necessary.
In 2017, he shocked the world again when his group at Oregon Health and Science University became the first to repair a genetic mutation causing heart disease in dozens of human embryos. The embryos were later destroyed a part of the experiment; current policy in the U.S. prohibits such research from moving into clinical trials.
And that policy doesn't look like it's going to change anytime soon, despite recent political wavering. Last month, a House subcommittee dropped the ban that has blocked the Food and Drug Administration since 2015 from considering any clinical trials of genetically altered embryos intended to create a baby. The move raised the hopes of supporters who want to see such research move forward and angered critics who feel that the science is getting ahead of the ethics. But yesterday, a House committee decided to restore the ban on gene-edited babies after all.
As for Mitalipov, he told leapsmag that he sees his work toward embryo gene therapy as not only moral, but necessary. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What motivates you to pursue this line of research, even though it is highly controversial?
It's my expertise, I'm an embryologist. We study early development in humans -- sperm, egg, and the first five days of development -- and try to use our knowledge to treat human diseases, particularly in that early stage. This is how IVF started, as a treatment for infertility. It's a very successful cell therapy treatment, with millions of children born. [Now the idea is] to actually to use this IVF platform not as much to treat infertility, but also to treat heritable genetic diseases, because this is a very important stage when gametes from either dad or mom will transmit mutations. This is the bottleneck where we could actually interfere and repair that mutation.
Many people are hesitant to support embryo editing because of "designer babies," yet polls do show that Americans are more open to embryo editing for the purpose of disease prevention. Where should society draw a line?
Yeah, I agree with most Americans that we don't have to edit -- meaning you could make all kind of changes. Instead we do gene repair, which is a therapeutic application.
Gene repair is quite different than gene editing. It involves [focusing on] already known disease-causing mutations and how we can turn them back to normal.
Thousands of gene mutations cause human diseases, like Crohn's, for example, or mutations causing cancer, heart disease. These are well-described, well-studied cause-and-effect diseases and we need to do something about it because otherwise it's impossible to treat once the mutation is already passed to a child.
Early intervention is the best in any disease, but in genetics, "early" means you have to do it at the time of fertilization. That's when we are dealing with one copy of the mutation or maybe two, versus when you have a whole body with billions of cells in solid tissues that we cannot really access and target. So this is the most efficient way of preventing thousands and thousands of genetic diseases. I understand that we have to make sure that it's very safe, of course, and efficient as well. But at the same time, I think this is the future. We have to work toward developing these technologies.
"If we continue banning the research everywhere and not funding it, maybe 100 years will not be enough."
What's your opinion of Dr. He Jiankui and the Chinese CRISPR'ed babies?
This is a case where he was doing gene editing, not gene repair. He hasn't corrected anything, he induced a mutation to normal human genes, hoping that this would somehow confer resistance to HIV, which is still unclear.
I think such straightforward editing is unacceptable specifically for human embryos. He's approach has also never been tested in an animal model. That's why the reaction from the public and scientists was very negative, because this is the case where the doctor does this without any expertise in this area, without knowing probably much about what he is doing, and he acquired it without any oversights, which is troubling. And of course, it negatively affects the legitimate research that is going on in some labs.
What might the future of embryo gene therapy look like?
Hopefully in 10 years from now, thousands and thousands of families that know they carry germline mutations…could go through IVF and we would correct it, and they could have healthy children.
Right now, we have some tools. We cannot correct, but we can select. So what happens is the parents become pregnant and then at about three months along, we can biopsy the amniotic fluid and say, "Hey unfortunately you passed on this mutation." And that means this child, if it's born, will be affected, so we give parents a choice of terminating the pregnancy.
Or we could do it much earlier, so parents go to the IVF clinic where we retrieve about ten eggs, after stimulating a woman's ovaries. Each of them will be fertilized so we have ten embryos that develop. We have a five-day window where we can keep them in the lab. And we basically reap a few cells, we do a biopsy from each of these ten, and we say, "Hey embryo number 1 and number 4 are not mutant, but the others are."
Then we can take these two and the other eight usually will be thrown away. That's the technology that we have now. Some ethicists argue on religious grounds that we have this selection technology available, so why do we need germline gene therapy [i.e. repairing the disease-causing mutations in an embryo]?
I don't understand the moral argument there, because all the available technology is based on selective destruction of the embryo.
With [IVF gene therapy], we will take ten embryos and every embryo we'll make healthy because we can get rid of the mutations. How could embryo destruction be morally superior?
How long do you think it will take for this technology to be available to prospective parents?
It depends how many legitimate labs with expertise can get into this field and resolve all the scientific questions. If we continue banning the research everywhere and not funding it, maybe 100 years will not be enough.
So far, I think that my lab is the only one legitimately working on it. But we would like five, 10, maybe 100 labs in this country and Europe really working. Because we have scientific challenges that we need to resolve before we could say, "Hey now we know how to correct [a given mutation] and now this could be efficient, and there are no side effects or very little." And then we could say, "Okay, I think we've done everything we could in petri dishes and in animals, and now we are ready to transplant this embryo in a patient and see what happens."
"There's just no way you could sink your head into the sand and say, 'Oh, we just ban it and then hopefully everything will go away.'"
Does banning emerging technology actually work?
Banning it usually means it will leak out to a gray area where there's no regulation and many private IVF clinics will just use it while it is still premature. So I think we have to regulate the clinical testing. There's just no way you could sink your head into the sand and say, "Oh, we just ban it and then hopefully everything will go away." That's not going to happen.
If this technology does become feasible and legal in the future, do you think that more and more couples will choose IVF and gene therapy versus the natural method of rolling the dice?
As sequencing technology is becoming available, like 23andMe, more and more parents will realize what kind of mutations they carry. And if your spouse carries the same mutation on the same locus, now you have very high chance of transmitting it. Most of the time today, we find out these families carry it once they have one or two children with that condition.
Of course, parents can just do it naturally in the bedroom and have a chance of transmitting or not transmitting mutations, but hopefully eventually we can say, "Hey, because of your condition, you don't want to play this Russian Roulette. Let's just do IVF." And hopefully the government will cover that kind of treatment because right now IVF is not covered in most states. And we do this therapy and then they have a healthy child.
We have 10,000 different mutations in the human population. That means probably billions of people carry mutations. And unless they go through this gene therapy through IVF, they will keep transmitting them. And we're going to keep having millions and millions of children with diseases. We have to do something about it.
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.