When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor types, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
Monnica Williams was stuck. The veteran psychologist wanted to conduct a study using psychedelics, but her university told her they didn't have the expertise to evaluate it via an institutional review board, which is responsible for providing ethical and regulatory oversight for research that involves human participants. Instead, they directed her to a hospital, whose reviewers turned it down, citing research of a banned substance as unethical.
"I said, 'We're not using illegal psilocybin, we're going through Health Canada,'" Williams said. Psilocybin was banned in Canada in 1974, but can now be obtained with an exemption from Health Canada, the federal government's health policy department. After learning this, the hospital review board told Williams they couldn't review her proposal because she's not affiliated with the hospital, after all.
It's all part of balancing bureaucracy with research goals for Williams, a leading expert on racial trauma and psychedelic medicine, as well as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), at the University of Ottawa. She's exploring the use of hallucinogenic substances like MDMA and psilocybin — commonly known as ecstasy and magic mushrooms, respectively — to help people of color address the psychological impacts of systemic racism. A prolific researcher, Williams also works as an expert witness, offering clinical evaluations for racial trauma cases.
Scientists have long known that psychedelics produce an altered state of consciousness and openness to new perspectives. For people with mental health conditions who haven't benefited from traditional therapy, psychedelics may be able to help them discover what's causing their pain or trauma, including racial trauma—the mental and emotional injury spurred by racial bias.
"Using psychedelics can not only bring these pain points to the surface for healing, but can reduce the anxiety or response to these memories and allow them to speak openly about them without the pain they bring," Williams says. Her research harnesses the potential of psychedelics to increase neuroplasticity, which includes the brain's ability to build new pathways.
"People of color are dealing with racism all the time, in large and small ways, and even dealing with racism in healthcare, even dealing with racism in therapy."
But she says therapists of color aren't automatically equipped to treat racial trauma. First, she notes, people of color are "vastly underrepresented in the mental health workforce." This is doubly true in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, in which a person is guided through a psychedelic session by a therapist or team of therapists, then processes the experience in subsequent therapy sessions.
"On top of that, the therapists of color are getting the same training that the white therapists are getting, so it's not even really guaranteed that they're going to be any better at helping a person that may have racial trauma emerging as part of their experience," she says.
In her own training to become a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, Williams says she was taught "how to be a great psychologist for white people." Yet even people of color, she argues, need specialized training to work with marginalized groups, particularly when it comes to MDMA, psilocybin and other psychedelics. Because these drugs can lower natural psychological defense mechanisms, Williams says, it's important for providers to be specially trained.
"People of color are dealing with racism all the time, in large and small ways, and even dealing with racism in healthcare, even dealing with racism in therapy. So [they] generally develop a lot of defenses and coping strategies to ward off racism so that they can function." she says. This is particularly true with psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: "One possibility is that you're going to be stripped of your defenses, you're going to be vulnerable. And so you have to work with a therapist who is going to understand that and not enact more racism in their work with you."
Williams has struggled to find funding and institutional approval for research involving psychedelics, or funding for investigations into racial trauma or the impacts of conditions like OCD and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in people of color. With the bulk of her work focusing on OCD, she hoped to focus on people of color, but found there was little funding for that type of research. In 2020, that started to change as structural racism garnered more media attention.
After the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by a white police officer in May 2020, Williams was flooded with media requests. "Usually, when something like that happens, I get contacted a lot for a couple of weeks, and it dies off. But after George Floyd, it just never did."
Monnica Williams, clinical psychologist at the University of Ottawa
Williams was no stranger to the questions that soon blazed across headlines: How can we mitigate microaggressions? How do race and ethnicity impact mental health? What terms should we use to discuss racial issues? What constitutes an ally, and why aren't there more of them? Why aren't there more people of color in academia, and so many other fields?
Now, she's hoping that the increased attention on racial justice will mean more acceptance for the kind of research she's doing.
In fact, Williams herself has used psychedelics in order to gain a better understanding of how to use them to treat racial trauma. In a study published in January, she and two other Black female psychotherapists took MDMA in a supervised setting, guided by a team of mental health practitioners who helped them process issues that came up as the session progressed. Williams, who was also the study's lead author, found that participants' experiences centered around processing and finding release from racial identities, and, in one case, of simply feeling wholly human without the burden of racial identity for the first time.
The purpose of the study was twofold: to understand how Black women react to psychedelics and to provide safe, firsthand, psychedelic experiences to Black mental health practitioners. One of the other study participants has since gone on to offer psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy to her own patients.
Psychedelic research, and psilocybin in particular, has become a hot topic of late, particularly after Oregon became the first state to legalize it for therapeutic use last November. A survey-based, observational study with 313 participants, published in 2020, paved the way for Williams' more recent MDMA experiments by describing improvements in depression, anxiety and racial trauma among people of color who had used LSD, psilocybin or MDMA in a non-research setting.
Williams and her team included only respondents who reported a moderate to strong psychoactive effect of past psychedelic consumption and believed these experiences provided "relief from the challenging effects of ethnic discrimination." Participants reported a memorable psychedelic experience as well as its acute and lasting effects, completing assessments of psychological insight, mystical experience and emotional challenges experienced during psychedelic experience, then describing their mental health — including depression, anxiety and trauma symptoms — before and after that experience.
Still, Williams says addressing racism is much more complex than treating racial trauma. "One of the questions I get asked a lot is, 'How can Black people cope with racism?' And I don't really like that question," she says. "I think it's important and I don't mind answering it, but I think the more important question is, how can we end racism? What can Black people do to stop racism that's happening to them and what can we do as a society to stop racism? And people aren't really asking this question."
Daisy Hernández was five years old when one of her favorite aunts was struck with a mysterious illness. Tía Dora had stayed behind in Colombia when Daisy's mother immigrated to Union City, New Jersey. A schoolteacher in her late 20s, she began suffering from fevers and abdominal pain, and her belly grew so big that people thought she was pregnant. Exploratory surgery revealed that her large intestine had swollen to ten times its normal size, and she was fitted with a colostomy bag. Doctors couldn't identify the underlying problem—but whatever it was, they said, it would likely kill her within a year or two.
Tía Dora's sisters in New Jersey—Hernández's mother and two other aunts—weren't about to let that happen. They pooled their savings and flew her to New York City, where a doctor at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center with a penchant for obscure ailments provided a diagnosis: Chagas disease. Transmitted by the bite of triatomine insects, commonly known as kissing bugs, Chagas is endemic in many parts of Latin America. It's caused by the parasite Trypanoma cruzi, which usually settles in the heart, where it feeds on muscle tissue. In some cases, however, it attacks the intestines or esophagus. Tía Dora belonged to that minority.
In 1980, U.S. immigration laws were more forgiving than they are today. Tía Dora was able to have surgery to remove a part of her colon, despite not being a citizen or having a green card. She eventually married a legal resident and began teaching Spanish at an elementary school. Over the next three decades, she earned a graduate degree, built a career, and was widowed. Meanwhile, Chagas continued its slow devastation. "Every couple of years, we were back in the hospital with her," Hernández recalls. "When I was in high school, she started feeling like she couldn't swallow anything. It was the parasite, destroying the muscles of her esophagus."
When Tía Dora died in 2010, at 59, her niece was among the family members at her bedside. By then, Hernández had become a journalist and fiction writer. Researching a short story about Chagas disease, she discovered that it affected an estimated 6 million people in South America, Central America, and Mexico—as well as 300,000 in the United States, most of whom were immigrants from those places. "I was shocked to learn it wasn't rare," she says. "That made me hungry to know more about this disease, and about the families grappling with it."
Hernández's curiosity led her to write The Kissing Bug, a lyrical hybrid of memoir and science reporting that was published in June. It also led her to another revelation: Chagas is not unique. It's among the many maladies that global health experts refer to as neglected tropical diseases—often-disabling illnesses that afflict 1.7 billion people worldwide, while getting notably less attention than the "big three" of HIV/AIDs, malaria, and tuberculosis. NTDs cause fewer deaths than those plagues, but they wreak untold suffering and economic loss.
Shortly before Hernández's book hit the shelves, the World Health Organization released its 2021-2030 roadmap for fighting NTDs. The plan sets targets for controlling, eliminating, or eradicating all the diseases on the WHO's list, through measures ranging from developing vaccines to improving healthcare infrastructure, sanitation, and access to clean water. Experts agree that for the campaign to succeed, leadership from wealthy nations—particularly the United States—is essential. But given the inward turn of many such countries in recent years (evidenced in movements ranging from America First to Brexit), and the continuing urgency of the COVID-19 crisis, public support is far from guaranteed.
As Hernández writes: "It is easier to forget a disease that cannot be seen." NTDs primarily affect residents of distant lands. They kill only 80,000 people a year, down from 204,000 in 1990. So why should Americans to bother to look?
Breaking the circle of poverty and disease
The World Health Organization counts 20 diseases as NTDs. Along with Chagas, they include dengue and chikungunya, which cause high fevers and agonizing pain; elephantiasis, which deforms victims' limbs and genitals; onchocerciasis, which causes blindness; schistosomiasis, which can damage the heart, lungs, brain, and genitourinary system; helminths such as roundworm and whipworm, which cause anemia, stunted growth, and cognitive disabilities; and a dozen more. Such ailments often co-occur in the same patient, exacerbating each other's effects and those of illnesses such as malaria.
NTDs may be spread by insects, animals, soil, or tainted water; they may be parasitic, bacterial, viral, or—in the case of snakebite envenoming—non-infectious. What they have in common is their longtime neglect by public health agencies and philanthropies. In part, this reflects their typically low mortality rates. But the biggest factor is undoubtedly their disempowered patient populations.
"These diseases occur in the setting of poverty, and they cause poverty, because of their chronic and debilitating effects," observes Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor University and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital for Vaccine Development. And historically, the everyday miseries of impoverished people have seldom been a priority for those who set the global health agenda.
That began to change about 20 years ago, when Hotez and others developed the conceptual framework for NTDs and early proposals for combating them. The WHO released its first roadmap in 2012, targeting 17 NTDs for control, elimination, or eradication by 2020. (Rabies, snakebite, and dengue were added later.) Since then, the number of people at risk for NTDs has fallen by 600 million, and 42 countries have eliminated at least one such disease. Cases of dracunculiasis—known as Guinea worm disease, for the parasite that creates painful blisters in a patient's skin—have dropped from the millions to just 27 in 2020.
Yet the battle is not over, and the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted prevention and treatment programs around the globe.
A new direction — and longstanding obstacles
The WHO's new roadmap sets even more ambitious goals for 2030. Among them: reducing by 90 percent the number of people requiring treatment for NTDs; eliminating at least one NTD in another 100 countries; and fully eradicating dracunculiasis and yaws, a disfiguring skin infection.
The plan also places an increased focus on "country ownership," relying on nations with high incidence of NTDs to design their own plans based on local expertise. "I was so excited to see that," says Kristina Talbert-Slagle, director of the Yale College Global Health Studies program. "No one is a better expert on how to address these situations than the people who deal with it day by day."
Another fresh approach is what the roadmap calls "cross-cutting" targets. "One of the really cool things about the plan is how much it emphasizes coordination among different sectors of the health system," says Claire Standley, a faculty member at Georgetown University's Center for Global Health Science and Security. "For example, it explicitly takes into account the zoonotic nature of many neglected tropical diseases—the fact that we have to think about animal health as well as human health when we tackle NTDs."
Whether this grand vision can be realized, however, will depend largely on funding—and that, in turn, is a question of political will in the countries most able to provide it. On the upside, the U.S. has ended its Trump-era feud with the WHO. "One thing that's been really encouraging," says Standley, "has been the strong commitment toward global cooperation from the current administration." Even under the previous president, the U.S. remained the single largest contributor to the global health kitty, spending over $100 million annually on NTDs—six times the figure in 2006, when such financing started.
On the downside, America's outlay has remained flat for several years, and the Biden administration has so far not moved to increase it. A "back-of-the-envelope calculation," says Hotez, suggests that the current level of aid could buy medications for the most common NTDs for about 200 million people a year. But the number of people who need treatment, he notes, is at least 750 million.
Up to now, the United Kingdom—long the world's second-most generous health aid donor—has taken up a large portion of the slack. But the UK last month announced deep cuts in its portfolio, eliminating 102 previously supported countries and leaving only 34. "That really concerns me," Hotez says.
The struggle for funds, he notes, is always harder for projects involving NTDs than for those aimed at higher-profile diseases. His lab, which he co-directs with microbiologist Maria Elena Bottazzi, started developing a COVID-19 vaccine soon after the pandemic struck, for example, and is now in Phase 3 trials. The team has been working on vaccines for Chagas, hookworm, and schistosomiasis for much longer, but trials for those potential game-changers lag behind. "We struggle to get the level of resources needed to move quickly," Hotez explains.
Two million reasons to care
One way to prompt a government to open its pocketbook is for voters to clamor for action. A longtime challenge with NTDs, however, has been getting people outside the hardest-hit countries to pay attention.
The reasons to care, global health experts argue, go beyond compassion. "When we have high NTD burden," says Talbert-Slagle, "it can prevent economic growth, prevent innovation, lead to more political instability." That, in turn, can lead to wars and mass migration, affecting economic and political events far beyond an affected country's borders.
Like Hernández's aunt Dora, many people driven out of NTD-wracked regions wind up living elsewhere. And that points to another reason to care about these diseases: Some of your neighbors might have them. In the U.S., up to 14 million people suffer from neglected parasitic infections—including 70,000 with Chagas in California alone.
When Hernández was researching The Kissing Bug, she worried that such statistics would provide ammunition to racists and xenophobes who claim that immigrants "bring disease" or exploit overburdened healthcare systems. (This may help explain some of the stigma around NTDs, which led Tía Dora to hide her condition from most people outside her family.) But as the book makes clear, these infections know no borders; they flourish wherever large numbers of people lack access to resources that most residents of rich countries take for granted.
Indeed, far from gaming U.S. healthcare systems, millions of low-income immigrants can't access them—or must wait until they're sick enough to go to an emergency room. Since Congress changed the rules in 1996, green card holders have to wait five years before they can enroll in Medicaid. Undocumented immigrants can never qualify.
Closing the great divide
Hernández uses a phrase borrowed from global health crusader Paul Farmer to describe this access gap: "the great epi divide." On one side, she explains, "people will die from cancer, from diabetes, from chronic illnesses later in life. On the other side of the epidemiological divide, people are dying because they can't get to the doctor, or they can't get medication. They don't have a hospital anywhere near them. When I read Dr. Farmer's work, I realized how much that applied to neglected diseases as well."
When it comes to Chagas disease, she says, the epi divide is embodied in the lack of a federal mandate for prenatal or newborn screening. Each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 300 babies in the U.S. are born with Chagas, which can be passed from the mother in utero. The disease can be cured with medication if treated in infancy. (It can also be cured in adults in the acute stage, but is seldom detected in time.) Yet the CDC does not require screening for Chagas—even though newborns are tested for 15 diseases that are less common. According to one study, it would be 10 times cheaper to screen and treat babies and their mothers than to cover the costs related to the illness in later years. Few states make the effort.
The gap that enables NTDs to persist, Hernández argues, is the same one that has led to COVID-19 death rates in Black and Latinx communities that are double those elsewhere in America. To close it, she suggests, caring is not enough.
"When I was working on my book," she says, "I thought about HIV in the '80s, when it had so much stigma that no one wanted to talk about it. Then activists stepped up and changed the conversation. I thought a lot about breast cancer, which was stigmatized for years, until people stepped forward and started speaking out. I thought about Lyme disease. And it wasn't only patients—it was also allies, right? The same thing needs to happen with neglected diseases around the world. Allies need to step up and make demands on policymakers. We need to make some noise."