Brittany Trang was staring at her glass test tube, which suddenly turned opaque white. At first, she had thought that the chemical reaction she tested left behind some residue, but when she couldn’t clean it off, she realized that the reaction produced corrosive compounds that ate at the glass. That, however, was a good sign. It meant that the reaction, which she didn’t necessarily expect to work, was in fact, working. And Trang, who in 2020 was a Ph.D. researcher in chemistry at Northwestern University, had reasons to be skeptical. She was trying to break down the nearly indestructible molecules of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS—the forever chemicals called so because they resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water, and thus don’t react or break down in the environment.
“The first time I ran this, I was like, oh, like there's a bunch of stuff stuck to the glass, but when I tried to clean it, it wasn’t coming off,” Trang says, recalling her original experiment and her almost-disbelief at the fact she managed to crack the notoriously stubborn and problematic molecules. “I was mostly just surprised that it worked in general.”
In the recent past, the world has been growing increasingly concerned about PFAS, the pollutants that even at low levels are associated with a litany of adverse health effects, including liver damage, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pregnancy complications and several cancers. Used for decades in manufacturing and in various products such as fire retardant foam, water-repellant clothes, furniture fabrics, Teflon-coated pans, disposable plates, lunch containers and shoes, these super-stable compounds don’t degrade in the environment. The forever chemicals are now everywhere: in the water, in soil, in milk, and in produce.
As of June 2022, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit watchdog organization, found 2,858 locations in 50 states and two territories to be heavily contaminated with PFAS while many farmers had been forced to dump their milk or spinach because the levels of these compounds were in some cases up to 400 times greater than what’s considered safe. And because PFAS are so pervasive in the environment and the food we eat, they are in our bodies too. One study found some levels of PFAS in 97 to 100 percent of participants tested.
Because these compounds were made to be very stable, they are hard to destroy. So far, the only known way to break down PFAS has been to “cook” them under very harsh conditions. The process, known as pyrolysis, requires upwards of 500 degrees Centigrade, high pressure and absence of oxygen, which is energy expensive. It involves sophisticated equipment and the burning of fossil fuels. Trang, who worked in the laboratory of William Dichtel, managed to break PFAS at 120 degrees Centigrade (248 F) without using strong pressure. After she examined the results of her process with various techniques that help quantify the resulting compounds and confirmed that PFAS had indeed degraded into carbon and the corrosive fluorine that clouded her glass, she was thrilled that it worked in such simple conditions.
“That's really what differentiates our finding from everything else that's out there,” Dichtel said about their discovery at a press conference announcing the study last month. “When we're talking about low temperatures, we're at 120 degrees Celsius and sometimes even quite a bit lower than that, and especially ambient pressure.”
The process used by Trang’s team was the exact opposite of the typical organic synthesis method.
Trang’s journey into PFAS degradation began with a paper she read about the nuances of the chemicals’ molecular structure. A long molecule comprised primarily of carbon and fluorine atoms, along with oxygen and hydrogen, it has what Trang describes as a head and a tail. At the head sits a compound called carboxylic acid while the fluorine atoms make up the tail portion, with the atomic bonds so strong they aren’t possible to break without harsh treatment. But in early 2020, Trang read that a solvent called dimethylsulfoxide, or DMSO, commonly used in labs and industry, can make the carboxylic acid “pop off” its place. The DMSO doesn’t react with carboxylic acid but sort of displaces it, leaving the rest of the typically indestructible PFAS molecule vulnerable.
Trang found that its exposed fluorine tail would react with another common chemical compound, sodium hydroxide, causing a cascade of reactions that ultimately unravel the rest. “After you have decarboxylated the head, the hydroxide is able to react with the tail,” Trang says. “That's what sets off a cascade of reactions that degrades the rest of the molecule.”
That pathway took time to figure out. Trang was able to determine that the molecule carboxylic acid head popped off, but before she was able to figure out the rest, her lab and the entire Northwestern University went into lockdown in early March of 2020. “I was able to do three experiments before the shutdown,” she recalls. For the next few months, she sat at home, reading scientific literature to understand how to continue the degradation process. “I had read a bunch of literature and had a bunch of ideas for what may or may not work,” she says. By the time she could return to work, she had a plan. “I added sodium hydroxide in my batch of experiments when the lab reopened.”
The process used by Trang’s team was the exact opposite of the typical organic synthesis method. “Most organic chemists take two molecules and squish them together to make one big molecule. It’s like taking two Legos and putting them together to make one thing that was larger,” she says. “What we are doing is kind of smashing the Lego with two bits and looking at what was left to figure out how it fell apart.” The team published their discovery in the journal Science.
Although very promising, the process isn’t quite ready for industrial applications, and will take time to adapt, Trang says. For starters, it would have to be scaled up to continuously clean large quantities of water, sewage or other substances that can be contaminated with PFAS. The process will also have to be modified, particularly when it comes to removing PFAS from drinking water because as an industrial chemical, DMSO is not suitable for that. Water companies typically use activated carbon to filter out PFAS and other pollutants, so once that concentrated waste is accumulated, it would be removed and then treated with DMSO and hydroxide to break down the molecules. “That is what our method would likely be applied to,” Trang says—the concentrated waste rather than a reservoir because “you wouldn't want to mix DMSO with your drinking water.”
There are some additional limitations to the method. It only breaks down one class of forever chemicals, but there are others. For example, the molecules of perfluoroalkane sulfonic acids, or PFSA, don’t have a carboxylic head that DMSO can displace. Instead, PFSA have a sulphonic acid as their molecular head, which would require a different solvent that still needs to be discovered. “There is certainly the possibility of activating sulphonates in similar ways [to what] we've done [with] carboxylates,” Dichtel said, and he hopes this will happen in the future. Other forever chemical types may have their own Achilles’ heels, waiting to be discovered. “If we can knock that sulphonated headgroup off the molecule and get to the same intermediates we get to in this study,” Dichtel added, “it's very reasonable to assume that they'll degrade by very similar pathways.” Perhaps another team of inquisitive chemists will take on the challenge.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- A new mask can detect Covid and send an alert to your phone
- More promising research for a breakthrough drug to treat schizophrenia
- AI tool can create new proteins
- Connections between an unhealthy gut and breast cancer
- Progress on the longevity drug, rapamycin
And an honorable mention this week: Certain exercises may benefit some types of memory more than others