When Kimberly Richardson of Chicago underwent chemotherapy in 2013 for ovarian cancer, her hip began to hurt. Her doctor assigned six months of physical therapy, but the pain persisted.
She took the mystery to Facebook, where she got 200 comments from cancer survivors all pointing to the same solution: Claritin. Two days after starting the antihistamine, her hip felt fine. Claritin, it turns out, reduces bone marrow swelling, a side effect of a stimulant given after chemo.
Richardson isn't alone in using social media for health. Thirty-six percent of adults with chronic diseases have benefited from health advice on the internet, or know others who have. The trend has likely accelerated during COVID-19. "With increases in anxiety and loneliness, patients find comfort in peer support," said Chris Renfro-Wallace, the chief operating officer of PatientsLikeMe, a popular online community.
Sites like PatientsLikeMe and several others are giving rise to a patient-centered view of healthcare, challenging the idea that MD stands for medical deity. They're engaging people in new ways, such as virtual clinical trials. But with misinformation spreading online about health issues, including COVID-19, there's also reason for caution.
Engaged by Design
Following her diagnosis at age 50, Richardson searched the Web. "All I saw were infographics saying in five years I'd be dead."
Eventually, she found her Facebook groups and a site called Inspire, where she met others with her rare granulosa cell tumor. "You get 15 minutes with your doctor, but on social media you can keep posting until you satisfy your question."
Virtual communities may be especially helpful for people with rarely diagnosed diseases, who wouldn't otherwise meet. When Katherine Leon of Virginia suffered chest pain after the birth of her second son, doctors said it was spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, involving a torn artery. But she had no risk factors for heart disease. Feeling like she was "wandering in the woods" with doctors who hadn't experienced her situation, she searched online and stumbled on communities like Inspire with members who had. The experience led her to start her own Alliance and the world's largest registry for advancing research on SCAD.
"Inspire is really an extension of yourself," she said. If designed well, online sites can foster what psychologist Keith Sawyer called group mind, a dynamic where participants balance their own voices with listening to others, maximizing community engagement in health. To achieve it, participants must have what Sawyer called a "blending of egos," which may be fostered when sites let users post anonymously. They must also share goals and open communication. The latter priority has driven Brian Loew, Inspire's CEO, to safeguard the privacy of health information exchanged on the site, often asking himself, "Would I be okay if a family member had this experience?"
The vibe isn't so familial on some of Facebook's health-focused groups. There, people might sense marketers and insurers peering over their shoulders. In 2018, a researcher discovered that companies could exploit personal information on a private Facebook community for BRCA-positive women. Members of the group started a nonprofit, the Light Collective, to help peer-to-peer support platforms improve their transparency.
PatientsLikeMe and Inspire nurture the shared experience by hosting pages on scores of diseases, allowing people to better understand treatment options for multiple conditions—and find others facing the same set of issues. Four in ten American adults have more than one chronic disease.
Sawyer observed that groups are further engaged when there's a baseline of common knowledge. To that end, some platforms take care in structuring dialogues among members to promote high-quality information, stepping in to moderate when necessary. On Inspire, members get emails when others reply to their posts, instead of instant messaging. The communication lag allows staff to notice misinformation and correct it. Facebook conversations occur in real-time among many more people; "moderation is almost impossible," said Leon.
Even on PatientsLikeMe and Inspire, deciding which content to police can be tough, as variations across individuals may result in conflicting but equally valid posts. Leon's left main artery was 90 percent blocked, requiring open heart surgery, whereas others with SCAD have angina, warranting a different approach. "It's a real range of experience," she explained. "That's probably the biggest challenge: supporting everyone where they are."
Critically, these sites don't treat illnesses. "If a member asks a medical question, we typically tell them to go to their doctor," said Loew, the Inspire CEO.
Increasingly, it may be the other way around.
The Patient Will See You Now
"Some doctors embrace the idea of an educated patient," said Loew. "The more information, the better." Others, he said, aren't thrilled about patients learning on their own.
"Doctors were behind the eight ball," said Shikha Jain, an oncologist in Chicago. "We were encouraged for years to avoid social media due to patient privacy issues. There's been a drastic shift in the last few years."
Jain recently co-founded IMPACT, a grassroots organization that networks with healthcare workers across Illinois for greater awareness of health issues. She thinks doctors must meet patients where they are—increasingly, online—and learn about the various platforms where patients connect. Doctors can then suggest credible online sources for their patients' conditions. Learning about different sites takes time, Jain said, "but that's the nature of being a physician in this day and age."
At stake is the efficiency of doctor-patient interactions. "I like when patients bring in research," Jain said. "It opens up the dialogue and lets them inform the decision-making process." Richardson, the cancer survivor, agreed. "We shouldn't make the physician the villain in this conversation." Interviewed over Zoom, she was engaging but quick to challenge the assumptions behind some questions; her toughness was palpable, molded by years of fighting disease—and the healthcare system. Many doctors are forced by that system into faster office visits, she said. "If patients help their doctor get to the heart of the issue in a shorter time, now we're going down a narrower road of tests."
These conversations could be enhanced by PatientsLikeMe's Doctor Visit Guide. It uses algorithms to consolidate health data that members track on the site into a short report they can share with their physicians. "It gives the doctor a richer data set to really see how a person has been doing," said Renfro-Wallace.
Doctors aren't the only ones benefiting from these sites.
A few platforms like Inspire make money by connecting their members to drug companies, so they can participate in the companies' clinical trials to test out new therapies. A cynic might say the sites are just fronts for promoting the pharmaceuticals.
The need is real, though, as many clinical trials suffer from low participation, and the experimental treatments can improve health. The key for Loew, Inspire's CEO, is being transparent about his revenue model. "When you sign up, we assume you didn't read the fine print [in the terms of agreement]." So, when Inspire tells members about openings in trials, it's a reminder the site works with pharma.
"When I was first on Inspire, all of that was invisible to me," said Leon. "It didn't dawn on me for years." Richardson believes many don't notice pharma's involvement because they're preoccupied by their medical issues.
One way Inspire builds trust is by partnering with patient advocacy groups, which tend to be nonprofit and science-oriented, said Craig Lipset, the former head of clinical innovation for Pfizer. When he developed a rare lung disease, he joined the board of a foundation that partners with Inspire's platform. The section dedicated to his disease is emblazoned with his foundation's logo and colors. Contrast that with other sites that build communities at the direct behest of drug companies, he said.
Insurance companies are also eyeing these communities. Last month, PatientsLikeMe raised $26 million in financing from investors including Optum Ventures, which belongs to the same health care company that owns a leading health insurance company, UnitedHealthcare. PatientsLikeMe is an independent company, though, and data is shared with UnitedHealth only if patients provide consent. The site is using the influx of resources to gamify improvements in health, resembling programs run by UnitedHealth that assign nutrition and fitness "missions," with apps for tracking progress. Soon, PatientsLikeMe will roll out a smarter data tracking system that gives members actionable insights and prompts them to take actions based on their conditions, as well as competitions to motivate healthier behaviors.
Such as a race to vaccinate, perhaps.
Dealing with Misinformation
An advantage of health-focused communities is the intimacy of their gatherings, compared to behemoths like Facebook. Loew, Inspire's head, is mindful of Dunbar's rule: humans can manage only about 150 friends. Inspire's social network mapping suggests many connections among members, but of different strength; Loew hopes to keep his site's familial ambiance even while expanding membership. Renfro-Wallace is exploring video and voice-only meetings to enrich the shared experiences on PatientsLikeMe, while respecting members' privacy.
But a main driver of growth and engagement online is appealing to emotion rather than reason; witness Facebook during the pandemic. "We know that misinformation and scary things spread far more rapidly than something positive," said Ann Lewandowski, the executive director of Wisconsin Immunization Neighborhood, a coalition of health providers and associations countering vaccine hesitancy across the state.
"Facebook's moderation mechanism is terrible," she said. Vaccine advocates in her region who try to flag misinformation on Facebook often have their content removed because the site's algorithm associates their posts with the distortions they're trying to warn people about.
In the realm of health, where accessing facts can mean life or death—and where ad-based revenue models conflict with privacy needs—there's probably a ceiling on how large social media sites should scale. Loew views Inspire as co-existing, not competing with Facebook.
Propagandists had months to perfect campaigns to dissuade people from mRNA vaccines. But even Lewandowski's doctor was misinformed about vaccine side effects for her condition, multiple sclerosis. She sees potential for health-focused sites to convene more virtual forums, in which patient advocacy groups educate doctors and patients on vaccine safety.
Inspire is raising awareness about COVID vaccines through a member survey with an interactive data visualization. Sampling thousands of members, the survey found vaccines are tolerated well among patients with cancer, autoimmune issues, and other serious conditions. Analytics for online groups are evolving quickly, said Lipset. "Think about the acceleration in research when you take the emerging capability for aggregating health data and mash it up with patients engaged in sharing."
Lipset recently co-founded the Decentralized Trials and Research Alliance to accelerate clinical trials and make them more accessible to patients—even from home, without risking the virus. Sites like PatientsLikeMe share this commitment, collaborating with Duke's ALS Clinic to let patients join a trial from home with just two clinic visits. Synthetic control groups were created by PatientsLikeMe's algorithms, eliminating the need for a placebo arm, enabling faster results.
As for Richardson, the ovarian cancer patient, being online has given her another type of access—to experts. She was diagnosed this year with breast cancer. "This time is totally different," she said. On Twitter, she's been direct messaging cancer researchers, whose replies have informed her disease-management strategy. When her oncologists prescribed 33 radiation treatments, she counter-proposed upping the dosage over fewer treatments. Her doctors agreed, cutting unnecessary trips from home. "I'm immuno-compromised," she said. "It's like Russian roulette. You're crossing your finger you won't get the virus."
After years of sticking up for her own health, Richardson is now positioned to look out for others. She collaborated with the University of Illinois Cancer Center on a training module that lets patients take control of their health. She's sharing it online, in a virtual community near you. "It helps you make intelligent decisions," she said. "When you speak your physician's language, it shifts the power in the room."
Matt Fuchs is a health and science writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He has written on a variety of health topics, including profiles of older athletes defying their ages, for publications such as The Washington Post, The Washington Post Magazine, and Medium's The Startup. He is also a science fiction author. Follow him on Twitter, @fuchswriter.
Conner Curran was diagnosed with Duchenne's muscular dystrophy in 2015 when he was four years old. It's the most severe form of the genetic disease, with a nearly inevitable progression toward total paralysis. Many Duchenne's patients die in their teens; the average lifespan is 26.
But Conner, who is now 10, has experienced some astonishing improvements in recent years. He can now walk for more than two miles at a time – an impossible journey when he was younger.
In 2018, Conner became the very first patient to receive gene therapy specific to treating Duchenne's. In the initial clinical trial of nine children, nearly 80 percent reacted positively to the treatment). A larger-scale stage 3 clinical trial is currently underway, with initial results expected next year.
Gene therapy involves altering the genes in an individual's cells to stop or treat a disease. Such a procedure may be performed by adding new gene material to existing cells, or editing the defective genes to improve their functionality.
That the medical world is on the cusp of a successful treatment for a crippling and deadly disease is the culmination of more than 35 years of work by Dr. Jude Samulski, a professor of pharmacology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. More recently, he's become a leading gene therapy entrepreneur.
But Samulski likens this breakthrough to the frustrations of solving a Rubik's cube. "Just because one side is now all the color yellow does not mean that it is completely aligned," he says.
Although Conner's life and future have dramatically improved, he's not cured. The gene therapy tamed but did not extinguish his disorder: Conner is now suffering from the equivalent of Becker's muscular dystrophy, a milder form of the disease with symptoms that appear later in life and progress more slowly. Moreover, the loss of muscle cells Conner suffered prior to the treatment is permanent.
"It will take more time and more innovations," Samulski says of finding an even more effective gene therapy for muscular dystrophy.
Conner's family is still overjoyed with the results. "Jude's grit and determination gave Conner a chance at a new life, one that was not in his cards before gene therapy," says his mother Jessica Curran. She adds that "Conner is more confident than before and enjoys life, even though he has limitations, if compared to his brothers or peers."
Conner Curran holding a football post gene therapy treatment.
Courtesy of the Curran family
For now, the use of gene therapy as a treatment for diseases and disorders remains relatively isolated. On paper at least, progress appears glacially slow. In 2018, there were four FDA-approved gene therapies (excluding those reliant on bone marrow/stem cell transplants or implants). Today, there are 10. One therapy is solely for the cosmetic purpose of reducing facial lines and folds.
Nevertheless, experts in the space believe gene therapy is poised to expand dramatically.
"Certainly in the next three to five years you will see dozens of gene therapies and cell therapies be approved," says Dr. Pavan Cheruvu, who is CEO of Sio Gene Therapies in New York. The company is developing treatments for Parkinson's disease and Tay-Sachs, among other diseases.
Cheruvu's conclusion is supported by NEWDIGS, a think tank at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that keeps tabs on gene therapy developments. NEWDIGS predicts there will be at least 60 gene therapies approved for use in the U.S. by the end of the decade. That number could be closer to 100 if Chinese researchers and biotech ventures decide the American market is a good fit for the therapies they develop.
"We are watching something of a conditional evolution, like a dot-com, or cellphones that were sizes of shoeboxes that have now matured to the size of wafers. Our space will follow along very similarly."
Dr. Carsten Brunn, a chemist by training and CEO of Selecta Biosciences outside of Boston, is developing ways to reduce the immune responses in patients who receive gene therapy. He observes that there are more than 300 therapies in development and thousands of clinical trials underway. "It's definitely an exciting time in the field," he says.
That's a far cry from the environment of little more than a decade ago. Research and investment in gene therapy had been brought low for years after the death of teenager Jesse Gelsinger in 1999 while he had been enrolled in a clinical trial to treat a liver disease. Gene therapy was a completely novel concept back then, and his death created existential questions about whether it was a proper pathway to pursue. Cheruvu, a cardiologist, calls the years after Gelsinger's death an "ice age" for gene therapy.
However, those dark years eventually yielded to a thaw. And while there have been some recent stumbles, they are considered part of the trial-and-error that has often accompanied medical research as opposed to an ominous "stop" sign.
The deaths of three patients last year receiving gene therapy for myotubular myopathy – a degenerative disease that causes severe muscle weakness – promptly ended the clinical trial in which they were enrolled. However, the incident caused few ripples beyond that. Researchers linked the deaths to dosage sizes that caused liver toxicity, as opposed to the gene therapy itself being an automatic death sentence; younger patients who received lower doses due to a less advanced disease state experienced improvements.
The gene sequencing and editing that helped create vaccines for COVID-19 in record time also bolstered the argument for more investment in research and development. Cheruvu notes that the field has usually been the domain of investors with significant expertise in the field; these days, more money is flowing in from generalists.
The Challenges Ahead
What will be the next step in gene therapy's evolution? Many of Samulski's earliest innovations came in the laboratory, for example. Then that led to him forming a company called AskBio in collaboration with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. AskBio sold its gene therapy to Pfizer five years ago to assure that enough could be manufactured for stage 3 clinical trials and eventually reach the market.
Cheruvu suggests that many future gene therapy innovations will be the result of what he calls "congruent innovation." That means publicly funded laboratories and privately funded companies might develop treatments separately or in collaboration. Or, university scientists may depend on private ventures to solve one of gene therapy's most vexing issues: producing enough finished material to test and treat on a large scale. "Manufacturing is a real bottleneck right now," Brunn says.
The alternative is referred to in the sector as the "valley of death": a lab has found a promising treatment, but is not far enough along in development to submit an investigational new drug application with the FDA. The promise withers away as a result. But the new abundance of venture capital for gene therapy has made this scenario less of an issue for private firms, some of which have received hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.
There are also numerous clinical challenges. Many gene therapies use what are known as adeno-associated virus vectors (AAVs) to deliver treatments. They are hollowed-out husks of viruses that can cause a variety of mostly mild maladies ranging from colds to pink eye. They are modified to deliver the genetic material used in the therapy. Most of these vectors trigger an antibody reaction that limits treatments to a single does or a handful of smaller ones. That can limit the potential progress for patients – an issue referred to as treatment "durability."
Although vectors from animals such as horses trigger far less of an antibody reaction in patients -- and there has been significant work done on using artificial vectors -- both are likely years away from being used on a large scale. "For the foreseeable future, AAV is the delivery system of choice," Brunn says.
Also, there will likely be demand for concurrent gene therapies that can lead to a complete cure – not only halting the progress of Duchenne's in kids like Conner Curran, but regenerating their lost muscle cells, perhaps through some form of stem cell therapy or another treatment that has yet to be devised.
Nevertheless, Samulski believes demand for imperfect treatments will be high – particularly with a disease such as muscular dystrophy, where many patients are mere months from spending the remainder of their lives in wheelchairs. But Samulski believes those therapies will also inevitably evolve into something far more effective.
"We are watching something of a conditional evolution, like a dot-com, or cellphones that were sizes of shoeboxes that have now matured to the size of wafers," he says. "Our space will follow along very similarly."
Jessica Curran will remain forever grateful for what her son has received: "Jude gave us new hope. He gave us something that is priceless – a chance to watch Conner grow up and live out his own dreams."
Sammy Basso has some profound ideas about fate. As long as he has been alive, he has known he has minimal control over his own. His parents, however, had to transition from a world of unlimited possibility to one in which their son might not live to his 20s.
"I remember very clearly that day because Sammy was three years old," his mother says of the day a genetic counselor diagnosed Sammy with progeria. "It was a devastating day for me."
But to Sammy, he has always been himself: a smart kid, interested in science, a little smaller than his classmates, with one notable kink in his DNA. In one copy of the gene that codes for the protein Lamin A, Sammy has a T where there should be a C. The incorrect code creates a toxic protein called progerin, which destabilizes Sammy's cells and makes him age much faster than a person who doesn't have the mutation. The older he gets, the more he is in danger of strokes, heart failure, or a heart attack. "I am okay with my situation," he says from his home in Tezze sul Brenta, Italy. "But I think, yes, fate has a great role in my life."
Just 400 or so people in the world live with progeria: The mutation that causes it usually arises de novo, or "of new," meaning that it is not inherited but happens spontaneously during gestation. The challenge, as with all rare diseases, is that few cases means few treatments.
"When we first started, there was absolutely nothing out there," says Leslie Gordon, a physician-researcher who co-founded the Progeria Research Foundation in 1999 after her own son, also named Sam, was diagnosed with the disease. "We knew we had to jumpstart the entire field, so we collected money through road races and special events and writing grants and all sorts of donors… I think the first year we raised $75,000, most of it from one donor."
"We have not only the possibility but the responsibility to make the world a better world, and also to make a body a better body."
By 2003, the foundation had collaborated with Francis Collins, a geneticist who is now director of the National Institutes of Health, to work out the genetic basis for progeria—that single mutation Sammy has. The discovery led to interest in lonafarnib, a drug that was already being used in cancer patients but could potentially operate downstream of the mutation, preventing the buildup of the defective progerin in the body. "We funded cellular studies to look at a lonafarnib in cells, mouse studies to look at lonafarnib in mouse models of progeria… and then we initiated the clinical trials," Gordon says.
Sammy Basso's family had gotten involved with the Progeria Research Foundation through their international patient registry, which maintains relationships with families in 49 countries. "We started to hear about lonafarnib in 2006 from Leslie Gordon," says Sammy's father, Amerigo Basso, with his son translating. "She told us about the lonafarnib. And we were very happy because for the first time we understood that there was something that could help our son and our lives." Amerigo used the Italian word speranza, which means hope.
Still, Sammy wasn't sure if lonafarnib was right for him. "Since when I was very young I thought that everything happens for a reason. So, in my mind, if God made me with progeria, there was a reason, and to try to heal from progeria was something wrong," he says. Gradually, his parents and doctors, and Leslie Gordon, convinced him otherwise. Sammy began to believe that God was also the force behind doctors, science, and research. "And so we have not only the possibility but the responsibility to make the world a better world, and also to make a body a better body," he says.
Sammy Basso and his parents.
Courtesy of Basso
Sammy began taking lonafarnib, with the Progeria Research Foundation intermittently flying him, and other international trial participants, to Boston for tests. He was immediately beset by some of the drug's more unpleasant side effects: Stomach problems, nausea, and vomiting. "The first period was absolutely the worst period of my life," he says.
At first, doctors prescribed other medicines for the side effects, but to Sammy it had as much effect as drinking water. He visited doctor after doctor, with some calling him weekly or even daily to ask how he was doing. Eventually the specialists decided that he should lower his dose, balancing his pain with the benefit of the drug. Sammy can't actually feel any positive effect of the lonafarnib, but his health measurements have improved relative to people with progeria who don't take it.
While they never completely disappeared, Sammy's side effects decreased to the point that he could live. Inspired by the research that led to lonafarnib, he went to university to study molecular biology. For his thesis work, he travelled to Spain to perform experiments on cells and on mice with progeria, learning how to use the gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 to cut out the mutated bit of DNA. "I was so excited to participate in this study," Sammy says. He felt like his work could make a difference.
In 2018, the Progeria Research Foundation was hosting one of their biennial workshops when Francis Collins, the researcher who had located the mutation behind progeria 15 years earlier, got in touch with Leslie Gordon. "Francis called me and said, Hey, I just saw a talk by David Liu from the Broad [Institute]. And it was pretty amazing. He has been looking at progeria and has very early, but very exciting data… Do you have any spaces, any slots you could make in your program for late breaking news?"
Gordon found a spot, and David Liu came to talk about what was going on in his lab, which was an even more advanced treatment that led to mice with the progeria mutation living into their senior mouse years—substantially closer to a normal lifespan. Liu's lab had built on the idea of CRISPR-Cas9 to create a more elegant genetic process called base editing: Instead of chopping out mutated DNA, a scientist could chemically convert an incorrect DNA letter to the correct one, like the search and replace function in word processing software. Mice who had their Lamin-A mutations corrected this way lived more than twice as long as untreated animals.
Sammy was in the audience at Dr. Liu's talk. "When I heard about this base editing as a younger scientist, I thought that I was living in the future," he says. "When my parents had my diagnosis of progeria, the science knew very little information about DNA. And now we are talking about healing the DNA… It is incredible."
Lonafarnib (also called Zokinvy) was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration this past November. Sammy, now 25, still takes it, and still manages his side effects. With luck, the gift of a few extra years will act as a bridge until he can try Liu's revolutionary new gene treatment, which has not yet begun testing in humans. While Leslie Gordon warns that she's always wrong about things like this, she hopes to see the new base editing techniques in clinical trials in the next year or two. Sammy won't need to be convinced to try it this time; his thinking on fate has evolved since his first encounter with lonafarnib.
"I would be very happy to try it," he says. "I know that for a non-scientist it can be difficult to understand. Some people think that we are the DNA. We are not. The DNA is a part of us, and to correct it is to do what we are already doing—just better." In short, a gene therapy, while it may seem like science fiction, is no different from a pill. For Sammy, both are a new way to think about fate: No longer something that simply happens to him.