Last summer, when fast and cheap Covid tests were in high demand and governments were struggling to manufacture and distribute them, a group of independent scientists working together had a bit of a breakthrough.
Working on the Just One Giant Lab platform, an online community that serves as a kind of clearing house for open science researchers to find each other and work together, they managed to create a simple, one-hour Covid test that anyone could take at home with just a cup of hot water. The group tested it across a network of home and professional laboratories before being listed as a semi-finalist team for the XPrize, a competition that rewards innovative solutions-based projects. Then, the group hit a wall: they couldn't commercialize the test.
They wanted to keep their project open source, making it accessible to people around the world, so they decided to forgo traditional means of intellectual property protection and didn't seek patents. (They couldn't afford lawyers anyway). And, as a loose-knit group that was not supported by a traditional scientific institution, working in community labs and homes around the world, they had no access to resources or financial support for manufacturing or distributing their test at scale.
But without ethical and regulatory approval for clinical testing, manufacture, and distribution, they were legally unable to create field tests for real people, leaving their inexpensive, $16-per-test, innovative product languishing behind, while other, more expensive over-the-counter tests made their way onto the market.
Who Are These Radical Scientists?
Independent, decentralized biomedical research has come of age. Also sometimes called DIYbio, biohacking, or community biology, depending on whom you ask, open research is today a global movement with thousands of members, from scientists with advanced degrees to middle-grade students. Their motivations and interests vary across a wide spectrum, but transparency and accessibility are key to the ethos of the movement. Teams are agile, focused on shoestring-budget R&D, and aim to disrupt business as usual in the ivory towers of the scientific establishment.
Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Initiatives developed within the community, such as Open Insulin, which hopes to engineer processes for affordable, small-batch insulin production, "Slybera," a provocative attempt to reverse engineer a $1 million dollar gene therapy, and the hundreds of projects posted on the collaboration platform Just One Giant Lab during the pandemic, all have one thing in common: to pursue testing in humans, they need an ethics oversight mechanism.
These groups, most of which operate collaboratively in community labs, homes, and online, recognize that some sort of oversight or guidance is useful—and that it's the right thing to do.
But also, and perhaps more immediately, they need it because federal rules require ethics oversight of any biomedical research that's headed in the direction of the consumer market. In addition, some individuals engaged in this work do want to publish their research in traditional scientific journals, which—you guessed it—also require that research has undergone an ethics evaluation. Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Bridging the Ethics Gap
The problem is that traditional oversight mechanisms, such as institutional review boards at government or academic research institutions, as well as the private boards utilized by pharmaceutical companies, are not accessible to most independent researchers. Traditional review boards are either closed to the public, or charge fees that are out of reach for many citizen science initiatives. This has created an "ethics gap" in nontraditional scientific research.
Biohackers are seen in some ways as the direct descendents of "white hat" computer hackers, or those focused on calling out security holes and contributing solutions to technical problems within self-regulating communities. In the case of health and biotechnology, those problems include both the absence of treatments and the availability of only expensive treatments for certain conditions. As the DIYbio community grows, there needs to be a way to provide assurance that, when the work is successful, the public is able to benefit from it eventually. The team that developed the one-hour Covid test found a potential commercial partner and so might well overcome the oversight hurdle, but it's been 14 months since they developed the test--and counting.
In short, without some kind of oversight mechanism for the work of independent biomedical researchers, the solutions they innovate will never have the opportunity to reach consumers.
In a new paper in the journal Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, we consider the issue of the ethics gap and ask whether ethics oversight is something nontraditional researchers want, and if so, what forms it might take. Given that individuals within these communities sometimes vehemently disagree with each other, is consensus on these questions even possible?
We learned that there is no "one size fits all" solution for ethics oversight of nontraditional research. Rather, the appropriateness of any oversight model will depend on each initiative's objectives, needs, risks, and constraints.
We also learned that nontraditional researchers are generally willing (and in some cases eager) to engage with traditional scientific, legal, and bioethics experts on ethics, safety, and related questions.
We suggest that these experts make themselves available to help nontraditional researchers build infrastructure for ethics self-governance and identify when it might be necessary to seek outside assistance.
Independent biomedical research has promise, but like any emerging science, it poses novel ethical questions and challenges. Existing research ethics and oversight frameworks may not be well-suited to answer them in every context, so we need to think outside the box about what we can create for the future. That process should begin by talking to independent biomedical researchers about their activities, priorities, and concerns with an eye to understanding how best to support them.
Christi Guerrini, JD, MPH studies biomedical citizen science and is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Alex Pearlman, MA, is a science journalist and bioethicist who writes about emerging issues in biotechnology. They have recently launched outlawbio.org, a place for discussion about nontraditional research.
The world's attention has been focused on the coronavirus crisis but Yemen, Bangladesh and many others countries in Asia and Africa are also in the grips of another pandemic: cholera. The current cholera pandemic first emerged in the 1970s and has devastated many communities in low-income countries. Each year, cholera is responsible for an estimated 1.3 million to 4 million cases and 21,000 to 143,000 deaths worldwide.
Immunologist Hiroshi Kiyono and his team at the University of Tokyo hope they can be part of the solution: They're making a cholera vaccine out of rice.
"It is much less expensive than a traditional vaccine, by a long shot."
Cholera is caused by eating food or drinking water that's contaminated by the feces of a person infected with the cholera bacteria, Vibrio cholerae. The bacteria produces the cholera toxin in the intestines, leading to vomiting, diarrhea and severe dehydration. Cholera can kill within hours of infection if it if's not treated quickly.
Current cholera vaccines are mainly oral. The most common oral are given in two doses and are made out of animal or insect cells that are infected with killed or weakened cholera bacteria. Dukoral also includes cells infected with CTB, a non-harmful part of the cholera toxin. Scientists grow cells containing the cholera bacteria and the CTB in bioreactors, large tanks in which conditions can be carefully controlled.
These cholera vaccines offer moderate protection but it wears off relatively quickly. Cold storage can also be an issue. The most common oral vaccines can be stored at room temperature but only for 14 days.
"Current vaccines confer around 60% efficacy over five years post-vaccination," says Lucy Breakwell, who leads the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's cholera work within Global Immunization Division. Given the limited protection, refrigeration issue, and the fact that current oral vaccines require two disease, delivery of cholera vaccines in a campaign or emergency setting can be challenging. "There is a need to develop and test new vaccines to improve public health response to cholera outbreaks."
A New Kind of Vaccine
Kiyono and scientists at Tokyo University are creating a new, plant-based cholera vaccine dubbed MucoRice-CTB. The researchers genetically modify rice so that it contains CTB, a non-harmful part of the cholera toxin. The rice is crushed into a powder, mixed with saline solution and then drunk. The digestive tract is lined with mucosal membranes which contain the mucosal immune system. The mucosal immune system gets trained to recognize the cholera toxin as the rice passes through the intestines.
The cholera toxin has two main parts: the A subunit, which is harmful, and the B subunit, also known as CTB, which is nontoxic but allows the cholera bacteria to attach to gut cells. By inducing CTB-specific antibodies, "we might be able to block the binding of the vaccine toxin to gut cells, leading to the prevention of the toxin causing diarrhea," Kiyono says.
Kiyono studies the immune responses that occur at mucosal membranes across the body. He chose to focus on cholera because he wanted to replicate the way traditional vaccines work to get mucosal membranes in the digestive tract to produce an immune response. The difference is that his team is creating a food-based vaccine to induce this immune response. They are also solely focusing on getting the vaccine to induce antibodies for the cholera toxin. Since the cholera toxin is responsible for bacteria sticking to gut cells, the hope is that they can stop this process by producing antibodies for the cholera toxin. Current cholera vaccines target the cholera bacteria or both the bacteria and the toxin.
David Pascual, an expert in infectious diseases and immunology at the University of Florida, thinks that the MucoRice vaccine has huge promise. "I truly believe that the development of a food-based vaccine can be effective. CTB has a natural affinity for sampling cells in the gut to adhere, be processed, and then stimulate our immune system, he says. "In addition to vaccinating the gut, MucoRice has the potential to touch other mucosal surfaces in the mouth, which can help generate an immune response locally in the mouth and distally in the gut."
Kiyono says the MucoRice vaccine is much cheaper to produce than a traditional vaccine. Current vaccines need expensive bioreactors to grow cell cultures under very controlled, sterile conditions. This makes them expensive to manufacture, as different types of cell cultures need to be grown in separate buildings to avoid any chance of contamination. MucoRice doesn't require such an expensive manufacturing process because the rice plants themselves act as bioreactors.
The MucoRice vaccine also doesn't require the high cost of cold storage. It can be stored at room temperature for up to three years unlike traditional vaccines. "Plant-based vaccine development platforms present an exciting tool to reduce vaccine manufacturing costs, expand vaccine shelf life, and remove refrigeration requirements, all of which are factors that can limit vaccine supply and accessibility," Breakwell says.
Kathleen Hefferon, a microbiologist at Cornell University agrees. "It is much less expensive than a traditional vaccine, by a long shot," she says. "The fact that it is made in rice means the vaccine can be stored for long periods on the shelf, without losing its activity."
A plant-based vaccine may even be able to address vaccine hesitancy, which has become a growing problem in recent years. Hefferon suggests that "using well-known food plants may serve to reduce the anxiety of some vaccine hesitant people."
Challenges of Plant Vaccines
Despite their advantages, no plant-based vaccines have been commercialized for human use. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from the potential for too much variation in plants to the lack of facilities large enough to grow crops that comply with good manufacturing practices. Several plant vaccines for diseases like HIV and COVID-19 are in development, but they're still in early stages.
In developing the MucoRice vaccine, scientists at the University of Tokyo have tried to overcome some of the problems with plant vaccines. They've created a closed facility where they can grow rice plants directly in nutrient-rich water rather than soil. This ensures they can grow crops all year round in a space that satisfies regulations. There's also less chance for variation since the environment is tightly controlled.
Clinical Trials and Beyond
After successfully growing rice plants containing the vaccine, the team carried out their first clinical trial. It was completed early this year. Thirty participants received a placebo and 30 received the vaccine. They were all Japanese men between the ages of 20 and 40 years old. 60 percent produced antibodies against the cholera toxin with no side effects. It was a promising result. However, there are still some issues Kiyono's team need to address.
The vaccine may not provide enough protection on its own. The antigen in any vaccine is the substance it contains to induce an immune response. For the MucoRice vaccine, the antigen is not the cholera bacteria itself but the cholera toxin the bacteria produces.
"The development of the antigen in rice is innovative," says David Sack, a professor at John Hopkins University and expert in cholera vaccine development. "But antibodies against only the toxin have not been very protective. The major protective antigen is thought to be the LPS." LPS, or lipopolysaccharide, is a component of the outer wall of the cholera bacteria that plays an important role in eliciting an immune response.
The Japanese team is considering getting the rice to also express the O antigen, a core part of the LPS. Further investigation and clinical trials will look into improving the vaccine's efficacy.
Beyond cholera, Kiyono hopes that the vaccine platform could one day be used to make cost-effective vaccines for other pathogens, such as norovirus or coronavirus.
"We believe the MucoRice system may become a new generation of vaccine production, storage, and delivery system."
In the 1966 movie "Fantastic Voyage," actress Raquel Welch and her submarine were shrunk to the size of a cell in order to eliminate a blood clot in a scientist's brain. Now, 55 years later, the scenario is becoming closer to reality.
California-based startup Bionaut Labs has developed a nanobot about the size of a grain of rice that's designed to transport medication to the exact location in the body where it's needed. If you think about it, the conventional way to deliver medicine makes little sense: A painkiller affects the entire body instead of just the arm that's hurting, and chemotherapy is flushed through all the veins instead of precisely targeting the tumor.
"Chemotherapy is delivered systemically," Bionaut-founder and CEO Michael Shpigelmacher says. "Often only a small percentage arrives at the location where it is actually needed."
But what if it was possible to send a tiny robot through the body to attack a tumor or deliver a drug at exactly the right location?
Several startups and academic institutes worldwide are working to develop such a solution but Bionaut Labs seems the furthest along in advancing its invention. "You can think of the Bionaut as a tiny screw that moves through the veins as if steered by an invisible screwdriver until it arrives at the tumor," Shpigelmacher explains. Via Zoom, he shares the screen of an X-ray machine in his Culver City lab to demonstrate how the half-transparent, yellowish device winds its way along the spine in the body. The nanobot contains a tiny but powerful magnet. The "invisible screwdriver" is an external magnetic field that rotates that magnet inside the device and gets it to move and change directions.
The current model has a diameter of less than a millimeter. Shpigelmacher's engineers could build the miniature vehicle even smaller but the current size has the advantage of being big enough to see with bare eyes. It can also deliver more medicine than a tinier version. In the Zoom demonstration, the micorobot is injected into the spine, not unlike an epidural, and pulled along the spine through an outside magnet until the Bionaut reaches the brainstem. Depending which organ it needs to reach, it could be inserted elsewhere, for instance through a catheter.
"The hope is that we can develop a vehicle to transport medication deep into the body."
Imagine moving a screw through a steak with a magnet — that's essentially how the device works. But of course, the Bionaut is considerably different from an ordinary screw: "At the right location, we give a magnetic signal, and it unloads its medicine package," Shpigelmacher says.
To start, Bionaut Labs wants to use its device to treat Parkinson's disease and brain stem gliomas, a type of cancer that largely affects children and teenagers. About 300 to 400 young people a year are diagnosed with this type of tumor. Radiation and brain surgery risk damaging sensitive brain tissue, and chemotherapy often doesn't work. Most children with these tumors live less than 18 months. A nanobot delivering targeted chemotherapy could be a gamechanger. "These patients really don't have any other hope," Shpigelmacher says.
Of course, the main challenge of the developing such a device is guaranteeing that it's safe. Because tissue is so sensitive, any mistake could risk disastrous results. Over the past four years, Bionaut has tested its technology in dozens of healthy sheep and pigs with no major adverse effects. Sheep make a good stand-in for humans because their brains and spines are similar to ours.
The Bionaut device is about the size of a grain of rice.
"As the Bionaut moves through brain tissue, it creates a transient track that heals within a few weeks," Shpigelmacher says. The company is hoping to be the first to test a nanobot in humans. That could happen as early as 2023, Shpigelmacher says.
Once the technique has been perfected, further applications could include addressing other kinds of brain disorders that are considered incurable now, such as Alzheimer's or Huntington's disease. "Microrobots could serve as a bridgehead, opening the gateway to the brain and facilitating precise access of deep brain structure – either to deliver medication, take cell samples or stimulate specific brain regions," Shpigelmacher says.
Robot-assisted hybrid surgery with artificial intelligence is already used in state-of-the-art surgery centers, and many medical experts believe that nanorobotics will be the instrument of the future. In 2016, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of "the world's smallest machines," nano "elevators" and minuscule motors. Since then, the scientific experiments have progressed to the point where applicable devices are moving closer to actually being implemented.
Bionaut's technology was initially developed by a research team lead by Peer Fischer, head of the independent Micro Nano and Molecular Systems Lab at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany. Fischer is considered a pioneer in the research of nano systems, which he began at Harvard University more than a decade ago. He and his team are advising Bionaut Labs and have licensed their technology to the company.
"The hope is that we can develop a vehicle to transport medication deep into the body," says Max Planck scientist Tian Qiu, who leads the cooperation with Bionaut Labs. He agrees with Shpigelmacher that the Bionaut's size is perfect for transporting medication loads and is researching potential applications for even smaller nanorobots, especially in the eye, where the tissue is extremely sensitive. "Nanorobots can sneak through very fine tissue without causing damage."
In "Fantastic Voyage," Raquel Welch's adventures inside the body of a dissident scientist let her swim through his veins into his brain, but her shrunken miniature submarine is attacked by antibodies; she has to flee through the nerves into the scientist's eye where she escapes into freedom on a tear drop. In reality, the exit in the lab is much more mundane. The Bionaut simply leaves the body through the same port where it entered. But apart from the dramatization, the "Fantastic Voyage" was almost prophetic, or, as Shpigelmacher says, "Science fiction becomes science reality."