Hours after a baby is born, its heel is pricked with a lancet. Drops of the infant's blood are collected on a porous card, which is then mailed to a state laboratory. The dried blood spots are screened for around thirty conditions, including phenylketonuria (PKU), the metabolic disorder that kick-started this kind of newborn screening over 60 years ago. In the U.S., parents are not asked for permission to screen their child. Newborn screening programs are public health programs, and the assumption is that no good parent would refuse a screening test that could identify a serious yet treatable condition in their baby.
Learning as much as you can about your child's health might seem like a natural obligation of parenting. But it's an assumption that I think needs to be much more closely examined.
Today, with the introduction of genome sequencing into clinical medicine, some are asking whether newborn screening goes far enough. As the cost of sequencing falls, should parents take a more expansive look at their children's health, learning not just whether they have a rare but treatable childhood condition, but also whether they are at risk for untreatable conditions or for diseases that, if they occur at all, will strike only in adulthood? Should genome sequencing be a part of every newborn's care?
It's an idea that appeals to Anne Wojcicki, the founder and CEO of the direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe, who in a 2016 interview with The Guardian newspaper predicted that having newborns tested would soon be considered standard practice—"as critical as testing your cholesterol"—and a new responsibility of parenting. Wojcicki isn't the only one excited to see everyone's genes examined at birth. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and perhaps the most prominent advocate of genomics in the United States, has written that he is "almost certain … that whole-genome sequencing will become part of new-born screening in the next few years." Whether that would happen through state-mandated screening programs, or as part of routine pediatric care—or perhaps as a direct-to-consumer service that parents purchase at birth or receive as a baby-shower gift—is not clear.
Learning as much as you can about your child's health might seem like a natural obligation of parenting. But it's an assumption that I think needs to be much more closely examined, both because the results that genome sequencing can return are more complex and more uncertain than one might expect, and because parents are not actually responsible for their child's lifelong health and well-being.
What is a parent supposed to do about such a risk except worry?
Existing newborn screening tests look for the presence of rare conditions that, if identified early in life, before the child shows any symptoms, can be effectively treated. Sequencing could identify many of these same kinds of conditions (and it might be a good tool if it could be targeted to those conditions alone), but it would also identify gene variants that confer an increased risk rather than a certainty of disease. Occasionally that increased risk will be significant. About 12 percent of women in the general population will develop breast cancer during their lives, while those who have a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene variant have around a 70 percent chance of developing the disease. But for many—perhaps most—conditions, the increased risk associated with a particular gene variant will be very small. Researchers have identified over 600 genes that appear to be associated with schizophrenia, for example, but any one of those confers only a tiny increase in risk for the disorder. What is a parent supposed to do about such a risk except worry?
Sequencing results are uncertain in other important ways as well. While we now have the ability to map the genome—to create a read-out of the pairs of genetic letters that make up a person's DNA—we are still learning what most of it means for a person's health and well-being. Researchers even have a name for gene variants they think might be associated with a disease or disorder, but for which they don't have enough evidence to be sure. They are called "variants of unknown (or uncertain) significance (VUS), and they pop up in most people's sequencing results. In cancer genetics, where much research has been done, about 1 in 5 gene variants are reclassified over time. Most are downgraded, which means that a good number of VUS are eventually designated benign.
While one parent might reasonably decide to learn about their child's risk for a condition about which nothing can be done medically, a different, yet still thoroughly reasonable, parent might prefer to remain ignorant so that they can enjoy the time before their child is afflicted.
Then there's the puzzle of what to do about results that show increased risk or even certainty for a condition that we have no idea how to prevent. Some genomics advocates argue that even if a result is not "medically actionable," it might have "personal utility" because it allows parents to plan for their child's future needs, to enroll them in research, or to connect with other families whose children carry the same genetic marker.
Finding a certain gene variant in one child might inform parents' decisions about whether to have another—and if they do, about whether to use reproductive technologies or prenatal testing to select against that variant in a future child. I have no doubt that for some parents these personal utility arguments are persuasive, but notice how far we've now strayed from the serious yet treatable conditions that motivated governments to set up newborn screening programs, and to mandate such testing for all.
Which brings me to the other problem with the call for sequencing newborn babies: the idea that even if it's not what the law requires, it's what good parents should do. That idea is very compelling when we're talking about sequencing results that show a serious threat to the child's health, especially when interventions are available to prevent or treat that condition. But as I have shown, many sequencing results are not of this type.
While one parent might reasonably decide to learn about their child's risk for a condition about which nothing can be done medically, a different, yet still thoroughly reasonable, parent might prefer to remain ignorant so that they can enjoy the time before their child is afflicted. This parent might decide that the worry—and the hypervigilence it could inspire in them—is not in their child's best interest, or indeed in their own. This parent might also think that it should be up to the child, when he or she is older, to decide whether to learn about his or her risk for adult-onset conditions, especially given that many adults at high familial risk for conditions like Alzheimer's or Huntington's disease choose never to be tested. This parent will value the child's future autonomy and right not to know more than they value the chance to prepare for a health risk that won't strike the child until 40 or 50 years in the future.
Parents are not obligated to learn about their children's risk for a condition that cannot be prevented, has a small risk of occurring, or that would appear only in adulthood.
Contemporary understandings of parenting are famously demanding. We are asked to do everything within our power to advance our children's health and well-being—to act always in our children's best interests. Against that backdrop, the need to sequence every newborn baby's genome might seem obvious. But we should be skeptical. Many sequencing results are complex and uncertain. Parents are not obligated to learn about their children's risk for a condition that cannot be prevented, has a small risk of occurring, or that would appear only in adulthood. To suggest otherwise is to stretch parental responsibilities beyond the realm of childhood and beyond factors that parents can control.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.