Rich Mancuso suffered from herpes for most of his adult life. The 49-year-old New Jersey resident was miserable. He had at least two to three outbreaks every month with painful and unsightly sores on his face and in his eyes, yet the drugs he took to control the disease had terrible side effects--agonizing headaches and severe stomach disturbances.
Last week, the FDA launched a criminal investigation to determine whether the biotech behind the vaccine had violated regulations.
So in 2016, he took an unusual step: he was flown to St. Kitt's, an island in the West Indies, where he participated in a clinical trial of a herpes vaccine, and received three injections of the experimental therapeutic during separate visits to the island. Within a year, his outbreaks stopped. "Nothing else worked," says Mancuso, who feels like he's gotten his life back. "And I've tried everything on the planet."
Mancuso was one of twenty genital herpes sufferers who were given the experimental vaccine in tests conducted on the Caribbean island and in hotel rooms near the campus of Southern Illinois University in Springfield where the vaccine's developer, microbiologist William Halford, was on the faculty. But these tests were conducted under the radar, without the approval or safety oversight of the Food and Drug Administration or an institutional review board (IRB), which routinely monitor human clinical trials of experimental drugs to make sure participants are protected.
Last week, the FDA launched a criminal investigation to determine whether anyone from SIU or Rational Vaccines, the biotech behind the vaccine, had violated regulations by aiding Halford's research. The SIU scientist was a microbiologist, not a medical doctor, which means that volunteers were not only injected with an unsanctioned experimental treatment but there wasn't even routine medical oversight.
On one side are scientists and government regulators with legitimate safety concerns....On the other are desperate patients and a dying scientist willing to go rogue in a foreign country.
Halford, who was stricken with a rare form of a nasal cancer, reportedly bypassed regulatory rules because the clock was ticking and he wanted to speed this potentially life-altering therapeutic to patients. "There was no way he had enough time to raise $100 million to test the drugs in the U.S.," says Mancuso, who became friends with Halford before he died in June of 2017 at age 48. "He knew if he didn't do something, his work would just die and no one would benefit. This was the only way."
But was it the only way? Once the truth about the trial came to light, public health officials in St. Kitt's disavowed the trial, saying they had not been notified that it was happening, and Southern Illinois University's medical school launched an investigation that ultimately led to the resignation of three employees, including a faculty member, a graduate student and Halford's widow. Investors in Rational Vaccines, including maverick Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, demanded that all FDA rules must be followed in future tests.
"Trials have to yield data that can be submitted to the FDA, which means certain requirements have to be met," says Jeffrey Kahn, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "These were renegade researchers who exposed people to unnecessary risks, which was hugely irresponsible. I don't know what they expected to do with the research. It was a waste of money and generated data that can't be used because no regulator would accept it."
But this story illuminates both sides of a thorny issue. On one side are scientists and government regulators with legitimate safety concerns who want to protect volunteers from very real risks—people have died even in closely monitored clinical trials. On the other, are desperate patients and a dying scientist willing to go rogue in a foreign country where there is far less regulatory scrutiny. "It's a balancing act," says Jennifer Miller, a medical ethicist at New York University and president of Bioethics International. "You really need to protect participants but you also want access to safe therapies."
"Safety is important, but being too cautious kills people, too—allowing them to just die without intervention seems to be the biggest harm."
This requirement—that tests show a drug is safe and effective before it can win regulatory approval--dates back to 1962, when the sedative thalidomide was shown to have caused thousands of birth defects in Europe. But clinical trials can be costly and often proceed at a glacial pace. Typically, companies shell out more than $2.5 billion over the course of the decade it normally takes to shepherd a new treatment through the three phases of testing before it wins FDA approval, according to a 2014 study by the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development. Yet only 11.8 percent of experimental therapies entering clinical tests eventually cross the finish line.
The upshot is that millions can suffer and thousands of people may die awaiting approvals for life saving drugs, according to Elizabeth Parrish, the founder and CEO of BioViva, a Seattle-based biotech that aims to provide data collection platforms to scientists doing overseas tests. "Going offshore to places where it's legal to take a therapeutic can created expedited routes for patients to get therapies for which there is a high level of need," she says. "Safety is important, but being too cautious kills people, too—allowing them to just die without intervention seems to be the biggest harm."
Parrish herself was frustrated with the slow pace of gene therapy trials; scientists worried about the risks associated with fixing mutant DNA. To prove a point, she traveled to a clinic in Colombia in 2015 where she was injected with two gene therapies that aim to improve muscle function and lengthen telomeres, the caps on the end of chromosomes that are linked to aging and genetic diseases. Six months later, the therapy seemed to have worked—her muscle mass had increased and her telomeres had grown by 9 percent, the equivalent of turning back 20 years of aging, according to her own account. Yet the treatments are still unavailable here in the U.S.
In the past decade, Latin American countries like Columbia, and Mexico in particular, have become an increasingly attractive test destination for multi-national drug companies and biotechs because of less red tape.
In the past decade, Latin American countries like Columbia, and Mexico in particular, have become an increasingly attractive test destination for multi-national drug companies and biotechs because of less red tape around testing emerging new science, like gene therapies or stem cells. Plus, clinical trials are cheaper to conduct, it's easier to recruit volunteers, especially ones who are treatment naïve, and these human tests can reveal whether local populations actually respond to a particular therapy. "We do have an exhaustive framework for running clinical trials that are aligned with international requirements," says Ernesto Albaga, an attorney with Hogan Lovells in Mexico City who specializes in the life sciences. "But our environment is still not as stringent as it is in other places, like the U.S."
The fact is American researchers are increasingly testing experimental drugs outside of the U.S., although virtually all of them are monitored by local scientists who serve as co-investigators. In 2017 alone, more than 86 percent of experimental drugs seeking FDA approval have been tested, at least in part, in foreign countries, like Mexico, China, Russia, Poland and South Africa, according to an analysis by STAT. However, in places without strict oversight, such as Russia and Georgia, results may be fraudulent, according to one 2017 report in the New England Journal of Medicine. And in developing countries, the poor can become guinea pigs. In the early 2000s, for example, a test in Uganda of an AIDS drug resulted in thousands of unreported serious adverse reactions and 14 deaths; in India, eight volunteers died during a test of the anti-clotting drug, Streptokinase—and test subjects didn't even know they were part of a clinical trials.
Still, "the world is changing," concludes Dr. Jennifer Miller of NYU. "We need to figure out how to get safe and effective drugs to patients more quickly without sacrificing too much protection."
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 specimens and the Foresight team is analyzing this data, 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.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.