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."
In late March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up in the United States, David Fajgenbaum, a physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, devised a 10-day challenge for his lab: they would sift through 1,000 recently published scientific papers documenting cases of the deadly virus from around the world, pluck out the names of any drugs used in an attempt to cure patients, and track the treatments and their outcomes in a database.
Before late 2019, no one had ever had to treat this exact disease before, which meant all treatments would be trial and error. Fajgenbaum, a pioneering researcher in the field of drug repurposing—which prioritizes finding novel uses for existing drugs, rather than arduously and expensively developing new ones for each new disease—knew that physicians around the world would be embarking on an experimental journey, the scale of which would be unprecedented. His intention was to briefly document the early days of this potentially illuminating free-for-all, as a sidebar to his primary field of research on a group of lymph node disorders called Castleman disease. But now, 11 months and 29,000 scientific papers later, he and his team of 22 are still going strong.
On a Personal Mission<p>In the science and medical world, Fajgenbaum lives a dual existence: he is both researcher and subject, physician and patient. In July 2010, when he was a healthy and physically fit 25-year-old finishing medical school, he began living through what would become a recurring, unprovoked, and overzealous immune response that repeatedly almost killed him.</p><p>His lymph nodes were inflamed; his liver, kidneys, and bone marrow were faltering; and he was dead tired all the time. At first his doctors mistook his mysterious illness for lymphoma, but his inflamed lymph nodes were merely a red herring. A month after his initial hospitalization, pathologists at Mayo Clinic finally diagnosed him with idiopathic multicentric Castleman disease—a particularly ruthless form of a class of lymph node disorders that doesn't just attack one part of the body, but many, and has no known cause. It's a rare diagnosis within an already rare set of disorders. Only about 1,500 Americans a year receive the same diagnosis. </p><p>Without many options for treatment, Fajgenbaum underwent recurring rounds of chemotherapy. Each time, the treatment would offer temporary respite from Castleman symptoms, but bring the full spate of chemotherapy side effects. And it wasn't a sustainable treatment for the long haul. Regularly dousing a person's cells in unmitigated toxicity was about as elegant a solution to Fajgenbaum's disease as bulldozing a house in response to a toaster fire. The fire might go out (though not necessarily), but the house would be destroyed.</p><p>A swirl of exasperation and doggedness finally propelled Fajgenbaum to take on a crucial question himself: Among all of the already FDA-approved drugs on the market, was there something out there, labeled for another use, that could beat back Castleman disease and that he could tolerate long-term? After months of research, he discovered the answer: sirolimus, a drug normally prescribed to patients receiving a kidney transplant, could be used to suppress his overactive immune system with few known side effects to boot.</p><p>Fajgenbaum became hellbent on devoting his practice and research to making similar breakthroughs for others. He founded the Castleman Disease Collaborative Network, to coordinate the research of others studying this bewildering disease, and directs a laboratory consumed with studying cytokine storms—out-of-control immune responses characterized by the body's release of cytokines, proteins that the immune system secretes and uses to communicate with and direct other cells. </p><p>In the spring of 2020, when cytokine storms emerged as a hallmark of the most severe and deadly cases of COVID-19, Fajgenbaum's ears perked up. Although SARS-CoV-2 itself was novel, Fajgenbaum already had almost a decade of experience battling the most severe biological forces it brought. Only this time, he thought, it might actually be easier to pinpoint a treatment—unlike Castleman disease, which has no known cause, at least here a virus was clearly the instigator. </p>
Thinking Beyond COVID<p>The week of March 13, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Fajgenbaum found himself hoping that someone would make the same connection and apply the research to COVID. "Then like a minute later I was like, 'Why am I hoping that someone, somewhere, either follows our footsteps, or has a similar background to us? Maybe we just need to do it," he says. And the CORONA Project was born—first as a 10-day exercise, and later as the robust, interactive tool it now is. </p><p>All of the 400 treatments in the CORONA database are examples of repurposed drugs, or off-label uses: physicians are prescribing drugs to treat COVID that have been approved for a different disease. There are no bonafide COVID treatments, only inferences. The goal for people like Fajgenbaum and Stone is to identify potential treatments for further study and eventual official approval, so that physicians can treat the disease with a playbook in hand. When it works, drug repurposing opens up a way to move quickly: A range of treatments could be available to patients within just a few years of a totally new virus entering our reality compared with the 12 - 19 years new drug development takes.</p><p>"Companies for many decades have explored the use of their products for not just a single indication but often for many indications," says Stone. "'Supplemental approvals' are all essentially examples of drug repurposing, we just didn't call it that. The challenge, I think, is to explore those opportunities more comprehensively and systematically to really try to understand the full breadth of potential activity of any drug or molecule."</p>
The left column shows the path of a repurposed drug, and on the right is the path of a newly discovered and developed drug.
Cures Within Reach
A Confounding Virus<p>The FDA declined to comment on what drugs it was fast-tracking for trials, but Fajgenbaum says that based on the CORONA Project's data, which includes data from smaller trials that have already taken place, he feels there are three drugs that seem the most clearly and broadly promising for large-scale studies. Among them are <a href="https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(20)30503-8/fulltext" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>dexamethasone</u></a>, which is a steroid with anti-inflammatory effects, and <a href="https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-drug-combination-treatment-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>baricitinib</u></a>, a rheumatoid arthritis drug, both of which have enabled the sickest COVID-19 patients to bounce back by suppressing their immune systems. The third most clearly promising drug is <a href="https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/full-dose-blood-thinners-decreased-need-life-support-improved-outcome-hospitalized-covid-19-patients" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>heparin</u></a>, a blood thinner, which a recent trial showed to be most helpful when administered at a full dose, more so than at a small, preventative dose. (On the flipside, Fajgenbaum says "it's a little sad" that in the database you can see hydroxychloroquine is still the most-prescribed drug being tried as a COVID treatment around the world, despite over the summer being <a href="https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2021801" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>debunked</u></a> widely as an effective treatment, and continuously since then.)</p><p>One of the confounding attributes of SARS-CoV-2 is its ability to cause such a huge spectrum of outcomes. It's unlikely a silver bullet treatment will emerge under that reality, so the database also helps surface drugs that seem most promising for a specific population. <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2773108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Fluvoxamine</u></a>, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor used to treat obsessive compulsive disorder, showed promise in the recovery of outpatients—those who were sick, but not severely enough to be hospitalized. <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2772185" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Tocilizumab</u></a>, which was actually developed for Castleman disease, the disease Fajgenbaum is managing, was initially written off as a COVID treatment because it failed to benefit large portions of hospitalized patients, but now seems to be effective if used on intensive care unit patients within 24 hours of admission—these are some of the sickest patients with the highest risk of dying. </p><p>Other than fluvoxamine, most of the drugs labeled as promising do skew toward targeting hospitalized patients, more than outpatients. One reason, Fajgenbaum says, is that "if you're in a hospital it's very easy to give you a drug and to track you, and there are very objective measurements as to whether you die, you progress to a ventilator, etc." Tracking outpatients is far more difficult, especially when folks have been routinely asked to stay home, quarantine, and free up hospital resources if they're experiencing only mild symptoms. </p><p>But the other reason for the skew is because COVID is very unlike most other diseases in terms of the human immune response the virus triggers. For example, if oncology treatments show some benefit to people with the highest risk of dying, then they usually work extremely well if administered in the earlier stages of a cancer diagnosis. Across many diseases, this dialing backward is a standard approach to identifying promising treatments. With COVID, all of that reasoning has proven moot. </p><p>As we've seen over the last year, COVID cases often start as asymptomatic, and remain that way for days, indicating the body is mounting an incredibly weak immune response initially. Then, between days five and 14, as if trying to make up for lost time, the immune system overcompensates by launching a major inflammatory response, which in the sickest patient can lead to the type of cytokine storms that helped Fajgenbaum realize his years of Castleman research might be useful during this public health crisis. Because of this phased response, you can't apply the same treatment logic to all cases.</p><p>"In COVID, drugs that work late tend to not work if given early, and drugs that work early tend to not work if given late," says Fajgenbaum. "Generally this … is not a commonplace thing for a virus." </p>
Thursday, March 11th, 2021 at 12:30pm - 1:45pm EST
On the one-year anniversary of the global declaration of the pandemic, this virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines. Planned topics include the effect of the new circulating variants on the vaccines, what we know so far about transmission dynamics post-vaccination, how individuals can behave post-vaccination, the myths of "good" and "bad" vaccines as more alternatives come on board, and more. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
SPEAKERS:<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://leaps.org/media-library/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTY3Mzc4NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjYwNjU4NX0.Tdrh5pze5P4XxgiJK3J4JFrsrijfabIzNJz-AATghDE/image.jpg?width=534&coordinates=365%2C3%2C299%2C559&height=462" id="87554" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b6c7311be7aec25807f9af19b683bf1d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="534" data-height="462" />
Dr. Paul Offit speaking at Communicating Vaccine Science.commons.wikimedia.org<p><strong><a href="https://www.research.chop.edu/people/paul-a-offit" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Paul Offit, M.D.</a>, is the director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He is a co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine for infants, and he has lent his expertise to the advisory committees that review data on new vaccines for the CDC and FDA.</strong></p>
Dr. Monica Gandhi
UCSF Health<p><a href="https://profiles.ucsf.edu/monica.gandhi"></a><strong><a href="https://profiles.ucsf.edu/monica.gandhi" target="_blank">Dr. Monica Gandhi, M.D., MPH,</a> is Professor of Medicine and Associate Division Chief (Clinical Operations/ Education) of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine at UCSF/ San Francisco General Hospital.</strong></p>
Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, MBBCh, FACP, FIDSA
Yale Medicine<p><strong><a href="https://medicine.yale.edu/profile/onyema_ogbuagu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, MBBCh</a>, is an infectious disease physician at Yale Medicine who treats COVID-19 patients and leads Yale's clinical studies around COVID-19. He ran Yale's trial of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.</strong></p>
Dr. Eric Topol
Dr. Topol's Twitter<p><strong><a href="https://www.scripps.edu/faculty/topol/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Eric Topol, M.D.</a>, is a cardiologist, scientist, professor of molecular medicine, and the director and founder of Scripps Research Translational Institute. He has led clinical trials in over 40 countries with over 200,000 patients and pioneered the development of many routinely used medications.</strong></p>