Last minute holiday gifts for the bio-inspired
“Merry Christmas! Isn’t it fun to say Merry Christmas to everyone? Time for a party and presents and things that make children happy and give their hearts wings!” go the lyrics of the popular Christmas poem. But adults (of various religions) need their gifts this time of year, too. For the biologically inspired big children, the process of finding the right fit can be daunting. To inform your choices in both conventional and unconventional ways, Leaps.org is presenting a roundup of the coolest bio-products related to health, nutrition, gaming, lifestyle and more.
AYO Circadian Light Therapy Wearable
We don’t hear it tick, but we have our own clock inside our body–more precisely, circadian clocks. Our cells contain tiny molecular clocks that keep track of our circadian rhythms, or our sleep and metabolism pattern and activity levels, on a daily basis. Chronic circadian disruptions can lead to sleep disorders, poor energy levels, weight gain, lousy mood, and sped-up aging, as well as increased risk for every “modern” disease out there, from diabetes to cancer.
Now, high-tech glasses have been developed that attempt to mimic the benefits of sunlight. In the morning and afternoon, these glasses shed blue light into your eyes to stimulate the master clock at the base of your brain for less drowsiness. The technology's design draws from an area of research, chronobiology, that received a Nobel Prize in 2017 and has become increasingly active in recent years.
“We have been developing and testing the AYO Circadian Health solution for the past five years in collaboration with some of the world's leading experts and researchers in chronobiology, light therapy and health,” said Alexander Dimitrov, co-creator of AYO. “We have done studies with over 25,000 participants, and over one million light sessions,” Dimotrov continued, partnering with institutions such as Mount Sinai Hospital, City of Hope and the U.S. Department of Defense.
The technology could fundamentally reshape the way we view sleep, health and our daily calendars. And, when connecting to a mobile app, the glasses could minimize circadian disruptions for travelers between conflicting time zones.
It's not easy for many people to break free of their attachment to the concept of chronological age, which counts years by how many times we’ve circled the sun since the day we were born. Society lumps us all into one age bracket according to our date of birth but, lately, research is suggesting that we should do some serious deconditioning. According to these studies, the more accurate measure is your biological age, a measurement based on various biomarkers of the body’s overall health and resilience, regardless of your calendar age.
If you want to find out your “true” biological age, myDNAge is a test that focuses on epigenetics, or patterns of changes in DNA methylation, with some initial research pointing to its accuracy. It offers a snapshot of your epigenetic age as well as key biomarkers related to your metabolism, risk of Alzheimer's and more, according to Xiaojing Yang, group leader of epigenetics at myDNAge. “You can perform tests six to 12 months [apart] to track the impact of lifestyle changes,” Yang said. The kit could be a useful tool both for citizen scientists and biohacking veterans.
($299 for one kit–Use code NEWYEARNEWME to receive 50% off a second kit)
Prairie Sky Yak Cheese
Do you love cheese? Do you love exotic cheese? Do you have an interest in preserving biological and genetic diversity? If you answered yes to all three questions, yak cheese was made for you. This type of cheese typically comes from a free-range yak living 13,000 feet above surface level in the Tibetan Himalayas, a relative of the endangered Wild yak. (North America is home to at least 5,000 registered yaks.)
“When I learned that we had a piece of rare biodiversity to be preserved for future generations, I realized that the yak in North America needed a job,” said Nicole Geijer Porter, president of World Heritage Yak Conservancy (WHYC), an organization formed to protect heritage yak “If an animal cannot be beneficial to the rancher in some way, exclusively as pets and lawn ornaments, they will go extinct. Raised for meat they are often hybridized with cattle to grow bigger and faster, so they will also go extinct,” said Porter, an epigeneticist turned yak herder.
Each slice of cheese and piece of butter supports the genetic testing and tracking of Tibetan yak. (You can become a member of WHYC through the Adopt-A-Yak program). “This project is also of biological importance because of the low methane emission research on yak, and the high nutritional content of the milk and cheese,” said Porter.
As for flavor, the Prairie Sky Yak Gruyere is a semi-hard cheese with a nutty taste sometimes compared to chocolate; Tomme de Savoie is a semi-soft Alpine cheese reminiscent of a washed rind muenster; and the Yak Cheddar is made with yak milk following the classic English recipe from Wells Cathedral, with earthly and pungent flavors.
(Various prices; $59.95 for the Three Yak Cheese Flight Gift Box, $139.95 for the Regional Himalayan Yak Cheddar Gift Basket and more)
Bite Toothpaste Bits
The price of a healthy smile is steep. Each year over one billion plastic toothpaste tubes are thrown out, over 50 Empire State Buildings worth of these tubes end up in landfills or oceans, and many animals suffer and die each year in cruel tests for improving oral care in people.
Sustainable oral care is both an act of self-love and giving back to the environment. Bite is a toothpaste that boasts about its green practices for a reason: it uses recyclable glass bottles with aluminum lids that break down into sand after they’ve been used. For shipping, Bite uses kraft envelopes padded with recycled and compostable newspapers, and its boxes are made of fully recycled, corrugated cardboard and sealed with paper tape. Bite refills come in 100% home compostable pouches every four months (still no plastic).
Sustainability aside, there may be an element of fun to Bite – as you brush, a mint foam forms “like magic,” the company claims.
Fractional Laser Treatment for Skin
The environment is hard on our skin: from ultraviolet rays to pollution, a constant oxidative war is waged upon it, leading to loss of collagen and damage to the barrier function of the skin. A fractional laser treatment is a type of laser skin resurfacing procedure that essentially traumatizes the skin – in a good way - through subjecting a small area of it to tiny amounts of laser energy. The laser penetrates the second layer of skin, the dermis, leading to skin exfoliation, which stimulates collagen and elastin production.
The treatment may help with soothing acne scarring, correcting uneven skin tone and texture, and reducing wrinkles and fine lines, sun damage and age spots. Recent research suggests the fractional laser can help with improving skin elasticity and reducing the amount and depth of wrinkles, though there’s little to no evidence for any benefits for eyebags, dark circles, discolorations within the eye area and water retention.
(Typically, a single fractional laser treatment costs $750 for a small area, $1500 for a full facial treatment, and $2000 for full face.)
Gadgets and Apps to Measure Your Heart Rate Variability
Heart rate variability may sound like a condition that requires immediate medical treatment, but the more you have of it, the better for your health. Although you may think of the heart as a steadily beating metronome, there are actually small differences in the amount of time between each beat. These differences are called HRV, and having more HRV has been linked to better fitness and fewer diseases.
HRV is easy to measure with a range of gadgets on the market, including Fitbits and Oura Rings. Which product floats your boat is a matter of personal preference, but the Polar H10 chest strap offers some advantages. For example, you can measure your HRV with the Polar H10 while walking around, unlike some devices that require you to stay still while taking a reading.
Plus, the Polar sensor pairs with free apps such as Elite HRV that are great for tracking how your HRV changes over time. "HRV really helps you gauge if you're moving in a positive or negative direction" with your health, says Jason Moore, the CEO and founder of Elite HRV and Spren. Have fun experimenting over the holidays with different lifestyle habits that are associated with higher HRV, some studies show, such as intermittent fasting, regular exercise and just getting more sleep.
($89 for the Polar H10, $0 for the Elite HRV app)
Its predecessor, FOODMarble AIRE1 was a pocket-size breath-testing device that measured hydrogen on the breath. More hydrogen means less digestion, and the AIRE1 used advanced breathalyzer technology to figure out what exactly is going on with the gut. Now, the company has launched FoodMarble AIRE2, which also measures methane alongside with hydrogen. High levels of methane in the body may cause abdominal pain, bloating and constipation, cirrhosis of the liver and chronic pancreatitis. The AIRE2 also comes with haptic feedback to make it easier to use.
Research suggests that these breath tests are valid as at-home diagnostic tools for many digestive conditions. To get the most accurate results, though, it’s important to closely follow the recommended protocol - for example, you can’t eat or drink anything for 10 to 12 hours before the test.
Adventurist Backpack’s Classic Backpack
The Classic backpack is a perfect option for life science aficionados who enjoy getting outside and exploring in nature. Padding in the front and back provides extra protection for camera gear, laptop, and other electronics, and it's completely water-resistant so you can get outside in winter weather.
Nobility points: Adventurist Backpack Co. is partnered with national non-profit Feeding America, and every backpack sold helps provide 25 meals to families in need across the U.S.
This Saves Lives
Speaking of nobility points, you could load your new backpack with a food choice that helps feed others as well. In 2013, actors Kristin Bell, Ryan Devlin, Ravi Patel and Todd Grinnell teamed up to start This Saves Lives, which makes power bars full of vitamins and nutrients, and the company has a unique business model: for every bar you buy, a packet of food is sent to a child in need. In addition to offering essential nutrients, the bars are non-GMO, kosher and gluten-free. Note:This Saves Lives is owned by the same company, GOOD Worldwide, that owns Leaps.org.
(Wild Blueberry & Pistachio bars, $23.99)
NADI X Pants
Even if you’re a yoga zealot enjoying the benefits to your strength, balance and flexibility, chances are you're performing the movements sort of askew. Wearable technology wants to improve your yoga posture and these sleek yoga pants called NADI X have subtle electronic sensors that track how you place your hands, rotate your hips, and align your back. The leggings use haptic feedback (or vibrations on your skin) to slowly guide you into correct alignment. You can also combine the wearable with an app that contains 40 poses and fitting music. Even if you aren't into yoga, you could use the pants for a perfect stretching session. If you do use it for yoga poses, the pants will “speak” to you, letting out a soothing "om" sound once everything is perfect.
Meta Quest Pro VR headset
When it comes to perfecting virtual reality (VR), the Meta Quest Pro VR headset is one step ahead the rest. In a vibrant 3D virtual space, your Meta avatar has the ability to translate your real-life facial expressions into the virtual realm so the experience can feel more personal, while controllers track your movement and use haptic feedback to translate your hand gestures and finger actions into VR as well. Unlike its Quest 2 headset, Meta markets this Quest Pro headset, which was just released in October, as a great tool for work and business meetings, but you can also use it to play games, watch movies, or download fitness apps or mental-health related apps – some of which are designed to help you get boxing workouts with long-distance friends, fight your fear of heights or meditate in outer space.
Rouge Sur Mesure Custom Lip Color Creator
Beauty and artificial intelligence (AI) complement each other well in the new Yves Saint Laurent lip personalized color – which wants to put the final nail on the coffin of generic lipsticks. This is a lipstick printer at its core. You pair a device to your smartphone and then insert three lipstick cartridges into the base, each of which comes with a color palette (all four could create up to 4,000 lipstick shades). Particularly charming is the fact that you can take a photo of your outfit, and the app will suggest shades that match or clash it.
($299, cartridges $89 each)
Dairy-Free Cream Cheese and Meatless Breakfast Patties
On the environmental front again, meatless patties and dairy-free cream cheese constitute conscientious and delicious choices for vegans, vegetarians and pretty much anyone else. Chicago-based Nature's Fynd is worth checking out. It uses a microbe named Fusarium strain flavolapis, which has originsin an acidic hot spring at Yellowstone National Park.
“We use this remarkable microbe to grow Fy — a nutritional fungi protein that’s made into a wide variety of delicious and sustainable foods,” says Karuna Rawal, Nature’s Fynd CMO. Fy is grown via a breakthrough fermentation process using a fraction of the water, land, and energy compared to traditional protein sources.
It’s a sustainable way to grow food for Earth’s population,” but Nature’s Fynd isn’t just concentrating on Earth. The company recently partnered with NASA to send Fy to space. “As long as there’s an appropriately controlled environment, we can grow Fy anytime, anywhere. It could be a nutritious food source for astronauts on deep space missions," said Rawal.
Biologically curious people may be especially interested in trying cannabinoid (CBD) oil. CBD is a natural and safe substance found in cannabis, which has been found to tackle anxiety and depression, reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, help manage chronic pain and migraines, improve sleep patterns, and keep panic attacks at bay. Kanibi’s Isolate CBD Oil Tincture is a good choice as it is cinnamon-flavored and made in an FDA-inspected facility.
($109--25% off on your first order)
Govee RGBIC Floor Lamp
Another winner for anyone who's been hearing about the health benefits of obeying your circadian rhythms: "RGB" lights, or red-green-blue lights that can be operated by remote control to shine bright blue light during the day and then, with a few touches of your phone, bathe you in warmer, red light to get you ready for bed. Look for RGB bulbs to stick into the light fixtures you already have, or you could opt for the Govee floor lamp that syncs with an app on your phone (or Alexa) for circadian color changing. You can also put it on party mode and watch it shift across 16 million color shades in response to the rhythms and beats of Cuddle Up, Cozy Down Christmas and Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah.
If you suffer from packing anxiety (or incompetence), an app may take away the pain. PackPoint is an app that builds your packing list according to trip type, activities and weather. You add your trip details, select activities (fancy dinner, business meeting, or even workout are some examples), and PackPoint tells you what you need to bring to your destination. The app is free, but upgrading to Premium for a small fee lets you add your own activities and packing list items.
(Free, Premium Package $2.99)
Roses symbolize love, passion, innocence, friendship, and the disarming power of natural beauty. They wilt fast, though, and their spectacle is an unsettling reminder of the fragility of beauty and existence. Unless you dip the rose in 24 karat gold.
The Eternity Rose is put through an intricate three-month process of electroplating, or coating the rose with copper and then with other metals in micro-thin layers. You won’t have to see your flowers sag after a few days because these roses never die. The glitter of gold atop the natural rose (or platinum or silver–whatever you prefer) will fit right in with the Christmas Eve ambiance.
($169 for the gold rose)
Tiny, tough “water bears” may help bring new vaccines and medicines to sub-Saharan Africa
Microscopic tardigrades, widely considered to be some of the toughest animals on earth, can survive for decades without oxygen or water and are thought to have lived through a crash-landing on the moon. Also known as water bears, they survive by fully dehydrating and later rehydrating themselves – a feat only a few animals can accomplish. Now scientists are harnessing tardigrades’ talents to make medicines that can be dried and stored at ambient temperatures and later rehydrated for use—instead of being kept refrigerated or frozen.
Many biologics—pharmaceutical products made by using living cells or synthesized from biological sources—require refrigeration, which isn’t always available in many remote locales or places with unreliable electricity. These products include mRNA and other vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and immuno-therapies for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions. Cooling is also needed for medicines for blood clotting disorders like hemophilia and for trauma patients.
Formulating biologics to withstand drying and hot temperatures has been the holy grail for pharmaceutical researchers for decades. It’s a hard feat to manage. “Biologic pharmaceuticals are highly efficacious, but many are inherently unstable,” says Thomas Boothby, assistant professor of molecular biology at University of Wyoming. Therefore, during storage and shipping, they must be refrigerated at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit). Some must be frozen, typically at -20 degrees Celsius, but sometimes as low -90 degrees Celsius as was the case with the Pfizer Covid vaccine.
For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
The costly cold chain
The logistics network that ensures those temperature requirements are met from production to administration is called the cold chain. This cold chain network is often unreliable or entirely lacking in remote, rural areas in developing nations that have malfunctioning electrical grids. “Almost all routine vaccines require a cold chain,” says Christopher Fox, senior vice president of formulations at the Access to Advanced Health Institute. But when the power goes out, so does refrigeration, putting refrigerated or frozen medical products at risk. Consequently, the mRNA vaccines developed for Covid-19 and other conditions, as well as more traditional vaccines for cholera, tetanus and other diseases, often can’t be delivered to the most remote parts of the world.
To understand the scope of the challenge, consider this: In the U.S., more than 984 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been distributed so far. Each one needed refrigeration that, even in the U.S., proved challenging. Now extrapolate to all vaccines and the entire world. For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
Globally, the cold chain packaging market is valued at over $15 billion and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033.
Freeze-drying, also called lyophilization, which is common for many vaccines, isn’t always an option. Many freeze-dried vaccines still need refrigeration, and even medicines approved for storage at ambient temperatures break down in the heat of sub-Saharan Africa. “Even in a freeze-dried state, biologics often will undergo partial rehydration and dehydration, which can be extremely damaging,” Boothby explains.
The cold chain is also very expensive to maintain. The global pharmaceutical cold chain packaging market is valued at more than $15 billion, and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033, according to a report by Future Market Insights. This cost is only expected to grow. According to the consulting company Accenture, the number of medicines that require the cold chain are expected to grow by 48 percent, compared to only 21 percent for non-cold-chain therapies.
Tardigrades to the rescue
Tardigrades are only about a millimeter long – with four legs and claws, and they lumber around like bears, thus their nickname – but could provide a big solution. “Tardigrades are unique in the animal kingdom, in that they’re able to survive a vast array of environmental insults,” says Boothby, the Wyoming professor. “They can be dried out, frozen, heated past the boiling point of water and irradiated at levels that are thousands of times more than you or I could survive.” So, his team is gradually unlocking tardigrades’ survival secrets and applying them to biologic pharmaceuticals to make them withstand both extreme heat and desiccation without losing efficacy.
Boothby’s team is focusing on blood clotting factor VIII, which, as the name implies, causes blood to clot. Currently, Boothby is concentrating on the so-called cytoplasmic abundant heat soluble (CAHS) protein family, which is found only in tardigrades, protecting them when they dry out. “We showed we can desiccate a biologic (blood clotting factor VIII, a key clotting component) in the presence of tardigrade proteins,” he says—without losing any of its effectiveness.
The researchers mixed the tardigrade protein with the blood clotting factor and then dried and rehydrated that substance six times without damaging the latter. This suggests that biologics protected with tardigrade proteins can withstand real-world fluctuations in humidity.
Furthermore, Boothby’s team found that when the blood clotting factor was dried and stabilized with tardigrade proteins, it retained its efficacy at temperatures as high as 95 degrees Celsius. That’s over 200 degrees Fahrenheit, much hotter than the 58 degrees Celsius that the World Meteorological Organization lists as the hottest recorded air temperature on earth. In contrast, without the protein, the blood clotting factor degraded significantly. The team published their findings in the journal Nature in March.
Although tardigrades rarely live more than 2.5 years, they have survived in a desiccated state for up to two decades, according to Animal Diversity Web. This suggests that tardigrades’ CAHS protein can protect biologic pharmaceuticals nearly indefinitely without refrigeration or freezing, which makes it significantly easier to deliver them in locations where refrigeration is unreliable or doesn’t exist.
The tricks of the tardigrades
Besides the CAHS proteins, tardigrades rely on a type of sugar called trehalose and some other protectants. So, rather than drying up, their cells solidify into rigid, glass-like structures. As that happens, viscosity between cells increases, thereby slowing their biological functions so much that they all but stop.
Now Boothby is combining CAHS D, one of the proteins in the CAHS family, with trehalose. He found that CAHS D and trehalose each protected proteins through repeated drying and rehydrating cycles. They also work synergistically, which means that together they might stabilize biologics under a variety of dry storage conditions.
“We’re finding the protective effect is not just additive but actually is synergistic,” he says. “We’re keen to see if something like that also holds true with different protein combinations.” If so, combinations could possibly protect against a variety of conditions.
Before any stabilization technology for biologics can be commercialized, it first must be approved by the appropriate regulators. In the U.S., that’s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Developing a new formulation would require clinical testing and vast numbers of participants. So existing vaccines and biologics likely won’t be re-formulated for dry storage. “Many were developed decades ago,” says Fox. “They‘re not going to be reformulated into thermo-stable vaccines overnight,” if ever, he predicts.
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits.
Instead, this technology is most likely to be used for the new products and formulations that are just being created. New and improved vaccines will be the first to benefit. Good candidates include the plethora of mRNA vaccines, as well as biologic pharmaceuticals for neglected diseases that affect parts of the world where reliable cold chain is difficult to maintain, Boothby says. Some examples include new, more effective vaccines for malaria and for pathogenic Escherichia coli, which causes diarrhea.
Tallying up the benefits
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits. For instance, MenAfriVac, a meningitis vaccine (without tardigrade proteins) developed for sub-Saharan Africa, can be stored at up to 40 degrees Celsius for four days before administration. “If you have a few days where you don’t need to maintain the cold chain, it’s easier to transport vaccines to remote areas,” Fox says, where refrigeration does not exist or is not reliable.
Better health is an obvious benefit. MenAfriVac reduced suspected meningitis cases by 57 percent in the overall population and more than 99 percent among vaccinated individuals.
Lower healthcare costs are another benefit. One study done in Togo found that the cold chain-related costs increased the per dose vaccine price up to 11-fold. The ability to ship the vaccines using the usual cold chain, but transporting them at ambient temperatures for the final few days cut the cost in half.
There are environmental benefits, too, such as reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Cold chain transports consume 20 percent more fuel than non-cold chain shipping, due to refrigeration equipment, according to the International Trade Administration.
A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University compared the greenhouse gas emissions of the new, oral Vaxart COVID-19 vaccine (which doesn’t require refrigeration) with four intramuscular vaccines (which require refrigeration or freezing). While the Vaxart vaccine is still in clinical trials, the study found that “up to 82.25 million kilograms of CO2 could be averted by using oral vaccines in the U.S. alone.” That is akin to taking 17,700 vehicles out of service for one year.
Although tardigrades’ protective proteins won’t be a component of biologic pharmaceutics for several years, scientists are proving that this approach is viable. They are hopeful that a day will come when vaccines and biologics can be delivered anywhere in the world without needing refrigerators or freezers en route.
Man Who Got the First Fecal Transplant to Cure Melanoma Shares His Experience
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
"I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads," Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" --Diwakar Davar.
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar and his team knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of Clostridioides difficile, a persistant intestinal infection, and they wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
The ABCDE of melanoma detection
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral fecal microbiota product for C. difficile, hopefully paving the way for more.
An older version of this hit article was first published on May 18, 2021