One of the biggest challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic is the way in which it has forced us to question our hopes. In normal times, hope is a tonic we take in small doses to keep us moving forward through the slog of daily life. The pandemic, however, has made it a much scarcer commodity, spurring us not only to seek it more desperately but to scrutinize it more closely.
Every bit of reassurance seems to come with caveats: Masks can shield us from the coronavirus, but they may need to be doubled in some situations to provide adequate protection. Vaccines work, but they may not be as effective against some viral variants—and they can cause extremely rare but serious side effects. Every few weeks, another potential miracle cure makes headlines (Hydroxychloroquine! Convalescent plasma!), only to prove disappointing on closer inspection. It's hard to know which alleged breakthroughs are worth pinning our hopes on, and which are the products of wishful thinking or hucksterism.
In January 2021, a study published in the journal Gut offered evidence that bacteria in the intestines might influence a whole spectrum of symptoms in long-haul patients.
Lately, two possible sources of hope have emerged concerning so-called "long COVID"—the debilitating syndrome, estimated to affect up to one-third of patients, in which physical, neurological, and cognitive symptoms persist for months. The first encouraging item has gotten plenty of media attention: reports that some long-haulers feel better after being vaccinated. The second item, while less widely covered, has caused a stir among scientists: a study suggesting that rebalancing the gut microbiome—the community of microorganisms in our intestines—could decrease both the severity and duration of the illness.
How optimistic should we allow ourselves to be about either of these developments? Experts warn that it's too soon to tell. Yet research into how vaccines and gut bacteria affect long-haulers—and how both factors might work together—could eventually help solve key pieces of the pandemic puzzle.
Investigating the Role of the Gut Microbiome
The idea that there may be a link between COVID-19 and gut health comes as no surprise to Jessica Lovett. Her case began in June 2020 with gastrointestinal distress—a symptom that was just beginning to be recognized as commonplace in what had initially been considered a respiratory illness. "I had diarrhea three to five times a day for two months," Lovett recalls. "I lost a lot of weight." By July, she was also suffering shortness of breath, chest pain, racing heartbeat, severe fatigue, brain fog, migraines, memory lapses, and more. As with many other COVID long-haulers, these troubles waxed and waned in an endless parade.
Lovett was the marketing manager for a music school in Austin, Texas, and the mother of a two-year-old boy. Just before she got sick, she ran a 5K race for her 40th birthday. Afterward, she had to give up her job, stop driving, and delegate childcare to her husband (who fell ill shortly before she did but recovered in 12 days). Tests showed no visible damage to her lungs, heart, or other organs. But she felt intuitively that taming her GI troubles would be key to getting well. On the advice of fellow patients in a long-COVID Facebook group—and, later, with the guidance of a doctor—she tried avoiding foods thought to trigger histamine reactions or inflammation. That seemed to help some, as did nutritional supplements, antihistamines, and angina medications. Still, she relapsed frequently, and was often bedridden.
In January 2021, a study published in the journal Gut offered evidence that bacteria in the intestines might influence a whole spectrum of symptoms in patients like Lovett. Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong examined blood and stool samples and medical records from 100 hospital patients with lab-confirmed COVID-19 infections, and from 78 people without the disease who were taking part in a microbiome study before the pandemic.
The team, led by professor Siew Chien Ng, found that the makeup of the gut microbiome differed sharply between the two groups. Patients with COVID had higher levels of three bacterial species than those without the infection, but lower levels of several species known to enhance immune system response. Reductions in two of those species—Faecalibacterium prausnitzii and Bifidobacterium bifidum—were associated with more severe symptoms. And the numbers of such helpful bacteria remained low in stool samples collected up to 30 days after infected patients had seemingly cleared the coronavirus from their bodies.
Analysis of blood samples, moreover, showed that these bacterial imbalances correlated with higher levels of inflammatory cytokines (immune system chemicals that are elevated in many patients with severe COVID-19) and markers of tissue damage, such as C-reactive protein.
These findings led the researchers to suggest that rebalancing the microbiome might lessen not only the intensity of COVID symptoms, but also their persistence. "Bolstering of beneficial gut species depleted in COVID-19," they wrote, "could serve as a novel avenue to mitigate severe disease, underscoring the importance of managing patients' gut biota during and after COVID-19."
Soon afterward, Ng revealed that she was working on a solution. Her team, she told Medscape, had developed "a microbiome immunity product that is targeted to what is missing in COVID-19 patients." Early research showed that hospitalized patients who received the treatment developed more antibodies, had fewer symptoms, and were discharged sooner. "So it is quite a bright and promising future," she enthused, "in alleviating some of these detrimental effects of the virus."
The Chicken-and-Egg Problem
Ng's study isn't the only one to suggest a connection between the gut and long COVID. Researchers led by gastroenterologist Saurabh Mehandru at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital recently determined that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can linger in the intestines for months after a patient tests negative. Some studies have also found that gastrointestinal symptoms in the acute phase of the illness correlate with poorer outcomes—though that's far from settled. (In another study, Mehandru's team found lower mortality among patients presenting with GI symptoms.) But the Hong Kong group's paper was the first to posit that resident microbes may play a decisive role in the disease.
That view reflects growing evidence that these bugs can influence a range of ailments, from diabetes to schizophrenia. Over the past decade, the gut microbiome has emerged as a central regulator of the immune system. Some intestinal bacteria emit chemicals that signal immune cells to reduce production of inflammatory proteins, or help those cells effectively target invading pathogens. They also help maintain the integrity of the intestinal lining—preventing the syndrome known as "leaky gut," in which harmful microbes or toxins penetrate to the underlying tissue, potentially wreaking havoc throughout the body and brain.
Nonetheless, many experts have responded to Ng's findings with distinct caution. One problem, they point out, is the chicken-and-egg question: Do reduced levels of beneficial gut bacteria trigger the inflammation seen in COVID-19, or does inflammation triggered by COVID-19 kill off beneficial gut bacteria? "It's an issue of causality versus just association," explains Somsouk Ma, a professor of gastroenterology at the University of California, San Francisco. "I tend to think that the shift in microbes is more likely a consequence of the infection. But, of course, that's just speculation."
A related issue is whether a pill that replenishes "good" bacteria can really combat the effects of COVID-19—whether acute or chronic. Although scientists are studying fecal transplants and other probiotic therapies for many disorders, none has yet been approved by the U.S Food and Drug Administration. "The only situation where bacterial transplantation is known to work is in a form of colitis called Clostridium difficile," notes Mehandru. "I think it's a bit premature to lay too much emphasis on this in the context of COVID."
Placebo-controlled clinical trials will be needed to determine the efficacy of Ng's approach. (Consumer warning: The bacteria she's employing are not found in commercially available probiotics.) Whatever the results, such research—along with studies that track patients' gut microbiomes before, during, and after COVID-19 infection—could help scientists understand why some people have such trouble kicking the disease.
An Unexpected Benefit of Vaccines
The question of what causes long COVID is also central to understanding the effects of vaccines on the condition. In March, as inoculation campaigns took off across the nation, many long-haulers were delighted to see their symptoms disappear within days of getting the shot. "I woke up and it was like, 'Oh what a beautiful morning,'" one patient told The New York Times.
Yet the effects have been far from uniform. Although scientific surveys have not yet been conducted, an April poll by a Facebook group called Survivor Corps found numbers close to experts' estimates: 39 percent said they experienced partial to full recovery post-vaccination; 46 percent saw no difference; and 14 percent felt worse.
How could vaccines—which are designed to prevent COVID-19, not cure it—help some chronic patients get well? In a blog post, Yale immunologist Akiko Iwasaki suggested that the answer depends on what is driving a particular patient's symptoms. Iwasaki identified three possible mechanisms behind long COVID: 1) a persistent viral reservoir; 2) a "viral ghost," composed of fragments of the virus (RNA or proteins) that linger after the infection has been cleared but can still stimulate inflammation; and 3) an autoimmune response triggered by the infection, inducing a patient's immune cells to attack her own tissues.
These mechanisms "are not mutually exclusive," Iwasaki wrote, "and all three might benefit from the vaccines." If a patient has a viral reservoir, vaccine-induced immune cells and antibodies might be able to eliminate it. If the patient has a viral ghost, those vaccine-primed immune responses might knock it out as well. And if the patient is suffering from a COVID-triggered autoimmune syndrome, the vaccine might act as a decoy, shifting the immune system's attention to antigens contained in the shot (and perhaps reprogramming autoimmune cells in the process). The varying role of these underlying factors, and possibly others—such as the gut microbiome—might also help explain why vaccines don't benefit all long-haulers equally. Iwasaki and her team recently launched a clinical study to investigate this theory.
Pato Hebert, a professor of art and public policy at NYU, contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 while on sabbatical in Los Angeles. Hebert, then 50, started out with mild flu-like symptoms, but he was slammed with fatigue, headaches, and confusion a week after testing positive. In April, he landed in urgent care with severe shortness of breath. His brain fog worsened that summer, and a gentle swim brought on a dizzy spell so overwhelming that he feared it was a stroke. (Thankfully, tests showed it wasn't.) In September, he developed severe GI issues, which came and went over the following months. He found some relief through medications, dietary adjustments, acupuncture, herbal remedies, and careful conservation of his physical and mental energy—but a year after his diagnosis, he was still sick.
Hebert received his first dose of the Moderna vaccine on March 1, 2021; it made no difference in his symptoms. After his second dose, on the 29th, he suffered terrible headaches—"like early COVID days," he told me. A week later, his condition had improved slightly compared to pre-vaccination. "With a few exceptions, my fatigue and brain fog have been less challenging," he reported. "I'm cautiously optimistic." But in late April, he suffered another flareup of respiratory and GI issues.
For Jessica Lovett, the vaccine's effects were more dramatic. After her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech formula, on February 26, her cognitive symptoms improved enough that she was able to drive again; within a week, she was pushing her son uphill in a stroller, lifting light weights, and running for short distances. After the second dose, she says, "I had incredible energy. It was insane, like I drank three cups of coffee."
Lovett (who now runs a Facebook support group for Austin locals, ATX Covid Long Haulers) stresses that the vaccine hasn't cured her. She winds up back in bed whenever she pushes herself too hard. She still needs to take antihistamines and shun certain foodstuffs; any slip-up brings another relapse. Yet she's able to live more fully than at any time since she fell ill—and she has begun to feel a renewed sense of hope.
Recently, in fact, she and her husband decided to expand their family. "I guess that tells you something," she says with a laugh. "The doctors have given us the okay, and we're going to try."
Rochelle "Shelley" Buffenstein has one of the world's largest, if not the largest, lab-dwelling colonies of the naked mole rat. (No one has done a worldwide tabulation, but she has 4,500 of them.) Buffenstein has spent decades studying the little subterranean-dwelling rodents. Over the years, she and her colleagues have uncovered one surprising discovery after another, which has led them to re-orient the whole field of anti-aging research.
Naked mole rats defy everything we thought we knew about aging. These strange little rodents from arid regions of Africa, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, live up to ten times longer than their size would suggest. And unlike virtually every other animal, they don't lose physical or cognitive abilities with age, and even retain their fertility up until the end of life. They appear to have active defenses against the ravages of time, suggesting that aging may not be inevitable. Could these unusual creatures teach humans how to extend life and ameliorate aging?
Buffenstein, who is senior principle investigator at Calico Life Sciences, has dedicated her life to finding out. Her early interest in the animals of what is now Zimbabwe led to her current position as a cutting-edge anti-aging researcher at Calico, the Google-funded health venture launched in 2013. The notoriously secretive company is focused on untangling the mysteries of why animals and people age, and whether there are ways to slow or temporarily arrest the process.
The small, wrinkly animal, which lives in underground burrows in the hot, arid regions of Africa, is hardly the beauty queen of the mammalian kingdom. Furless, buck-toothed and tiny-eyed, the creatures look like they could use a good orthodontist, a protective suit of clothes and possibly, some spectacles to enhance their eyesight. But these rats more than make up for their unimpressive looks with their superlative ability to adapt to some of the most inhospitable conditions on earth.
Based on the usual rule that body size predicts lifespan, naked mole rats shouldn't live that long. After all, similarly-sized rodents like mice have a life expectancy of two years or less. But Buffenstein was one of the first scientists to recognize that naked mole rats live an extraordinarily long time, with her oldest animal approaching 39 years of age. In addition, they never become geriatric in the human sense, defying the common signs of aging — age-related diseases, cognitive decline and even menopause. In fact, the queens, or females that do all the breeding in a bee-like underground colony, remain fertile and give birth to healthy pups up until what would be considered very old age in humans. And the naked mole rat has other curious abilities, such as the ability to endure extreme low-oxygen, or hypoxic, conditions like those they encounter in their underground nests.
"One thing we've learned from these animals is that they stay healthy until the very end."
It's not that the naked mole rat isn't subject to the vicissitudes of life, or the normal wear and tear of biological processes. Over the years, Buffenstein and her colleagues have discovered that, while the process of oxidative stress — thought for 50 years to be the main cause of aging — occurs in the naked mole rat just as in any other animal, its damage does not accumulate with age. Oxidative stress occurs during normal cell metabolism when oxygen "free radicals" with one or more unpaired electrons wreak havoc on large cellular molecules, leaving microscopic debris in their wake that clogs up the gears of healthy cell function. Somehow, naked mole rats have an enhanced ability to clear out the damaged cells and molecules before they can set off the usual chain reaction of cell dysfunction and death, according to a 2013 paper in which Buffenstein is the lead author.
Oxidative stress is not the only factor known to be problematic in aging. Slowly accumulating damage to DNA typically leads to protein malfunction and improper folding. In humans and most other animals, these protein fragments can accumulate in cells and gum up the works. Only not so much in naked mole rats, which are able to maintain normal protein folding throughout their long life. After years of discoveries like these, Buffenstein has gradually reframed her focus from "what goes wrong to produce aging?" to "what goes right in the naked mole rat to help it defy the normal wear and tear of life?" Buffenstein's research suggests that the tiny mammals have a unique ability to somehow clear out damaged protein fragments and other toxic debris before they can cause disease and aging.
How She Got Here
Buffenstein ascribes her initial acquaintance with the naked mole rat to serendipity. Back in 1979, her postgraduate mentor Jenny Jarvis at the University of Cape Town in South Africa kept a small colony of rats in her office while studying the mechanisms that lead to the animals' unusual adaptive capabilities. It was Buffenstein's job to take care of them. Working with Jarvis, Buffenstein focused on understanding their unique adaptations to the extreme conditions of their natural habitat.
They studied the unusual behaviors regulating the rat colonies. For instance, they observed that designated "workers" dig the entire colony's underground tunnels and a single reproducing female breeds with only a small number of males. Buffenstein also examined how these animals are able to survive without the "sunshine hormone" — vitamin D — and their unusual modes of regulating their internal temperatures and converting food into energy. Though classified as mammals, the rodents simply don't conform to the mammalian handbook, having found ingenuous ways to alter their bodies and behavior that is fine-tuned to the scorching heat and aridity of their environment.
To escape the heat, they simply burrow underground and live in elaborate tunnels. To cope with the low-oxygen conditions underground, they slowed their metabolism and learned to live for extended periods of time in such hypoxic conditions that an ordinary animal would quickly suffocate. But it was slowly dawning on Buffenstein that the small creatures were exceptional in additional ways.
When Buffenstein got her first academic position at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Jarvis said she could take some of the naked mole rats with her. When she did, Buffenstein noticed that the animals were living far longer than similarly sized rodents. "At that stage, they were about ten years old. Little did I know how long they would eventually show us they could live," she says.
In 1997, after accepting a position at the City College of New York, Buffenstein moved to the U.S. and took her rat colony with her. There she was able to pursue an evolving narrative about the humble naked mole rat that continued to defy expectations. As the years passed, it was becoming more and more evident that her observations could have major implications for aging research. Eventually, she took a position at the Barshop Institute for Aging and Longevity Studies in San Antonio, Texas.
One early observation of Buffenstein's suggested that the species most often used in aging research—mice, roundworms, fruit flies and yeast—have short lifespans and poor defenses against aging. These animals provide important insights into how aging works, and have revealed possible targets for intervention. But they don't show what goes right in apparently non-aging animals like the naked mole rat.
Buffenstein's years of studying the rats has laid the foundation for a whole new perspective in aging research.
"My hypothesis," she says, "is that naked mole rats are very good at removing damaged macromolecules and cells, thereby maintaining homeostasis and cell and tissue function. All the repair pathways examined by us and others in the field point to more efficient repair and more rapid responses to damaging agents." These include things like free radicals and radiation.
Some researchers today are building on Buffenstein's foundational discoveries to home in on possible anti-aging mechanisms that lead to the extraordinary resilience of naked mole rats. University of Cambridge researcher and co-founder of the institution's Naked Mole-Rat Initiative, Ewan St. John Smith, is studying the animal's resistance to cancer.
In a 2020 paper published in Nature, Smith and his colleagues established that naked mole rats harbor cancer-causing genes, and these genes occasionally create cancer cells. But something in the rats shuts the multiplication process down before the cells can grow out of control and form tumors. Now, scientists want to know what mechanisms, exactly, are at play in preventing the cells from invading healthy tissues. Smith has hypothesized that the answer is somehow embedded in interactions in the cells' microenvironment.
He also thinks the animal's immune system could just be very effective at seeking out and destroying cancer cells. Several current cancer therapies work by boosting the body's immune system so it can attack and eliminate the toxic cells. It's possible that the naked mole rat's immune system naturally goes into hyper-drive when cancer cells appear, enabling it to nip the disease in the bud before tumors can form. A pharmacologist by training, Smith thinks that if there is some chemical mediator in the naked mole rat that supercharges its immune cells, perhaps that mediator can be synthesized in a drug to treat humans for cancer.
The naked mole rat's extreme tolerance to hypoxia could also play a role. "Interestingly," he says, "when cells become cancerous, they also become hypoxic, and naked mole rats are known to be very resistant to hypoxia.
He notes that a form of low-level hypoxia is also present in the bodies and brains of both aged mice and older humans. It's commonly seen in the brains of humans with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of age-related dementia. This suggests that hypoxia in humans — and in other mammals — may have a role to play in Alzheimer's and the aging process itself. Resistance to hypoxia could be why the naked mole rat, in Smith's words, "chugs along quite happily" in conditions that in humans are associated with disease and decline.
Smith cheerfully acknowledges his debt to Buffenstein for laying so much of the groundwork in a field rife with possible implications for anti-aging. "Shelley is amazing," he says. "Naked mole rats have a queen and I always refer to her as the queen of the naked mole rat world." In fact, Buffenstein gave Smith his first colony of rats, which he's since grown to about 150. "Some of them will still be around when I retire," he jokes.
Vera Gorbunova, a professor of biology and oncology at the University of Rochester who studies both longevity and cancer in naked mole rats, credits Buffenstein with getting others to study the animals for anti-aging purposes. Gorbunova believes that "cancer and aging go hand-in-hand" and that longer-lived animals have better, more accurate DNA repair.
Gorbunova is especially interested in the naked mole rat's ability to secrete a superabundance of a "super-sugar" molecule called hyaluronan, a ubiquitous additive to skin creams for its moisturizing effect. Gorbunova and others have observed that the presence of high concentrations of hyaluronan in the naked mole rat's extracellular matrix — the chemical-rich solution between cells — prevents the overcrowding of cells. This, perhaps, could be the key to the animal's ability to stop tumors from forming.
Hyaluronan is also present in the extracellular matrix of humans, but the naked mole rat molecule is more than five times larger than the versions found in humans or mice, and is thought to play a significant part in the animal's DNA repair. But just rubbing a cream containing hyaluronan over your skin won't stop cancer or aging. High concentrations of the substance in the extracellular matrix throughout your body would likely be needed.
Gorbunova notes that the naked mole rat offers a multitude of possibilities that could eventually lead to drugs to slow human aging. "I'm optimistic that there are many different strategies, because the naked mole rat likely has many processes going on that fight aging," she says. "I think that in a relatively short time, there will be bonafide treatments to test in animals. One thing we've learned from these animals is that they stay healthy until the very end."
So if naked mole rats don't become frail with age or develop age-related diseases, what does kill them? The answer, unfortunately, is usually other naked mole rats. Buffenstein has long noted that even though they live in highly cooperative colonies, they can be quite cantankerous when there's a disruption in the hierarchy, a sentiment echoed by Gorbunova. "Sometimes there are periods of peace and quiet, but if something happens to the queen, all hell breaks loose," she says. "If the queen is strong, everybody knows their place," but if the queen dies, the new queen is inevitably decided by violent competition.
To the casual observer, a strange, wrinkly rodent like the naked mole rat might seem to have little to teach us about ourselves, but Buffenstein is confident that her discoveries could have major implications for human longevity research. Today, at Calico's labs in San Francisco, she's focused entirely on the determining how anti-aging defense mechanisms in the rats could lead to similar defenses being stimulated or introduced in humans.
"The million-dollar question is, what are the mechanisms protecting against aging, and can these be translated into therapies to delay or abrogate human aging, too?"
Buffenstein fired up a new generation of scientists with multiple discoveries, especially the fundamental one that naked mole rats are subject to the same wear and tear over time as the rest of us, but somehow manage to reverse it. These days, the trailblazer is at work on untangling the molecular mechanisms involved in the animal's resistance to cardiac aging. On top of everything else, the small creature has a unique ability to fight off the scourge of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the industrialized world.
After all, the point is not to extend old age, but to slow down aging itself so that frailty and disability are compressed into a brief period after a long-extended period of vitality. By switching the focus from what goes wrong to mechanisms that defend against aging in the first place, the discoveries of Buffenstein and a new generation of researchers who are building on her groundbreaking research promise to be a driving force in the quest to extend not only life, but healthy, vigorous life in humans.
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."