After Jackie Costanzo's mother broke her right hip in a fall, she needed more hands-on care in her assisted-living apartment near Sacramento, California. A social worker from her health plan suggested installing a video camera to help ensure those services were provided.
Without the camera, Costanzo wouldn't have a way to confirm that caregivers had followed through with serving meals, changing clothes, and fulfilling other care needs.
When Costanzo placed the device in May 2018, she informed the administrator and staff, and at first, there were no objections. The facility posted a sign on the apartment's front door, alerting anyone who entered of recording in progress.
But this past spring, a new management company came across the sign and threatened to issue a 30-day eviction notice to her 93-year-old mother, Louise Munch, who has dementia, for violating a policy that prohibits cameras in residents' rooms. With encouragement from California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, Costanzo researched the state's regulations but couldn't find anything to support or deny camera use. She refused to remove the recording device and prevailed.
"In essence, my mom was 'grandfathered in' because she moved in under a management company that did not specify that residents could not have cameras," says Costanzo, 73, a retired elementary schoolteacher who lives a three-hour drive away, in Silicon Valley, and visits one day every two weeks. Without the camera, Costanzo, who is her mother's only surviving child, wouldn't have a way to confirm that caregivers had followed through with serving meals, changing clothes, and fulfilling other care needs.
As technological innovations enable next of kin to remain apprised of the elderly's daily care in long-term care facilities, surveillance cameras bring legal and privacy issues to the forefront of a complex ethical debate. Families place them overtly or covertly—disguised in a makeshift clock radio, for instance—when they suspect or fear abuse or neglect, so they can maintain a watchful eye, perhaps deterring egregious behavior. But the cameras also capture intimate caregiving tasks, such as bathing and toileting, as well as dressing and undressing, which may undermine the dignity of residents.
So far, laws or guidelines in eight states—Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington—have granted families the rights to install cameras in a resident's room. In addition, about 15 other states have proposed legislation. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, have put forth regulatory compliance guidance, according to a column published in the July/August 2018 issue of Annals of Long-Term Care.
The increasing prevalence of this legislation has placed it on the radar of long-term care providers. It also suggests a trend to clarify responsible camera use in monitoring services while respecting privacy, says Victor Lane Rose, the column's editor and director of aging services at ECRI Institute, a health care nonprofit near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In most cases, a resident's family installs a camera or instigates a request in hopes of sparing their loved one from the harms of abuse, says James Wright, a family physician who serves as the ethics committee's vice chair of the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine in Columbia, Maryland. A camera also allows the family to check in on the resident from afar and remain on alert for a potential fall or agitated state, he says.
"It's rare that a facility will have 24-hour presence in a patient's room. You won't have a nurse in there all the time," says Wright, who is also medical director of two long-term care centers and one assisted-living facility around Richmond, Virginia. Particularly "with dementia, the family often wonders" if their loved one is safe.
While offering families peace of mind, he notes that video cameras can also help exonerate caregivers accused of abuse or theft. Hearing aids, which typically cost between $2,000 and $3,000 each, often go missing. By reviewing a video together, families and administrators may find clues to a device's disappearance. Conversely, Wright empathizes with the main counterargument against camera use, which is the belief that "invasion of privacy is also invasion of human dignity."
In respecting modesty, ethical questions abound over whether a camera should be turned off when a patient is in the midst of receiving personal care, such as dressing and undressing or using bedpans. Other ethical issues revolve around who may access the recordings, says Lori Smetanka, executive director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care in Washington, D.C.
Video cameras, she contends, are only one tool in shielding residents from abuse. They are "not substitutes for personal involvement," she says. "People need to be very vigilant visiting their family members, and facilities have a responsibility to ensure that residents are free of abuse."
Lack of accountability perpetuates abuse in long-term care settings and stems in large part from systemic underfunding.
Educating employees in abuse prevention becomes paramount, and families should ask about staff training before placing their loved one in a long-term care facility, Smetanka says. Prior to installing a camera, she recommends consulting an attorney who is familiar with this issue.
But thoughts of a camera often don't occur to families until an adverse event affects their loved one, says Toby Edelman, a senior policy attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a nonprofit organization with headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Connecticut.
"These cameras can show exactly what's going on," she explains, noting that prosecutors have used the recordings in litigation. "When residents have injuries of unknown origin" and they can't verbalize what happened to them, "the cameras may document that yes, the resident was actually hit by somebody."
With a resident's safety and security being "the most important consideration," the American Health Care Association in Washington, D.C., which represents long-term and post-acute care providers, supports allowing states, clinicians, and patients to decide about camera use on a local level, says David Gifford, senior vice president of quality and regulatory affairs and chief medical officer.
"We've seen some success with tools such as permissive legislation, where residents and their loved ones have the ability to determine whether a camera is right for them while working with the center openly and ensuring the confidentiality of other residents," says Gifford, who practiced as a geriatrician. "It is important to note, however, that surveillance cameras are still only one element of the quality matrix. We can never hope to truly improve quality care by catching bad actors after the fact."
Lack of accountability perpetuates abuse in long-term care settings and stems in large part from systemic underfunding. Low wages and morale are tied to high turnover, and cameras don't address this overarching problem, says Clara Berridge, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has co-authored articles on surveillance devices in elder care.
Employees often don't perceive a nursing assistant position as a long-term career trajectory and may not feel vested in the workplace. Training in the recognition and reporting of abuse becomes ineffective when workers quit shortly thereafter. Many must juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. Staffing shortages are endemic, leading to inadequate oversight of residents and voicing of abuse complaints, she says.
In Berridge's assessment, cameras may do more harm than good. Respondents to a survey she conducted of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in the United States found that recording devices tend to fuel workers' anxiety amid a culture that further demoralizes and dehumanizes the care they provide.
Consent becomes particularly thorny in shared rooms, which are more common than not in nursing homes. States that permit in-room cameras mandate that roommates or their legal representative be made aware. Even if the camera is directed away from their bed, it will still capture conversations as well as movements that enter its scope. "Surveillance isn't the best way to protect adults in need of support," Berridge says. "Public investment in quality care is."
"The camera is invaluable. But there's no law that says you can have it automatically, so that's wrong."
In the one-bedroom assisted-living apartment where Costanzo's mother lives alone, consent from another resident wasn't needed. Without a roommate, the camera is much less intrusive, although Costanzo wishes she had put one in the living room, not just the bedroom, for more security.
Her safety concerns escalated when she read about a Texas serial killer who smothered victims after gaining access to senior care facilities by "masquerading as a maintenance man." She points to such horrifying incidents, although exceedingly rare, as further justification for permitting cameras to help guard the vulnerable against abuse in long-term care settings. And she hopes to advocate for an applicable law in California.
"The camera is invaluable," says Costanzo, who pays for monthly Wi-Fi service so she can see and interact with her mother, who turns 94 in October, any time of day or night. "But there's no law that says you can have it automatically, so that's wrong."
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.