It was 15 years ago this month, but I'll never forget those words. When my wife Jen and I asked her oncologist about our plans to start a family, he calmly replied, "Well, I wouldn't do so unless Dave is prepared to be a single father."
About 50 percent of all people with cancer have a rare type, like the one Jen was fighting.
Time stood still. The danger crystalized — we were in a battle for my beautiful bride's life, and the odds were not in our favor.
We felt every emotion expected. Anger, sadness, confusion, frustration, and especially fear. But we made a very intentional choice to take that fear, put it to the side, and do everything we could to live our lives together to the fullest.
We focused first on Jen's health and learned everything we could about MFH Sarcoma. I was with her every step of the way — for hundreds of medical appointments, six intense surgeries, and twenty different types of chemotherapy. During such a challenging time, our choice to reject fear allowed us to live our best lives. Our careers blossomed, we enjoyed several international vacations, and Jen inspired thousands of fellow patients through her blog and speeches.
When we researched treatment options we learned that Jen was not alone. About 50 percent of all people with cancer have a rare type, like the one Jen was fighting. However, rare cancers don't get the funding they desperately need so effective treatment options are hard to find. The lack of funding felt unfair — and urgent. We didn't worry about everything that can go wrong when starting a new venture. Instead, we jumped in head first and convinced a small group of friends and family to ride stationary bikes with us to raise money for rare cancer research.
Jen Goodman Linn, riding a stationary bike for Cycle for Survival.
(Courtesy David Linn)
From those humble beginnings, Cycle for Survival grew steadily. After starting from scratch, Jen and I ran Cycle for Survival on our own for two years. We quickly realized that if we wanted to help as many people as possible, we needed the best partners. In 2009, we agreed that Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center would take over the ownership of Cycle for Survival and Equinox officially became the Founding Partner. Flash forward to today, and Cycle for Survival has raised more than $220 million! I'm proud that 100% of every donation, yes every penny, goes directly into life-saving rare cancer research within six months of the annual indoor cycling events, which now take place in 17 cities nationwide.
While Cycle for Survival's trajectory was heading straight up, Jen's health struggle was devastatingly swinging up and down. With her incredible spirit and tenacity, Jen would beat the cancer through chemo and surgery, but then it would frustratingly come back again and again. After going into remission six times, it returned with such a vengeance in 2011 that even the world's leading doctors were forced to say, "I'm sorry, there's nothing more we can do."
Those were the most difficult words I've ever heard, by far. I hope no other family has to hear these crushing words.
When Jen died soon after, I didn't know what would happen to me, to my life, and to Cycle for Survival. I do remember making two very important choices at the time. First, I chose to get out of bed and put one foot in front of the other. It wasn't easy. Tears, pain, and grief would hit at any hour of the day or night. I did have a great support network of family and friends who kept me moving forward. One friend in particular changed the route of her morning runs so that I would join her and start getting back to exercising.
My second key choice was to stay involved with Cycle for Survival. At times, it was an excruciatingly difficult decision because I felt the depth of my loss each and every time I stepped into one of the events. However, it was also rewarding and energizing because I could see firsthand how many people it was helping, even though it was too late for Jen.
I began to travel across the country with the Cycle for Survival staff. My hope was to spread the word about rare cancers; along the way I met a lot of wonderful people who shared their stories with me. What I soon realized is that each of us faces obstacles in our lives. For me, it was losing the person who I wanted to spend my life with. For others, it might be challenges with their kids or in their professional lives. The common theme is that we don't have control over the fact that we have to face these challenges. But the biggest lesson I've learned is that we very much do have a choice in how we react.
I made the choice to do everything I can to help rare cancer patients and their families and it has been transformative and healing for me. The small group who rode in the first Cycle for Survival event has grown into a powerful movement of nearly 40,000 riders making a real difference. If Jen were diagnosed today, there are new treatments available– including genomic sequencing, targeted therapies, and immunotherapies – that could help her. Those weren't even options a short time ago. That's the result of funding research.
A recent Cycle for Survival event shows the passion and power of the community.
(Courtesy David Linn)
I also want to share one more choice I made. Remember that friend who changed the route of her morning runs so I could start exercising after Jen died? Well, over the years friendship grew into love, and we're now building a home together and can't wait to see what the future holds for us.
So with all that in mind I ask – when you face those inevitable challenges in your life, how will you choose to react? Remember that even in the midst of hopelessness, you can find choices. Those will be the decisions that define and guide you.
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.