At the biannual Planetary Defense Conference earlier this year, NASA ran a simulation of an asteroid slamming into the center of Manhattan.
For several millennia now, we've been lucky, but our luck won't hold out forever.
The gathering of astronomers, planetary scientists, and FEMA disaster-response experts attempted a number of interventions that might be possible within a time window of eight years, the given warning period before impact.
Catastrophic asteroid crashes are not without precedent, and scientists say it's only a matter of time before another one occurs—that is, if we do nothing to prevent it. It's believed that a huge asteroid crash off the coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula created a worldwide disaster that helped to speed the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
In 1908, a meteoroid less than 300 feet in diameter exploded in the air over the Tunguska region of Siberia, creating a shockwave that leveled trees for hundreds of square miles. It's a matter of sheer luck it didn't hit a major population center, where human casualties could have been enormous.
For several millennia now, we've been lucky, but our luck won't hold out forever. There are millions of asteroids circulating about in our solar system, some of them hundreds of miles across, and although the odds of a massive one crashing to Earth in the near future is statistically low, the devastation could be apocalyptic.
Back at the conference, the experts tried sending several spacecrafts to knock the asteroid off-course by slamming into it. They considered blasting it with nuclear weapons. They even considered painting it white so it absorbed less of the sun's energy, hoping that would shift the asteroid's trajectory. In the simulations, all of the interventions failed and the giant space rock crashed into Manhattan, killing 1.3 million people in a massive explosion that was 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.
NEOCam is designed, tested, and ready to build, but the project is currently frozen because of a $40 million gap in NASA funding.
Given more time, the scientists said, they might have succeeded in preventing the disaster. However, with today's asteroid-hunting telescopes, it's not likely we would have more warning. Our current telescopes are not powerful enough to detect all the near-earth asteroids, nor are they positioned well enough for sufficient detection. As recently as last week, for example, an asteroid traveling 15 miles a second narrowly missed crashing into the Earth, and it was only noticed several days in advance.
Now for the good news: There is a new technology that could buy us the time we need, says MIT planetary sciences professor Richard P. Binzel and colleagues who attended the conference. The Near-Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam, designed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, would detect more than 90 percent of nearby objects that are 420 feet across or larger, according to Binzel.
The powerful infrared telescope is designed to sit within the L1 Lagrange point, a stable location in space where the gravitational pulls of the Earth and the sun cancel each other out. From there, large space bodies could be detected early enough to give scientists decades of warning when an asteroid is heading for Earth. NEOCam is designed, tested, and ready to build, but the project is currently frozen because of a $40 million gap in NASA funding.
The status of NEOCam, according to Binzel, is a case-study in short-sightedness and a lack of leadership. Congress needs to raise NASA's Planetary Defense budget from its current $160 million to $200 million to get the telescope built and launched into space, a goal that would seem eminently doable within the strictures of 2020's $4.75 trillion government budget. But Binzel describes a current deadlock between NASA, Congress, and the Office of Management and Budget as a "cosmic game of chicken."
If we don't use our technology to defend the planet, "it would be the most epic failure in the history of science."
In an excruciatingly budget-conscious atmosphere, "No one wants to stick their neck out and take adult responsibility" for getting the funding allocated that would unfreeze the project, says Binzel. But, he adds, "We have a moral obligation to act."
NEOCam would not only spot the overwhelming majority of asteroids in Earth's vicinity, it would determine their size and pinpoint exactly where they are likely to strike the Earth. And it would allow us decades to act, according to Binzel. Repeated ramming by an international armada of specialized spacecraft could slightly change the trajectory of an asteroid, he says. Changing the trajectory only a tiny bit, given the scale of millions of miles and several decades for the course change to take effect, could cause an asteroid to miss the Earth altogether.
"So far we've been relying on luck," says Binzel, "but luck is not a plan." Now that we have the technology to discover what's careening through our space neighborhood, it's our ethical duty to deploy it. If we don't use our technology to gain the knowledge we need to defend the planet, Binzel concludes, "it would be the most epic failure in the history of science."
Should Congress green light the $40 million budget for the new asteroid-hunting telescope? @NASA #NASA #astroid— leapsmag (@leapsmag)1564681293.0
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.