Kelly, a case manager for an insurance company, spent years battling both migraines and Crohn's, a disease in which the immune system attacks the intestines.
For many people, like Kelly, a stronger electric boost to the vagus nerve could be life-changing.
After she had her large intestine removed, her body couldn't absorb migraine medication. Last year, about twice a month, she endured migraines so bad she couldn't function. "It would go up to a ten, and I would rock, wait it out," she said. The pain might last for three days.
Then her neurologist showed her a new device, gammaCore, that tames migraines by stimulating a nerve—not medication. "I don't have to put a chemical in my body," she said. "I was thrilled."
At first, Kelly used the device at the onset of a migraine, applying electricity to her pulse at the front of her neck for six minutes. The pain peaked at about half the usual intensity--low enough, she said, that she could go to work. Four months ago, she began using the device for two minutes each night as prevention, and she hasn't had a serious migraine since.
The Department of Defense and Veterans Administration now offer gammaCore to patients, but it hasn't yet been approved by Medicare, Medicaid, or most insurers. A month of therapy costs $600 before insurance or a generous financial assistance program kicks in.
A patient uses gammaCore, a non invasive vagal nerve stimulator device that was FDA approved in November 2018, to treat her migraine.
(Photo captured from a patient video at gammacore.com)
If the poet Walt Whitman wrote "I Sing The Body Electric" today, he might get specific and point to the vagus nerve, a bundle of fibers that run from the brainstem down the neck to the heart and gut. Singing stimulates it—and for many people, like Kelly, a stronger electric boost to the nerve could be life-changing.
The mind-body connection isn't just an idea — the vagus nerve literally carries signals from the mind to the body and back. It may explain the link between childhood trauma and illnesses such as chronic pain and headaches in adults. "How is it possible that a psychological event causes pain years later?" asked Peter Staats, co-founder of electroCore, which has won approval for its new device from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for both migraine and cluster headaches. "There has to be a mind-body interface, and that is the vagus nerve," he said.
Scientists knew that this nerve controlled your heart rate and blood pressure, but in the past decade it has been linked to both pain and the immune system.
"Everything is gated through the vagus -- problems with the gut, the heart, and the lungs," said Chris Wilson, a researcher at Loma Linda University, in California. Wilson is studying how vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) could help pre-term babies who develop lung infections. "Nearly every one of our chronic diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, chronic arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, and depression and chronic pain…could benefit from an appropriate stimulator," he said.
It's unfortunate that Kelly got her device only after her large intestine was gone. SetPoint Medical, a privately held California company founded to develop electronic treatments for chronic autoimmune diseases, has announced early positive results with VNS for both Crohn's and rheumatoid arthritis.
As SetPoint's chief medical officer, David Chernoff, put it, "We're hacking into the nervous system to activate a system that is already there," an approach that, he said, could work "on many diseases that are pain- and inflammation-based." Inflammation plays a role in much modern illness, including depression and obesity. The FDA already has approved VNS for both, using surgically implanted devices similar to pacemakers. (GammaCore is external.)
The history of VNS implants goes back to 1997, when the FDA approved one for treating epilepsy and researchers noticed that it rapidly lifted depression in epileptic patients. By 2005, the agency had approved an implant for treatment-resistant depression. (Insurance companies declined to reimburse the approach and it didn't take off, but that might change: in February, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services asked for more data to evaluate coverage.) In 2015, the FDA approved an implant in the abdomen to regulate appetite signals and help obese people lose weight.
The link to inflammation had emerged a decade earlier, when researchers at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, in Manhasset, New York, demonstrated that stimulating the nerve with electricity in rats suppressed the production of cytokines, a signaling protein important in the immune system. The researchers developed a concept of a hard-wired pathway, through the vagus nerve, between the immune and nervous system. That pathway, they argued, regulates inflammation. While other researchers argue that VNS is helpful by other routes, there is clear evidence that, one way or another, it does affect immunity.
At the same time, investors are seeking alternatives to drugs.
The Feinstein rat research concluded that it took only a minute a day of stimulation and tiny amounts of energy to activate an anti-inflammatory reflex. This means you can use devices "the size of a coffee bean," said Chernoff, much less clunky than current pacemakers—and advances in electronic technology are making them possible.
At the same time, investors are seeking alternatives to drugs. "There's been a push back on drug pricing," noted Lisa Rhoads, a managing director at Easton Capital Investment Group, in New York, which supported electroCore, "and so many unintended consequences."
In 2016, the U.S. National Institutes of Health began pumping money into relevant research, in a program called "Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions," which focuses on "understanding peripheral nerves — nerves that connect the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body — and how their electrical signals control internal organ function."
GlaxoSmithKline formed Galvani Bioelectronics with Google to study miniature implants. It had already invested in Action Potential Venture Capital, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which holds SetPoint and seven other companies "that are all targeting a nerve to treat a chronic disease," noted partner Imran Eba. "I see a future in which bioelectronics medicine is competing directly with drugs," he said.
Treating the body with electricity could bring more ease and lower costs. Many people with serious auto-immune disease, for example, have to inject themselves with drugs that cost $60,000 a year. SetPoint's implant would cost less and only need charging once a week, using a charger worn around the neck, Chernoff said. The company receives notices remotely and can monitor compliance.
Implants also allow the treatment to target a nerve precisely, which could be important with Parkinson's, chronic pain, and depression, observed James Cavuoto, editor and publisher of Neurotech Reports. They may also allow for more fine-turning. "In general, the industry is looking for signals, biomarkers that indicate when is the right time to turn on and turn off the stimulation. It could dramatically increase the effectiveness of the therapy and conserve battery life," he said.
Eventually, external devices could receive data from biomarkers as well. "It could be something you wear on your wrist," Cavuoto noted. Bluetooth-enabled devices could communicate with phones or laptops for data capture. External devices don't require surgery and put the patient in charge. "In the future you'll see more customer specification: Give the patient a tablet or phone app that lets them track and modify their parameters, within a range. With digital devices we have an enormous capability to customize therapies and collect data and get feedback that can be fed back to the clinician," Cavuoto said.
Slow deep breathing, the traditional mind-body intervention, is "like watching Little League. What we're doing is Major League."
It's even possible to stimulate the vagus through the ear, where one branch of the bundle of fibers begins. In a fetus, the tissue that becomes the ear is also part of the vagus nerve, and that one bit remains. "It's the same point as the acupuncture point," explained Mark George, a psychiatrist and pioneer researcher in depression at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. "Acupuncture figured out years ago by trial and error what we're just learning about now."
Slow deep breathing, the traditional mind-body intervention, also affects the vagus nerve in positive ways, but gently. "That's like watching Little League," Staats, the co-founder of electroCore, said. "What we're doing is Major League."
In ten years, researcher Wilson suggested, you could be wearing "a little ear cuff" that monitors your basic autonomic tone, a heart-attack risk measure governed in part by the vagus nerve. If your tone looked iffy, the stimulator would intervene, he said, "and improve your mood, cognition, and health."
In the meantime, we can take some long slow breaths, read Whitman, and sing.
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.