Peggy Clark was 12 weeks pregnant when she went in for a nuchal translucency (NT) scan to see whether her unborn son had Down syndrome. The sonographic scan measures how much fluid has accumulated at the back of the baby's neck: the more fluid, the higher the likelihood of an abnormality. The technician said the baby was in such an odd position, the test couldn't be done. Clark, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, was told to come back in a week and a half to see if the baby had moved.
"With the growing sophistication of prenatal tests, it seems that the more questions are answered, the more new ones arise."
"It was like the baby was saying, 'I don't want you to know,'" she recently recalled.
When they went back, they found the baby had a thickened neck. It's just one factor in identifying Down's, but it's a strong indication. At that point, she was 13 weeks and four days pregnant. She went to the doctor the next day for a blood test. It took another two weeks for the results, which again came back positive, though there was still a .3% margin of error. Clark said she knew she wanted to terminate the pregnancy if the baby had Down's, but she didn't want the guilt of knowing there was a small chance the tests were wrong. At that point, she was too late to do a Chorionic villus sampling (CVS), when chorionic villi cells are removed from the placenta and sequenced. And she was too early to do an amniocentesis, which isn't done until between 14 and 20 weeks of the pregnancy. So she says she had to sit and wait, calling those few weeks "brutal."
By the time they did the amnio, she was already nearly 18 weeks pregnant and was getting really big. When that test also came back positive, she made the anguished decision to end the pregnancy.
Now, three years after Clark's painful experience, a newer form of prenatal testing routinely gives would-be parents more information much earlier on, especially for women who are over 35. As soon as nine weeks into their pregnancies, women can have a simple blood test to determine if there are abnormalities in the DNA of chromosomes 21, which indicates Down syndrome, as well as in chromosomes 13 and 18. Using next-generation sequencing technologies, the test separates out and examines circulating fetal cells in the mother's blood, which eliminates the risks of drawing fluid directly from the fetus or placenta.
"Finding out your baby has Down syndrome at 11 or 12 weeks is much easier for parents to make any decision they may want to make, as opposed to 16 or 17 weeks," said Dr. Leena Nathan, an obstetrician-gynecologist in UCLA's healthcare system. "People are much more willing or able to perhaps make a decision to terminate the pregnancy."
But with the growing sophistication of prenatal tests, it seems that the more questions are answered, the more new ones arise--questions that previous generations have never had to face. And as genomic sequencing improves in its predictive accuracy at the earliest stages of life, the challenges only stand to increase. Imagine, for example, learning your child's lifetime risk of breast cancer when you are ten weeks pregnant. Would you terminate if you knew she had a 70 percent risk? What about 40 percent? Lots of hard questions. Few easy answers. Once the cost of whole genome sequencing drops low enough, probably within the next five to ten years according to experts, such comprehensive testing may become the new standard of care. Welcome to the future of prospective parenthood.
"In one way, it's a blessing to have this information. On the other hand, it's very difficult to deal with."
How Did We Get Here?
Prenatal testing is not new. In 1979, amniocentesis was used to detect whether certain inherited diseases had been passed on to the fetus. Through the 1980s, parents could be tested to see if they carried disease like Tay-Sachs, Sickle cell anemia, Cystic fibrosis and Duchenne muscular dystrophy. By the early 1990s, doctors could test for even more genetic diseases and the CVS test was beginning to become available.
A few years later, a technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) emerged, in which embryos created in a lab with sperm and harvested eggs would be allowed to grow for several days and then cells would be removed and tested to see if any carried genetic diseases. Those that weren't affected could be transferred back to the mother. Once in vitro fertilization (IVF) took off, so did genetic testing. The labs test the embryonic cells and get them back to the IVF facilities within 24 hours so that embryo selection can occur. In the case of IVF, genetic tests are done so early, parents don't even have to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy. Embryos with issues often aren't even used.
"It was a very expensive endeavor but exciting to see our ability to avoid disorders, especially for families that don't want to terminate a pregnancy," said Sara Katsanis, an expert in genetic testing who teaches at Duke University. "In one way, it's a blessing to have this information (about genetic disorders). On the other hand, it's very difficult to deal with. To make that decision about whether to terminate a pregnancy is very hard."
Just Because We Can, Does It Mean We Should?
Parents in the future may not only find out whether their child has a genetic disease but will be able to potentially fix the problem through a highly controversial process called gene editing. But because we can, does it mean we should? So far, genes have been edited in other species, but to date, the procedure has not been used on an unborn child for reproductive purposes apart from research.
"There's a lot of bioethics debate and convening of groups to try to figure out where genetic manipulation is going to be useful and necessary, and where it is going to need some restrictions," said Katsanis. She notes that it's very useful in areas like cancer research, so one wouldn't want to over-regulate it.
There are already some criteria as to which genes can be manipulated and which should be left alone, said Evan Snyder, professor and director of the Center for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at Sanford Children's Health Research Center in La Jolla, Calif. He noted that genes don't stand in isolation. That is, if you modify one that causes disease, will it disrupt others? There may be unintended consequences, he added.
"As the technical dilemmas get fixed, some of the ethical dilemmas get fixed. But others arise. It's kind of like ethical whack-a-mole."
But gene editing of embryos may take years to become an acceptable practice, if ever, so a more pressing issue concerns the rationale behind embryo selection during IVF. Prospective parents can end up with anywhere from zero to thirty embryos from the procedure and must choose only one (rarely two) to implant. Since embryos are routinely tested now for certain diseases, and selected or discarded based on that information, should it be ethical—and legal—to make selections based on particular traits, too? To date so far, parents can select for gender, but no other traits. Whether trait selection becomes routine is a matter of time and business opportunity, Katsanis said. So far, the old-fashioned way of making a baby combined with the luck of the draw seems to be the preferred method for the marketplace. But that could change.
"You can easily see a family deciding not to implant a lethal gene for Tay-Sachs or Duchene or Cystic fibrosis. It becomes more ethically challenging when you make a decision to implant girls and not any of the boys," said Snyder. "And then as we get better and better, we can start assigning genes to certain skills and this starts to become science fiction."
Once a pregnancy occurs, prospective parents of all stripes will face decisions about whether to keep the fetus based on the information that increasingly robust prenatal testing will provide. What influences their decision is the crux of another ethical knot, said Snyder. A clear-cut rationale would be if the baby is anencephalic, or it has no brain. A harder one might be, "It's a girl, and I wanted a boy," or "The child will only be 5' 2" tall in adulthood."
"Those are the extremes, but the ultimate question is: At what point is it a legitimate response to say, I don't want to keep this baby?'" he said. Of course, people's responses will vary, so the bigger conundrum for society is: Where should a line be drawn—if at all? Should a woman who is within the legal scope of termination (up to around 24 weeks, though it varies by state) be allowed to terminate her pregnancy for any reason whatsoever? Or must she have a so-called "legitimate" rationale?
"As the technical dilemmas get fixed, some of the ethical dilemmas get fixed. But others arise. It's kind of like ethical whack-a-mole," Snyder said.
One of the newer moles to emerge is, if one can fix a damaged gene, for how long should it be fixed? In one child? In the family's whole line, going forward? If the editing is done in the embryo right after the egg and sperm have united and before the cells begin dividing and becoming specialized, when, say, there are just two or four cells, it will likely affect that child's entire reproductive system and thus all of that child's progeny going forward.
"This notion of changing things forever is a major debate," Snyder said. "It literally gets into metaphysics. On the one hand, you could say, well, wouldn't it be great to get rid of Cystic fibrosis forever? What bad could come of getting rid of a mutant gene forever? But we're not smart enough to know what other things the gene might be doing, and how disrupting one thing could affect this network."
As with any tool, there are risks and benefits, said Michael Kalichman, Director of the Research Ethics Program at the University of California San Diego. While we can envision diverse benefits from a better understanding of human biology and medicine, it is clear that our species can also misuse those tools – from stigmatizing children with certain genetic traits as being "less than," aka dystopian sci-fi movies like Gattaca, to judging parents for making sure their child carries or doesn't carry a particular trait.
"The best chance to ensure that the benefits of this technology will outweigh the risks," Kalichman said, "is for all stakeholders to engage in thoughtful conversations, strive for understanding of diverse viewpoints, and then develop strategies and policies to protect against those uses that are considered to be problematic."
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.