I am a stem cell scientist. In my day job I work on developing ways to use stem cells to treat neurological disease – human disease. This is the story about how I became part of a group dedicated to rescuing the northern white rhinoceros from extinction.
The earth is now in an era that is called the "sixth mass extinction." The first extinction, 400 million years ago, put an end to 86 percent of the existing species, including most of the trilobites. When the earth grew hotter, dustier, or darker, it lost fish, amphibians, reptiles, plants, dinosaurs, mammals and birds. Each extinction event wiped out 80 to 90 percent of the life on the planet at the time. The first 5 mass extinctions were caused by natural disasters: volcanoes, fires, a meteor. But humans can take credit for the 6th.
Because of human activities that destroy habitats, creatures are now becoming extinct at a rate that is higher than any previously experienced. Some animals, like the giant panda and the California condor, have been pulled back from the brink of extinction by conserving their habitats, breeding in captivity, and educating the public about their plight.
But not the northern white rhino. This gentle giant is a vegetarian that can weigh up to 5,000 pounds. The rhino's weakness is its horn, which has become a valuable commodity because of the mistaken idea that it grants power and has medicinal value. Horns are not medicine; the horns are made of keratin, the same protein that is in fingernails. But as recently as 2017 more than 1,000 rhinos were slaughtered each year to harvest their horns.
All 6 rhino species are endangered. But the northern white has been devastated. Only two members of this species are alive now: Najin, age 32, and her daughter Fatu, 21, live in a protected park in Kenya. They are social animals and would prefer the company of other rhinos of their kind; but they can't know that they are the last two survivors of their entire species. No males exist anymore. The last male, Sudan, died in 2018 at age 45.
We are celebrating a huge milestone in the efforts to use stem cells to rescue the rhino.
I became involved in the rhino rescue project on a sunny day in February, 2008 at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in Escondido, about 30 miles north of my lab in La Jolla. My lab had relocated a couple of months earlier to Scripps Research Institute to start the Center for Regenerative Medicine for human stem cell research. To thank my staff for their hard work, I wanted to arrange a special treat. I contacted my friend Oliver Ryder, who is director of the Institute for Conservation Research at the zoo, to see if I could take them on a safari, a tour in a truck through the savanna habitat at the park.
This was the first of the "stem cell safaris" that the lab would enjoy over the next few years. On the safari we saw elands and cape buffalo, and fed giraffes and rhinos. And we talked about stem cells; in particular, we discussed a surprising technological breakthrough recently reported by the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka that enabled conversion of ordinary skin cells into pluripotent stem cells.
Pluripotent stem cells can develop into virtually any cell type in the body. They exist when we are very young embryos; five days after we were just fertilized eggs, we became blastocysts, invisible tiny balls of a few hundred cells packed with the power to develop into an entire human being. Long before we are born, these cells of vast potential transform into highly specialized cells that generate our brains, our hearts, and everything else.
Human pluripotent stem cells from blastocysts can be cultured in the lab, and are called embryonic stem cells. But thanks to Dr. Yamanaka, anyone can have their skin cells reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells, just like the ones we had when we were embryos. Dr. Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize for these cells, called "induced pluripotent stem cells" (iPSCs) several years later.
On our safari we realized that if we could make these reprogrammed stem cells from human skin cells, why couldn't we make them from animals' cells? How about endangered animals? Could such stem cells be made from animals whose skin cells had been being preserved since the 1970s in the San Diego Zoo's Frozen Zoo®? Our safari leader, Oliver Ryder, was the curator of the Frozen Zoo and knew what animal cells were stored in its giant liquid nitrogen tanks at −196°C (-320° F). The Frozen Zoo was established by Dr. Kurt Benirschke in 1975 in the hope that someday the collection would aid in rescue of animals that were on the brink of extinction. The frozen collection reached 10,000 cell lines this year.
We returned to the lab after the safari, and I asked my scientists if any of them would like to take on the challenge of making reprogrammed stem cells from endangered species. My new postdoctoral fellow, Inbar Friedrich Ben-Nun, raised her hand. Inbar had arrived only a few weeks earlier from Israel, and she was excited about doing something that had never been done before. Oliver picked the animals we would use. He chose his favorite animal, the critically endangered northern white rhinoceros, and the drill, which is an endangered primate related to the mandrill monkey,
When Inbar started work on reprogramming cells from the Frozen Zoo, there were 8 living northern rhinoceros around the world: Nola, Angalifu, Nesari, Nabire, Suni, Sudan, Najin, and Fatu. We chose to reprogram Fatu, the youngest of the remaining animals.
Through sheer determination and trial and error, Inbar got the reprogramming technique to work, and in 2011 we published the first report of iPSCs from endangered species in the scientific journal Nature Methods. The cover of the journal featured a drawing of an ark packed with animals that might someday be rescued through iPSC technology. By 2011, one of the 8 rhinos, Nesari, had died.
This kernel of hope for using iPSCs to rescue rhinos grew over the next 10 years. The zoo built the Rhino Rescue Center, and brought in 6 females of the closely related species, the southern white rhinoceros, from Africa. Southern white rhino populations are on the rise, and it appears that this species will survive, at least in captivity. The females are destined to be surrogate mothers for embryos made from northern white rhino cells, when eventually we hope to generate sperm and eggs from the reprogrammed stem cells, and fertilize the eggs in vitro, much the same as human IVF.
The author, Jeanne Loring, at the Rhino Rescue Center with one of the southern white rhino surrogates.
As this project has progressed, we've been saddened by the loss of all but the last two remaining members of the species. Nola, the last northern white rhino in the U.S., who was at the San Diego Zoo, died in 2015.
But we are celebrating a huge milestone in the efforts to use stem cells to rescue the rhino. Just over a month ago, we reported that by reprogramming cells preserved in the Frozen Zoo, we produced iPSCs from stored cells of 9 northern white rhinos: Fatu, Najin, Nola, Suni, Nadi, Dinka, Nasima, Saut, and Angalifu. We also reprogrammed cells from two of the southern white females, Amani and Wallis.
We don't know when it will be possible to make a northern white rhino embryo; we have to figure out how to use methods already developed for laboratory mice to generate sperm and eggs from these cells. The male rhino Angalifu died in 2014, but ever since I saw beating heart cells derived from his very own cells in a culture dish, I've felt hope that he will one day have children who will seed a thriving new herd of northern white rhinos.
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.