Jurassic Park Without the Scary Parts: How Stem Cells May Rescue the Near-Extinct Rhinoceros
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 2021, Mickayla Wininger’s then one-month-old son, Malcolm, endured a terrifying bout with RSV, the respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) virus—a common ailment that affects all age groups. Most people recover from mild, cold-like symptoms in a week or two, but RSV can be life-threatening in others, particularly infants.
Wininger, who lives in southern Illinois, was dressing Malcolm for bed when she noticed what seemed to be a minor irregularity with this breathing. She and her fiancé, Gavin McCullough, planned to take him to the hospital the next day. The matter became urgent when, in the morning, the boy’s breathing appeared to have stopped.
After they dialed 911, Malcolm started breathing again, but he ended up being hospitalized three times for RSV and defects in his heart. Eventually, he recovered fully from RSV, but “it was our worst nightmare coming to life,” Wininger recalled.
It’s a scenario that the federal government is taking steps to prevent. In July, the Food and Drug Administration approved a single-dose, long-acting injection to protect babies and toddlers. The injection, called Beyfortus, or nirsevimab, is expected to become available this month. It reduces the incidence of RSV in pre-term babies and other infants for their first RSV season. Children at highest risk for severe RSV are those who were born prematurely and have either chronic lung disease of prematurity or congenital heart disease. In those cases, RSV can progress to lower respiratory tract diseases such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis, or swelling of the lung’s small airway passages.
Each year, RSV is responsible for 2.1 million outpatient visits among children younger than five-years-old, 58,000 to 80,000 hospitalizations in this age group, and between 100 and 300 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Transmitted through close contact with an infected person, the virus circulates on a seasonal basis in most regions of the country, typically emerging in the fall and peaking in the winter.
In August, however, the CDC issued a health advisory on a late-summer surge in severe cases of RSV among young children in Florida and Georgia. The agency predicts "increased RSV activity spreading north and west over the following two to three months.”
Infants are generally more susceptible to RSV than older people because their airways are very small, and their mechanisms to clear these passages are underdeveloped. RSV also causes mucus production and inflammation, which is more of a problem when the airway is smaller, said Jennifer Duchon, an associate professor of newborn medicine and pediatrics in the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
In 2021 and 2022, RSV cases spiked, sending many to emergency departments. “RSV can cause serious disease in infants and some children and results in a large number of emergency department and physician office visits each year,” John Farley, director of the Office of Infectious Diseases in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a news release announcing the approval of the RSV drug. The decision “addresses the great need for products to help reduce the impact of RSV disease on children, families and the health care system.”
Sean O’Leary, chair of the committee on infectious diseases for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says that “we’ve never had a product like this for routine use in children, so this is very exciting news.” It is recommended for all kids under eight months old for their first RSV season. “I would encourage nirsevimab for all eligible children when it becomes available,” O’Leary said.
For those children at elevated risk of severe RSV and between the ages of 8 and 19 months, the CDC recommends one dose in their second RSV season.
The drug will be “really helpful to keep babies healthy and out of the hospital,” said O’Leary, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus/Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver.
An antiviral drug called Synagis (palivizumab) has been an option to prevent serious RSV illness in high-risk infants since it was approved by the FDA in 1998. The injection must be given monthly during RSV season. However, its use is limited to “certain children considered at high risk for complications, does not help cure or treat children already suffering from serious RSV disease, and cannot prevent RSV infection,” according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
Until the approval this summer of the new monoclonal antibody, nirsevimab, there wasn’t a reliable method to prevent infection in most healthy infants.
Both nirsevimab and palivizumab are monoclonal antibodies that act against RSV. Monoclonal antibodies are lab-made proteins that mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off harmful pathogens such as viruses. A single intramuscular injection of nirsevimab preceding or during RSV season may provide protection.
The strategy with the new monoclonal antibody is “to extend protection to healthy infants who nonetheless are at risk because of their age, as well as infants with additional medical risk factors,” said Philippa Gordon, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist in Brooklyn, New York, and medical adviser to Park Slope Parents, an online community support group.
No specific preventive measure is needed for older and healthier kids because they will develop active immunity, which is more durable. Meanwhile, older adults, who are also vulnerable to RSV, can receive one of two new vaccines. So can pregnant women, who pass on immunity to the fetus, Gordon said.
Until the approval this summer of the new monoclonal antibody, nirsevimab, there wasn’t a reliable method to prevent infection in most healthy infants, “nor is there any treatment other than giving oxygen or supportive care,” said Stanley Spinner, chief medical officer and vice president of Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care.
As with any virus, washing hands frequently and keeping infants and children away from sick people are the best defenses, Duchon said. This approach isn’t foolproof because viruses can run rampant in daycare centers, schools and parents’ workplaces, she added.
Mickayla Wininger, Malcolm’s mother, insists that family and friends wear masks, wash their hands and use hand sanitizer when they’re around her daughter and two sons. She doesn’t allow them to kiss or touch the children. Some people take it personally, but she would rather be safe than sorry.
Wininger recalls the severe anxiety caused by Malcolm's ordeal with RSV. After returning with her infant from his hospital stays, she was terrified to go to sleep. “My fiancé and I would trade shifts, so that someone was watching over our son 24 hours a day,” she said. “I was doing a night shift, so I would take caffeine pills to try and keep myself awake and would end up crashing early hours in the morning and wake up frantically thinking something happened to my son.”
Two years later, her anxiety has become more manageable, and Malcolm is doing well. “He is thriving now,” Wininger said. He recently had his second birthday and "is just the spunkiest boy you will ever meet. He looked death straight in the eyes and fought to be here today.”
Story by Big Think
For most of history, artificial intelligence (AI) has been relegated almost entirely to the realm of science fiction. Then, in late 2022, it burst into reality — seemingly out of nowhere — with the popular launch of ChatGPT, the generative AI chatbot that solves tricky problems, designs rockets, has deep conversations with users, and even aces the Bar exam.
But the truth is that before ChatGPT nabbed the public’s attention, AI was already here, and it was doing more important things than writing essays for lazy college students. Case in point: It was key to saving the lives of tens of millions of people.
AI-designed mRNA vaccines
As Dave Johnson, chief data and AI officer at Moderna, told MIT Technology Review‘s In Machines We Trust podcast in 2022, AI was integral to creating the company’s highly effective mRNA vaccine against COVID. Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech’s mRNA vaccines collectively saved between 15 and 20 million lives, according to one estimate from 2022.
Johnson described how AI was hard at work at Moderna, well before COVID arose to infect billions. The pharmaceutical company focuses on finding mRNA therapies to fight off infectious disease, treat cancer, or thwart genetic illness, among other medical applications. Messenger RNA molecules are essentially molecular instructions for cells that tell them how to create specific proteins, which do everything from fighting infection, to catalyzing reactions, to relaying cellular messages.
Johnson and his team put AI and automated robots to work making lots of different mRNAs for scientists to experiment with. Moderna quickly went from making about 30 per month to more than one thousand. They then created AI algorithms to optimize mRNA to maximize protein production in the body — more bang for the biological buck.
For Johnson and his team’s next trick, they used AI to automate science, itself. Once Moderna’s scientists have an mRNA to experiment with, they do pre-clinical tests in the lab. They then pore over reams of data to see which mRNAs could progress to the next stage: animal trials. This process is long, repetitive, and soul-sucking — ill-suited to a creative scientist but great for a mindless AI algorithm. With scientists’ input, models were made to automate this tedious process.
“We don’t think about AI in the context of replacing humans,” says Dave Johnson, chief data and AI officer at Moderna. “We always think about it in terms of this human-machine collaboration, because they’re good at different things. Humans are really good at creativity and flexibility and insight, whereas machines are really good at precision and giving the exact same result every single time and doing it at scale and speed.”
All these AI systems were in put in place over the past decade. Then COVID showed up. So when the genome sequence of the coronavirus was made public in January 2020, Moderna was off to the races pumping out and testing mRNAs that would tell cells how to manufacture the coronavirus’s spike protein so that the body’s immune system would recognize and destroy it. Within 42 days, the company had an mRNA vaccine ready to be tested in humans. It eventually went into hundreds of millions of arms.
Biotech harnesses the power of AI
Moderna is now turning its attention to other ailments that could be solved with mRNA, and the company is continuing to lean on AI. Scientists are still coming to Johnson with automation requests, which he happily obliges.
“We don’t think about AI in the context of replacing humans,” he told the Me, Myself, and AI podcast. “We always think about it in terms of this human-machine collaboration, because they’re good at different things. Humans are really good at creativity and flexibility and insight, whereas machines are really good at precision and giving the exact same result every single time and doing it at scale and speed.”
Moderna, which was founded as a “digital biotech,” is undoubtedly the poster child of AI use in mRNA vaccines. Moderna recently signed a deal with IBM to use the company’s quantum computers as well as its proprietary generative AI, MoLFormer.
Moderna’s success is encouraging other companies to follow its example. In January, BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer to make the other highly effective mRNA vaccine against COVID, acquired the company InstaDeep for $440 million to implement its machine learning AI across its mRNA medicine platform. And in May, Chinese technology giant Baidu announced an AI tool that designs super-optimized mRNA sequences in minutes. A nearly countless number of mRNA molecules can code for the same protein, but some are more stable and result in the production of more proteins. Baidu’s AI, called “LinearDesign,” finds these mRNAs. The company licensed the tool to French pharmaceutical company Sanofi.
Writing in the journal Accounts of Chemical Research in late 2021, Sebastian M. Castillo-Hair and Georg Seelig, computer engineers who focus on synthetic biology at the University of Washington, forecast that AI machine learning models will further accelerate the biotechnology research process, putting mRNA medicine into overdrive to the benefit of all.