Taboo topics occupy a difficult place in the history of medicine. Society has long been reticent about confronting stigmatized conditions, forcing many patients to suffer in silence and isolation, often with poorer care.
"Classically, doctors don't purposely kill people. That is really the core of the resistance."
AIDS activists recognized this in the 1980s when they coined the phrase Silence = Death to generate public debate and action over a growing epidemic that until then had existed largely in the shadows. The slogan and the activists behind it were remarkably successful at changing the public discourse.
It is not a lone example. Post-World War II medicine is better because it came to deal more forthrightly with a broad range of medical conditions from conception/abortion, to cancer, to sexually transmitted infections. The most recent issue to face such scrutiny is physician-assisted dying (PAD).
"Classically, doctors don't purposely kill people…that is really the core of the resistance" to PAD from the provider perspective, says Neil Wenger, an internist and ethicist at the University of California Los Angeles who focuses on end-of-life issues.
But from the patient perspective, the option of PAD "provides important psychological benefits ... because it gives the terminally ill autonomy, control, and choice," argued the American Public Health Association in support of Oregon's death with dignity legislation.
Jack Kervorkian, "Dr. Death," was one of the first to broach the subject when few in polite society were willing to do so. The modern era truly began twenty years ago when the citizens of Oregon embraced the option of death with dignity in a public referendum, over the objections of their political leaders.
Expansion of the legal option in North America was incremental until 2016 when the Supreme Court in Canada and legislators in California decided that control over one's body extended to death, at least under certain explicit conditions.
An estimated 18 percent of Americans now live in jurisdictions that provide the legal option of assisted death, but exercising that right can be difficult. Only a fraction of one percent of deaths are by PAD, even in Oregon.
Few organizations of healthcare professionals in the U.S. support PAD; some actively oppose it, others have switched to a position of neutrality while they study the issue.
One doctor wanted to organize a discussion of physician-assisted dying at his hospital, but administrators forbade it.
But once a jurisdiction makes the political/legal decision that patients have a right to physician-assisted death, what are the roles and responsibilities of medical stakeholders? Can they simply opt out in a vow of silence? Or do organizations bear some sort of obligation to ensure access to that right, no matter their own position, particularly when they are both regulated by and receive operating funds from public sources?
The law in California and other U.S. jurisdictions reflects ambivalence about PAD by treating it differently from other medical practices, says David Magnus, an ethicist at Stanford University School of Medicine. It is allowed but "it's intentionally a very, very burdensome process."
Medical decisions, including withdrawing life support or a do not resuscitate [DNR] order, are between a physician and the patient or guardian. But PAD requires outside consultation and documentation that is quite rigorous, even burdensome, Magnus explains. He recalls one phone consult with a physician who had to re-have a conversation with a patient at home in order to meet the regulatory requirements for a request for assistance in dying. "So it is not surprising that it is utilized so infrequently."
The federal government has erected its own series of barriers. Roused by the experience in Oregon, opponents tried to ban PAD at the national level. They failed but did the next best thing; they prohibited use of federal funds to pay for or even discuss PAD. That includes Medicare, Medicaid, and the large health delivery systems run by the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs. The restrictions parallel those on federal funding for access to abortion and medical marijuana.
Even physicians who support and perform PAD are reluctant to talk about it. They are unwilling to initiate the discussion with patients, says Mara Buchbinder, a bioethicist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has interviewed physicians, patients, and families about their experience with assisted dying in Vermont.
"There is a stigma for health care workers to talk about this; they feel that they are not supported," says Buchbinder. She relates how one doctor wanted to organize a discussion of PAD at his hospital, but administrators forbade it. And when the drug used to carry out the procedure became prohibitively expensive, other physicians were not aware of alternatives.
"This just points to large inadequacies in medical preparation around end-of-life conversations," says Buchbinder, a view endorsed by many experts interviewed for this article.
These inadequacies are reinforced when groups like the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care (C-TAC), a 140-member organizational alliance that champions improved end-of-life care, dodges the issue. A spokesman said simply, PAD "is not within the scope of our work."
The American Medical Association has had a policy in place opposing PAD since 1993. Two years ago, its House of Delegates voted to reevaluate their position in light of evolving circumstances. Earlier this year the Council of Ethical and Judicial Affairs recommended continued opposition, but in June, the House of Delegates rejected that recommendation (56 to 44 percent) and directed the Council to keep studying the issue.
Only those with the economic and social capital and network of advocates will succeed in exercising this option.
Kaiser Permanente has provided assisted dying to its members in multiple states beginning with Oregon and has done "a wonderful job" according to supporters of PAD. But it has declined to discuss those activities publicly despite a strenuous effort to get them to do so.
Rather than drawing upon formal structures for leadership and guidance, doctors who are interested in learning more about PAD are turning to the ad hoc wisdom of providers from Oregon and Washington who have prior experience. Magnus compares it with what usually happens when a new intervention or technology comes down the pike: "People who have done it, have mastered it, pass that knowledge on to other people so they know how to do it."
Buchbinder says it becomes an issue of social justice when providers are not adequately trained, and when patients are not ordinarily offered the option of a medical service in jurisdictions where it is their right.
Legalization of PAD "does not guarantee practical access, and well-intentioned policies designed to protect vulnerable groups may at times reinforce or exacerbate health care inequalities," she says. Only those with the economic and social capital and network of advocates will succeed in exercising this option.
Canada provides a case study of how one might address PAD. They largely settled on the term medical aid in dying – often shortened to MAID – as the more neutral phrase for their law and civil discourse.
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) decided early on to thread the needle; to not take a position on the core issue of morality but to proactively foster public discussion of those issues as the legal challenge to the ban on assisted dying headed to that country's Supreme Court.
"We just felt that it was too important for the profession to sit on the sidelines and not be part of the discussion," says Jeff Blackmer, CMA's vice president for medical professionalism.
It began by shifting the focus of discussion from a yes/no on the morality of MAID to the questions of, "If the court rules that the current laws are unconstitutional, and they allow assisted dying, how should the profession react and how should we respond? And how does the public think that the profession should respond?"
"I had to wear a flack jacket, a bulletproof vest, and there were plainclothes police officers with guns in the audience because it is really really very controversial."
The CMA teamed up with Maclean's magazine to host a series of five town hall meetings throughout the country. Assisted dying was discussed in a context of palliative care, advanced care planning, and other end-of-life issues.
There was fear that MAID might raise passions and even violence that has been seen in recent controversies over abortion. "I had to wear a flack jacket, a bulletproof vest, and there were plainclothes police officers with guns in the audience because it is really really very controversial," Blackmer recalls. Thankfully there were no major incidents.
The CMA also passed a resolution at its annual meeting supporting the right of its members to opt out of participating in MAID, within the confines of whatever law might emerge.
Once legislation and regulations began taking shape, the CMA created training materials on the ethical, legal, and practical consideration that doctors and patients might face. It ordinarily does not get involved with clinical education and training.
Stefanie Green is president of Canadian Association of MAID Assessors & Providers, a professional medical association that supports those working in the area of assisted dying, educates the public and health care community, and provides leadership on setting medical standards. Green acknowledges the internal pressures the CMA faced, and says, "I do understand their stance is as positive as it gets for medical associations."
Back in the USofA
Prohibitionism – the just say no approach – does not work when a substantial number of people want something, as demonstrated with alcohol, marijuana, opioids for pain relief, and reproductive control. Reason suggests a harm reduction strategy is the more viable approach.
"Right now we're stuck in the worst of all worlds because we've made [PAD] sort of part of medicine, but sort of illicit and sort of shameful. And we sort of allow it, but we sort of don't, we make it hard," says Stanford's Magnus. "And that's a no man's land where we are stuck."
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.