Imagine that the protein in bread, eggs, steak, even beans is not the foundation for a healthy diet, but a poison to your brain. That is the reality for people living with Phenylketonuria, or PKU. This cluster of rare genetic variations affects the ability to digest phenylalanine (Phe), one of the chemical building blocks of protein. The toxins can build up in the brain causing severe mental retardation.
Can a probiotic help digest the troublesome proteins before they can enter the bloodstream and travel to the brain? A Boston area biotech start up, Synlogic, believes it can. Their starting point is an E. coli bacterium that has been used as a probiotic for more than a century. The company then screened thousands of gene variants to identify ones that produced enzymes most efficient at slicing and dicing the target proteins and optimized them further through directed evolution. The results have been encouraging.
But Christine Brown knew none of this when the hospital called saying that standard newborn screening of her son Connor had come back positive for PKU. It was urgent that they visit a special metabolic clinic the next day, which was about a three-hour drive away.
“I was told not to go on the Internet,” Christine recalls, “So when somebody tells you not to go on the Internet, what do you do? Even back in 2005, right.” What she saw were the worst examples of retardation, which was a common outcome from PKU before newborn screening became routine. “We were just in complete shell shock, our whole world just kind of shattered and went into a tail spin.”
“I remember feeding him the night before our clinic visit and almost feeling like I was feeding him poison because I knew that breast milk must have protein in it,” she says.
“Some of my first memories are of asking, ‘Mommy, can I eat this? There were yes foods and no foods.'"
Over the next few days the dedicated staff of the metabolic clinic at the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison began to walk she and husband Kevin back from that nightmare. They learned that a simple blood test to screen newborns had been developed in the early 1960s to detect PKU and that the condition could be managed with stringent food restrictions and vigilant monitoring of Phe levels.
Everything in Your Mouth Counts
PKU can be successfully managed with a severely restricted diet. That simple statement is factually true, but practically impossible to follow, as it requires slashing protein consumption by about 90 percent. To compensate for the missing protein, several times a day PKU patients take a medical formula – commonly referred to simply as formula – containing forms of proteins that are digestible to their bodies. Several manufacturers now add vitamins and minerals and offer a variety of formats and tastes to make it more consumer friendly, but that wasn't always the case.
“When I was a kid, it tasted horrible, was the consistency of house paint. I didn't think about it, I just drank it. I didn't like it but you get used to it after a while,” recalls Jeff Wolf, the twang of Appalachia still strong in his voice. Now age 50, he grew up in Ashland, Kentucky and was part of the first wave of persons with PKU who were identified at birth as newborn screening was rolled out across the US. He says the options of taste and consistency have improved tremendously over the years.
Some people with PKU are restricted to as little as 8 grams of protein a day from food. That's a handful of almonds or a single hard-boiled egg; a skimpy 4-ounce hamburger and slice of cheese adds up to half of their weekly protein ration. Anything above that daily allowance is more than the body can handle and toxic levels of Phe begin to accumulate in the brain.
“Some of my first memories are of asking, ‘Mommy, can I eat this? There were yes foods and no foods,’” recalls Les Clark. He has never eaten a hamburger, steak, or ribs, practically a sacrilege for someone raised in Stanton, a small town in northeastern Nebraska, a state where the number of cattle and hogs are several-fold those of people.
His grandmother learned how to make low protein bread, but it looked and tasted different. His mom struggled making birthday cakes. “I learned some bad words at a very young age” as mom struggled applying icing that would pull the cake apart or a slice would collapse into a heap of crumbs, Les recalls.
Les Clark with a birthday cake.
Controlling the diet “is not so bad when you are a baby” because that's all you know, says Jerry Vockley, Director of the Center for Rare Disease Therapy at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. “But after a while, as you get older and you start tasting other things and you say, Well, gee, this stuff tastes way better than what you're giving me. What's the deal? It becomes harder to maintain the diet.”
First is the lure of forbidden foods as children venture into the community away from the watchful eyes of parents. The support system weakens further when they leave home for college or work. “Pizza was mighty tasty,” Wolf' says of his first slice.
Vockley estimates that about 90 percent of adults with PKU are off of treatment. Moving might mean finding a new metabolic clinic that treats PKU. A lapse in insurance coverage can be a factor. Finally there is plain fatigue from multiple daily dosing of barely tolerable formula, monitoring protein intake, and simply being different in terms of food restrictions. Most people want to fit in and not be defined by their medical condition.
Jeff Wolf was one of those who dropped out in his twenties and thirties. He stopped going to clinic, monitoring his Phe levels, and counting protein. But the earlier experience of living with PKU never completely left the back of his mind; he listened to his body whenever eating too much protein left him with the “fuzzy brain" of a protein hangover. About a decade ago he reconnected with a metabolic clinic, began taking formula and watching his protein intake. He still may go over his allotment for a single day but he tries to compensate on subsequent days so that his Phe levels come back into balance.
Jeff Wolf on a boat.
One of the trickiest parts of trying to manage phenylalanine intake is the artificial sweetener aspartame. The chemical is ubiquitous in diet and lite foods and drinks. Gum too, you don't even have to swallow to receive a toxic dose of Phe. Most PKUers say it is easier to simply avoid these products entirely rather than try to count their Phe content.
Most rare diseases have no treatment. There are two drugs for PKU that provide some benefit to some portion of patients but those drugs often have their own burdens.
KUVAN® (sapropterin dihydrochloride) is a pill or powder that helps correct a protein folding error so that food proteins can be digested. It is approved for most types of PKU in adults and children one month and older, and often is used along with a protein-restricted diet.
“The problem is that it doesn't work for every [patient's genetic] mutation, and there are hundreds of mutations that have been identified with PKU. Two to three percent of patients will have a very dramatic response and if you're one of those small number of patients, it's great,” says Vockley. “If you have one of the other mutation, chances are pretty good you still are going to end up on a restricted diet.”
PALYNZIQ® (pegvaliase-pqpz) “has the potential to lower the Phe to normal levels, it's a real breakthrough in the field,” says Vockley. “But is a very hard drug to use. Most folks have to take either one or two 2ml injections a day of something that is basically a gel, and some individuals have to take three.”
Many PKUers have reactions at the site of the injection and some develop anaphylaxis, a severe potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that can happen within seconds and can occur at any time, even after long term use. Many patients using Palynziq carry an EpiPen, a self-injection devise containing a form of adrenaline that can reverse some of the symptoms of anaphylaxis.
Then there is the cost. With the Kuvan dosing for an adult, “you're talking between $100,000 and $200,000 a year. And Palynziq is three times that,” says Vockley. Insurance coverage through a private plan or a state program is essential. Some state programs provide generous coverage while others are skimpy. Most large insurance company plans cover the drugs, sometimes with significant copays, but companies that are self-insured are under no legal obligation to provide coverage.
Les Clark found that out the hard way when the company he worked for was sold. The new owner was self-insured and declined to continue covering his drugs. Almost immediately he was out of pocket an additional $1500 a month for formula, and that was with a substantial discount through the manufacturer's patient support program. He says, “If you don't have an insurance policy that will cover the formula, it's completely unaffordable.” He quickly began to look for a new job.
It's easy to see why PKUers are eager for advances that will make managing their condition more effect, easier, and perhaps more affordable. Synlogic's efforts have drawn their attention and raised hopes.
Just before Thanksgiving Jerry Vockley presented the latest data to a metabolism conference meeting in Australia. There were only 8 patients in this group of a phase 2 trial using the original version of the company's lead E. coli product, SYNB1618, but they were intensely studied. Each was given the probiotic and then a challenge meal. Vockley saw a 40% reduction in Phe absorption and later a 20% reduction in mean fasting Phe levels in the blood. The product was easy to use and tolerate.
The company also presented early results for SYNB1934, a follow on version that further genetically tweaked the E. coli to roughly double the capacity to chop up the target proteins. Synlogic is recruiting patients for studies to determine the best dosing, which they are planning for next year.
“It's an exciting approach,” says Lex Cowsert, Director of Research Development at the National PKU Alliance, a nonprofit that supports the patient, family, and research communities involved with PKU. “Every patient is different, every patient has a different tolerance for the type of therapy that they are willing to pursue,” and if it pans out, it will be a welcome addition, either alone or in combination with other approaches, to living with PKU.
Author's Note: Reporting this story was made possible by generous support from the National Press Foundation and the Fondation Ipsen. Thanks to the people who so generously shared their time and stories in speaking with me.
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.
We are sticking our heads into the sand of reality on Omicron, and the results may be catastrophic.
Omicron is over 4 times more infectious than Delta. The Pfizer two-shot vaccine offers only 33% protection from infection. A Pfizer booster vaccine does raises protection to about 75%, but wanes to around 30-40 percent 10 weeks after the booster.
That’s because the much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, as the Center for Disease Control warned, in this major Omicron wave.
Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines and is promoting boosters. Certainly, it’s crucial to get as many people to get their booster – and initial vaccine doses – as soon as possible. But the government is not taking the steps that would be the real game-changers.
Pfizer’s anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89%. Due to this effectiveness, the FDA approved Pfizer ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. Yet the FDA chose not to hasten the approval process along with the emergence of Omicron in late November, only getting around to emergency authorization in late December once Omicron took over. That delay meant the lack of Paxlovid for the height of the Omicron wave, since it takes many weeks to ramp up production, resulting in an unknown number of unnecessary deaths.
We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases.
Widely available at-home testing would enable people to test themselves quickly, so that those with mild symptoms can quarantine instead of infecting others. Yet the federal government did not make tests available to patients when Omicron emerged in late November. That’s despite the obviousness of the coming wave based on the precedent of South Africa, UK, and Denmark and despite the fact that the government made vaccines freely available. Its best effort was to mandate that insurance cover reimbursements for these kits, which is way too much of a barrier for most people. By the time Omicron took over, the federal government recognized its mistake and ordered 500 million tests to be made available in January. However, that’s far too late. And the FDA also played a harmful role here, with its excessive focus on accuracy going back to mid-2020, blocking the widespread availability of cheap at-home tests. By contrast, Europe has a much better supply of tests, due to its approval of quick and slightly less accurate tests.
Neither do we see meaningful leadership at the level of employers. Some are bringing out the tired old “delay the office reopening” play. For example, Google, Uber, and Ford, along with many others, have delayed the return to the office for several months. Those that already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements or adding sufficient ventilation to address the spread of COVID.
Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts, leaders are repeating the same mistakes we fell into with Delta. And so are regular people. For example, surveys show that Omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of unvaccinated Americans to get a first vaccine dose, or of vaccinated Americans to get a booster. That’s despite Omicron having taken over from Delta in late December.
What explains this puzzling behavior on both the individual and society level? We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking and gut reactions, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.
These cognitive biases stem from the more primitive, emotional, and intuitive part of our brains that ensured survival in our ancestral environment. This quick, automatic reaction of our emotions represents the autopilot system of thinking, one of the two systems of thinking in our brains. It makes good decisions most of the time but also regularly makes certain systematic thinking errors, since it’s optimized to help us survive. In modern society, our survival is much less at risk, and our gut is more likely to compel us to focus on the wrong information to make decisions.
One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet we failed to pay attention to and prepare for such a threat.
We want the future to be normal. We’re tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disruptors, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.
When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes those used to their old ways of action to reject any alternatives, including to prepare for a new variant.
Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we excessively discount the benefits of orienting toward the future and focus on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of trying to return to normal over managing the risks of future variants.
The way forward into the future is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future.
The FDA requires a serious overhaul. It’s designed for a non-pandemic environment, where the goal is to have a highly conservative, slow-going, and risk-averse approach so that the public feels confident trusting whatever it approved. That’s simply unacceptable in a fast-moving pandemic, and we are bound to face future pandemics in the future.
The federal government needs to have cognitive bias experts weigh in on federal policy. Putting all of its eggs in one basket – vaccinations – is not a wise move when we face the risks of a vaccine-escaping variant. Its focus should also be on expediting and prioritizing anti-virals, scaling up cheap rapid testing, and subsidizing high-filtration masks.
For employers, instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, companies need to adopt a decentralized team-led approach. Each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team should determine what works best for their team. After all, team leaders tend to know much more of what their teams need, after all. Moreover, they can respond to local emergencies like COVID surges.
At the same time, team leaders need to be trained to integrate best practices for hybrid and remote team leadership. Companies transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. They fell into the cognitive bias of functional fixedness and transposed their pre-existing, in-office methods of collaboration on remote work. Zoom happy hours are a clear example: The large majority of employees dislike them, and research shows they are disconnecting, rather than connecting.
Yet supervisors continue to use them, despite the existence of much better methods of facilitating colalboration, which have been shown to work, such as virtual water cooler discussions, virtual coworking, and virtual mentoring. Leaders also need to facilitate innovation in hybrid and remote teams through techniques such as virtual asynchronous brainstorming. Finally, team leaders need to adjust performance evaluation to adapt to the needs of hybrid and remote teams.
On an individual level, people built up certain expectations during the first two years of the pandemic, and they don't apply with Omicron. For example, most people still think that a cloth mask is a fine source of protection. In reality, you really need an N-95 mask, since Omicron is so much more infectious. Another example is that many people don’t realize that symptom onset is much quicker with Omicron, and they aren’t prepared for the consequences.
Remember that we have a huge number of people who are asymptomatic, often without knowing it, due to the much higher mildness of Omicron. About 8% of people admitted to hospitals for other reasons in San Francisco test positive for COVID without symptoms, which we can assume translates for other cities. That means many may think they're fine and they're actually infectious. The result is a much higher chance of someone getting many other people sick.
During this time of record-breaking cases, you need to be mindful about your internalized assumptions and adjust your risk calculus accordingly. So if you can delay higher-risk activities, January and February might be the time to do it. Prepare for waves of disruptions to continue over time, at least through the end of February.
Of course, you might also choose to not worry about getting infected. If you are vaccinated and boosted, and do not have any additional health risks, you are very unlikely to have a serious illness due to Omicron. You can just take the small risk of a serious illness – which can happen – and go about your daily life. If doing so, watch out for those you care about who do have health concerns, since if you infect them, they might not have a mild case even with Omicron.
In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might create a competitive advantage in our new future. COVID will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.