How thousands of first- and second-graders saved the world from a deadly disease
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Exactly 67 years ago, in 1955, a group of scientists and reporters gathered at the University of Michigan and waited with bated breath for Dr. Thomas Francis Jr., director of the school’s Poliomyelitis Vaccine Evaluation Center, to approach the podium. The group had gathered to hear the news that seemingly everyone in the country had been anticipating for the past two years – whether the vaccine for poliomyelitis, developed by Francis’s former student Jonas Salk, was effective in preventing the disease.
Polio, at that point, had become a household name. As the highly contagious virus swept through the United States, cities closed their schools, movie theaters, swimming pools, and even churches to stop the spread. For most, polio presented as a mild illness, and was usually completely asymptomatic – but for an unlucky few, the virus took hold of the central nervous system and caused permanent paralysis of muscles in the legs, arms, and even people’s diaphragms, rendering the person unable to walk and breathe. It wasn’t uncommon to hear reports of people – mostly children – who fell sick with a flu-like virus and then, just days later, were relegated to spend the rest of their lives in an iron lung.
For two years, researchers had been testing a vaccine that would hopefully be able to stop the spread of the virus and prevent the 45,000 infections each year that were keeping the nation in a chokehold. At the podium, Francis greeted the crowd and then proceeded to change the course of human history: The vaccine, he reported, was “safe, effective, and potent.” Widespread vaccination could begin in just a few weeks. The nightmare was over.
The road to success
Jonas Salk, a medical researcher and virologist who developed the vaccine with his own research team, would rightfully go down in history as the man who eradicated polio. (Today, wild poliovirus circulates in just two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan – with only 140 cases reported in 2020.) But many people today forget that the widespread vaccination campaign that effectively ended wild polio across the globe would have never been possible without the human clinical trials that preceded it.
As with the COVID-19 vaccine, skepticism and misinformation around the polio vaccine abounded. But even more pervasive than the skepticism was fear. The consequences of polio had arguably never been more visible.
The road to human clinical trials – and the resulting vaccine – was a long one. In 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in order to raise funding for research and development of a polio vaccine. (Today, we know this organization as the March of Dimes.) A polio survivor himself, Roosevelt elevated awareness and prevention into the national spotlight, even more so than it had been previously. Raising funds for a safe and effective polio vaccine became a cornerstone of his presidency – and the funds raked in by his foundation went primarily to Salk to fund his research.
The Trials Begin
Salk’s vaccine, which included an inactivated (killed) polio virus, was promising – but now the researchers needed test subjects to make global vaccination a possibility. Because the aim of the vaccine was to prevent paralytic polio, researchers decided that they had to test the vaccine in the population that was most vulnerable to paralysis – young children. And, because the rate of paralysis was so low even among children, the team required many children to collect enough data. Francis, who led the trial to evaluate Salk’s vaccine, began the process of recruiting more than one million school-aged children between the ages of six and nine in 272 counties that had the highest incidence of the disease. The participants were nicknamed the “Polio Pioneers.”
Double-blind, placebo-based trials were considered the “gold standard” of epidemiological research back in Francis's day - and they remain the best approach we have today. These rigorous scientific studies are designed with two participant groups in mind. One group, called the test group, receives the experimental treatment (such as a vaccine); the other group, called the control, receives an inactive treatment known as a placebo. The researchers then compare the effects of the active treatment against the effects of the placebo, and every researcher is “blinded” as to which participants receive what treatment. That way, the results aren’t tainted by any possible biases.
But the study was controversial in that only some of the individual field trials at the county and state levels had a placebo group. Researchers described this as a “calculated risk,” meaning that while there were risks involved in giving the vaccine to a large number of children, the bigger risk was the potential paralysis or death that could come with being infected by polio. In all, just 200,000 children across the US received a placebo treatment, while an additional 725,000 children acted as observational controls – in other words, researchers monitored them for signs of infection, but did not give them any treatment.
As with the COVID-19 vaccine, skepticism and misinformation around the polio vaccine abounded. But even more pervasive than the skepticism was fear. President Roosevelt, who had made many public and televised appearances in a wheelchair, served as a perpetual reminder of the consequences of polio, as an infection at age 39 had rendered him permanently unable to walk. The consequences of polio had arguably never been more visible, and parents signed up their children in droves to participate in the study and offer them protection.
The Polio Pioneer Legacy
In a little less than a year, roughly half a million children received a dose of Salk’s polio vaccine. While plenty of children were hesitant to get the shot, many former participants still remember the fear surrounding the disease. One former participant, a Polio Pioneer named Debbie LaCrosse, writes of her experience: “There was no discussion, no listing of pros and cons. No amount of concern over possible side effects or other unknowns associated with a new vaccine could compare to the terrifying threat of polio.” For their participation, each kid received a certificate – and sometimes a pin – with the words “Polio Pioneer” emblazoned across the front.
When Francis announced the results of the trial on April 12, 1955, people did more than just breathe a sigh of relief – they openly celebrated, ringing church bells and flooding into the streets to embrace. Salk, who had become the face of the vaccine at that point, was instantly hailed as a national hero – and teachers around the country had their students to write him ‘thank you’ notes for his years of diligent work.
But while Salk went on to win national acclaim – even accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work on the polio vaccine in 1977 – his success was due in no small part to the children (and their parents) who took a risk in order to advance medical science. And that risk paid off: By the early 1960s, the yearly cases of polio in the United States had gone down to just 910. Where before the vaccine polio had caused around 15,000 cases of paralysis each year, only ten cases of paralysis were recorded in the entire country throughout the 1970s. And in 1979, the virus that once shuttered entire towns was declared officially eradicated in this country. Thanks to the efforts of these brave pioneers, the nation – along with the majority of the world – remains free of polio even today.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Implantable electronic devices can significantly improve patients’ quality of life. A pacemaker can encourage the heart to beat more regularly. A neural implant, usually placed at the back of the skull, can help brain function and encourage higher neural activity. Current research on neural implants finds them helpful to patients with Parkinson’s disease, vision loss, hearing loss, and other nerve damage problems. Several of these implants, such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink, have already been approved by the FDA for human use.
Yet, pacemakers, neural implants, and other such electronic devices are not without problems. They require constant electricity, limited through batteries that need replacements. They also cause scarring. “The problem with doing this with electronics is that scar tissue forms,” explains Kate Adamala, an assistant professor of cell biology at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. “Anytime you have something hard interacting with something soft [like muscle, skin, or tissue], the soft thing will scar. That's why there are no long-term neural implants right now.” To overcome these challenges, scientists are turning to biocomputing processes that use organic materials like DNA and RNA. Other promised benefits include “diagnostics and possibly therapeutic action, operating as nanorobots in living organisms,” writes Evgeny Katz, a professor of bioelectronics at Clarkson University, in his bookDNA- And RNA-Based Computing Systems.
While a computer gives these inputs in binary code or "bits," such as a 0 or 1, biocomputing uses DNA strands as inputs, whether double or single-stranded, and often uses fluorescent RNA as an output.
Adamala’s research focuses on developing such biocomputing systems using DNA, RNA, proteins, and lipids. Using these molecules in the biocomputing systems allows the latter to be biocompatible with the human body, resulting in a natural healing process. In a recent Nature Communicationsstudy, Adamala and her team created a new biocomputing platform called TRUMPET (Transcriptional RNA Universal Multi-Purpose GatE PlaTform) which acts like a DNA-powered computer chip. “These biological systems can heal if you design them correctly,” adds Adamala. “So you can imagine a computer that will eventually heal itself.”
The basics of biocomputing
Biocomputing and regular computing have many similarities. Like regular computing, biocomputing works by running information through a series of gates, usually logic gates. A logic gate works as a fork in the road for an electronic circuit. The input will travel one way or another, giving two different outputs. An example logic gate is the AND gate, which has two inputs (A and B) and two different results. If both A and B are 1, the AND gate output will be 1. If only A is 1 and B is 0, the output will be 0 and vice versa. If both A and B are 0, the result will be 0. While a computer gives these inputs in binary code or "bits," such as a 0 or 1, biocomputing uses DNA strands as inputs, whether double or single-stranded, and often uses fluorescent RNA as an output. In this case, the DNA enters the logic gate as a single or double strand.
If the DNA is double-stranded, the system “digests” the DNA or destroys it, which results in non-fluorescence or “0” output. Conversely, if the DNA is single-stranded, it won’t be digested and instead will be copied by several enzymes in the biocomputing system, resulting in fluorescent RNA or a “1” output. And the output for this type of binary system can be expanded beyond fluorescence or not. For example, a “1” output might be the production of the enzyme insulin, while a “0” may be that no insulin is produced. “This kind of synergy between biology and computation is the essence of biocomputing,” says Stephanie Forrest, a professor and the director of the Biodesign Center for Biocomputing, Security and Society at Arizona State University.
Biocomputing circles are made of DNA, RNA, proteins and even bacteria.
The TRUMPET’s promise
Depending on whether the biocomputing system is placed directly inside a cell within the human body, or run in a test-tube, different environmental factors play a role. When an output is produced inside a cell, the cell's natural processes can amplify this output (for example, a specific protein or DNA strand), creating a solid signal. However, these cells can also be very leaky. “You want the cells to do the thing you ask them to do before they finish whatever their businesses, which is to grow, replicate, metabolize,” Adamala explains. “However, often the gate may be triggered without the right inputs, creating a false positive signal. So that's why natural logic gates are often leaky." While biocomputing outside a cell in a test tube can allow for tighter control over the logic gates, the outputs or signals cannot be amplified by a cell and are less potent.
TRUMPET, which is smaller than a cell, taps into both cellular and non-cellular biocomputing benefits. “At its core, it is a nonliving logic gate system,” Adamala states, “It's a DNA-based logic gate system. But because we use enzymes, and the readout is enzymatic [where an enzyme replicates the fluorescent RNA], we end up with signal amplification." This readout means that the output from the TRUMPET system, a fluorescent RNA strand, can be replicated by nearby enzymes in the platform, making the light signal stronger. "So it combines the best of both worlds,” Adamala adds.
These organic-based systems could detect cancer cells or low insulin levels inside a patient’s body.
The TRUMPET biocomputing process is relatively straightforward. “If the DNA [input] shows up as single-stranded, it will not be digested [by the logic gate], and you get this nice fluorescent output as the RNA is made from the single-stranded DNA, and that's a 1,” Adamala explains. "And if the DNA input is double-stranded, it gets digested by the enzymes in the logic gate, and there is no RNA created from the DNA, so there is no fluorescence, and the output is 0." On the story's leading image above, if the tube is "lit" with a purple color, that is a binary 1 signal for computing. If it's "off" it is a 0.
While still in research, TRUMPET and other biocomputing systems promise significant benefits to personalized healthcare and medicine. These organic-based systems could detect cancer cells or low insulin levels inside a patient’s body. The study’s lead author and graduate student Judee Sharon is already beginning to research TRUMPET's ability for earlier cancer diagnoses. Because the inputs for TRUMPET are single or double-stranded DNA, any mutated or cancerous DNA could theoretically be detected from the platform through the biocomputing process. Theoretically, devices like TRUMPET could be used to detect cancer and other diseases earlier.
Adamala sees TRUMPET not only as a detection system but also as a potential cancer drug delivery system. “Ideally, you would like the drug only to turn on when it senses the presence of a cancer cell. And that's how we use the logic gates, which work in response to inputs like cancerous DNA. Then the output can be the production of a small molecule or the release of a small molecule that can then go and kill what needs killing, in this case, a cancer cell. So we would like to develop applications that use this technology to control the logic gate response of a drug’s delivery to a cell.”
Although platforms like TRUMPET are making progress, a lot more work must be done before they can be used commercially. “The process of translating mechanisms and architecture from biology to computing and vice versa is still an art rather than a science,” says Forrest. “It requires deep computer science and biology knowledge,” she adds. “Some people have compared interdisciplinary science to fusion restaurants—not all combinations are successful, but when they are, the results are remarkable.”
In today’s podcast episode, Leaps.org Deputy Editor Lina Zeldovich speaks about the health and ecological benefits of farming crickets for human consumption with Bicky Nguyen, who joins Lina from Vietnam. Bicky and her business partner Nam Dang operate an insect farm named CricketOne. Motivated by the idea of sustainable and healthy protein production, they started their unconventional endeavor a few years ago, despite numerous naysayers who didn’t believe that humans would ever consider munching on bugs.
Yet, making creepy crawlers part of our diet offers many health and planetary advantages. Food production needs to match the rise in global population, estimated to reach 10 billion by 2050. One challenge is that some of our current practices are inefficient, polluting and wasteful. According to nonprofit EarthSave.org, it takes 2,500 gallons of water, 12 pounds of grain, 35 pounds of topsoil and the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline to produce one pound of feedlot beef, although exact statistics vary between sources.
Meanwhile, insects are easy to grow, high on protein and low on fat. When roasted with salt, they make crunchy snacks. When chopped up, they transform into delicious pâtes, says Bicky, who invents her own cricket recipes and serves them at industry and public events. Maybe that’s why some research predicts that edible insects market may grow to almost $10 billion by 2030. Tune in for a delectable chat on this alternative and sustainable protein.
More info on Bicky Nguyen
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Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.