The Women of RNA: Two Award-Winners Share Why They Spent Their Careers Studying DNA's Lesser-Known Cousin
When Lynne Maquat, who leads the Center for RNA Biology at the University of Rochester, became interested in the ribonucleic acid molecule in the 1970s, she was definitely in the minority. The same was true for Joan Steitz, now professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University, who began to study RNA a decade earlier in the 1960s.
"My first RNA experiment was a failure, because we didn't understand how things worked," Steitz recalls. In her first undergraduate experiment, she unwittingly used a lab preparation that destroyed the RNA. "Unknowingly, our preparation contained enzymes that degraded our RNA."
At the time, scientists pursuing genetic research tended to focus on DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid — and for good reason. It was clear that the enigmatic double-helix ribbon held the answers to organisms' heredity, genetic traits, development, growth and aging. If scientists could decipher the secrets of DNA and understand how its genetic instructions translate into the body's functions in health and disease, they could develop treatments for all kinds of diseases. On the contrary, the prevailing dogma of the time viewed RNA as merely a helper that passively carried out DNA's genetic instructions for protein-making — so it received much less attention.
But Maquat and Steitz weren't interested in heredity. They studied biochemistry and biophysics, so they wanted to understand how RNA functioned on the molecular level — how it carried instructions, catalyzed reactions, and helped build protein bonds, among other things.
"I'm a mechanistic biochemist, so I like to know how things happen," Maquat says. "Once you understand the mechanism, you can think of how to solve problems." And so the quest to understand how RNA does its job became the focus of both women's careers.
"People can now appreciate why some of us studied RNA for such a long time."
Half a century later, in 2021, their RNA work has earned two prestigious recognitions only months from each other. In February, they received the Wolf Prize in Medicine, followed by the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize in May, awarded to scientists whose achievements led to prevention, cure or treatments of human diseases.
It was the development of the COVID-19 vaccines that made RNA a household name. Made by Moderna and Pfizer, the vaccines use the RNA molecule to deliver genetic instructions for making SARS-CoV-2's characteristic spike protein in our cells. The presence of this foreign-looking protein triggers the immune system to attack and remember the pathogen. As the vaccines reached the finish line, RNA took center stage, and it was Maquat's and Steitz's research that helped reveal how these molecular cogwheels drive many biological functions within cells.
If you think of a cell as a kingdom, the DNA plays the role of a queen. Like a monarch in a palace, DNA nestles inside the cell's nucleus issuing instructions needed for the cell to function. But no queen can successfully govern without her court, her messengers, and her soldiers, as well as other players that make her kingdom work. That's what RNAs do — they act as the DNA's vassals. They carry instructions for protein assembly, catalyze reactions and supervise many other processes to make sure the cellular kingdom performs as it should.
There are a myriad of these RNA vassals in our cells, and each type has its own specific task. There are messenger RNAs that deliver genetic instructions for protein synthesis from DNA to ribosomes, the cells' protein-making factories. There are ribosomal RNAs that help stitch together amino acids to make proteins. There are transfer RNAs that can bring amino acids to this protein synthesis machine, keeping it going. Then there are circular RNAs that act as sponges, absorbing proteins to help regulate the activity of genes. And that's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to RNA diversity, researchers say.
"We know what the most abundant and important RNAs are doing," says Steitz. "But there are thousands of different ones, and we still don't have a full knowledge of them."
Critical to RNA's proper functioning is a process called splicing, in which a precursor mRNA is transformed into mature, fully-functional mRNA — a phenomenon that Steitz's work helped elucidate. The splicing process, which takes place in cellular assembly lines, involves removing extra RNA sequences and stringing the remaining RNA pieces together. Steitz found that tiny RNA particles called snRNPs are crucial to this process. They act as handy helpers, finding and removing errant genetic material from the mRNA molecules.
A dysfunctional RNA assembly line leads to diseases, including many cancers. For instance, Steitz found that people with Lupus — an autoimmune disorder — have antibodies that mistakenly attack the little snRNP helpers. She also discovered that when snRNPs don't do their job properly, they can cause what scientists call mis-splicing, producing defective mRNAs.
Fortunately, cells have a built-in quality-control process that can spot and correct these mistakes, which is what Maquat studied in her work. In 1981, she discovered a molecular quality-control system that spots and destroys such incorrectly assembled mRNA. With the cryptic name "nonsense-mediated mRNA decay" or NMD, this process is vital to the health and wellbeing of a cellular kingdom in humans — because splicing mistakes happen far more often than one would imagine.
"We estimate that about a third of our mRNA are mistakes," Maquat says. "And nonsense-mediated mRNA decay cleans up these mistakes." When this quality-control system malfunctions, defective mRNA forge faulty proteins, which mess up the cellular machinery and cause disease, including various forms of cancer.
Scientists' newfound appreciation of RNA opens door to many novel treatments.
Now that the first RNA-based shots were approved, the same principle can be used for create vaccines for other diseases, the two RNA researchers say. Moreover, the molecule has an even greater potential — it can serve as a therapeutic target for other disorders. For example, Spinraza, a groundbreaking drug approved in 2016 for spinal muscular atrophy, uses small snippets of synthetic genetic material that bind to the RNA, helping fix splicing errors. "People can now appreciate why some of us studied RNA for such a long time," says Maquat.
Steitz is thrilled that the entire field of RNA research is enjoying the limelight. "I'm delighted because the prize is more of a recognition of the field than just our work," she says. "This is a more general acknowledgment of how basic research can have a remarkable impact on human health."
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."