[Editor's Note: Our Big Moral Question this month is, "Do government regulations help or hurt the goal of responsible and timely scientific innovation?"]
After biomedical scientists demonstrated that they could make dangerous viruses like influenza even more dangerous, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) implemented a three-year moratorium on funding such research. But a couple of months ago, in December, the moratorium was lifted, and a tight set of rules were put in its place, such as a mandate for oversight panels.
"The sort of person who thinks like a bureaucratic regulator isn't the sort of person who thinks like a scientist."
The prospect of engineering a deadly pandemic virus in a laboratory suggests that only a fool would wish away government regulation entirely.
However, as a whole, regulation has done more harm than good in the arena of scientific innovation. The reason is that the sort of person who thinks like a bureaucratic regulator isn't the sort of person who thinks like a scientist. The sad fact of the matter is that those most interested in the regulatory process tend to be motivated by politics and ideology rather than scientific inquiry and technological progress.
Consider genetically engineered crops and animals, for instance. Beyond any reasonable doubt, data consistently have shown them to be safe, yet they are routinely held in regulatory limbo. For instance, it took 20 years for the AquAdvantage salmon, which grows faster than ordinary salmon, to gain approval from the FDA. What investor in his right mind would fund an entrepreneurial scientist who wishes to create genetically engineered consumer goods when he is assured that any such product could be subjected to two decades of arbitrary and pointless bureaucratic scrutiny?
Other well-intentioned regulations have created enormous problems for society. Medicine costs too much. One reason is that there is no international competition in the U.S. marketplace because it is nearly impossible to import drugs from other countries. The FDA's overcautious attitude toward approving new medications has ushered in a grassroots "right-to-try" movement, in which terminal patients are demanding access to potentially life-saving (but also potentially dangerous) treatments that are not yet federally approved. The FDA's sluggishness in approving generics also allowed the notorious former hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli to jack up the price of a drug for HIV patients because there were no competitors on the market. Thankfully, the FDA and politicians are now aware of these self-inflicted problems and are proposing possible solutions.
"Other well-intentioned regulations have created enormous problems for society."
The regulatory process itself drags on far too long and consists of procedural farces, none more so than public hearings and the solicitation of public comments. Hearings are often dominated by activists who are more concerned with theatrics and making the front page of a newspaper rather than contributing meaningfully to the scientific debate.
It is frankly absurd to believe that scientifically untrained laypeople have anything substantive to say on matters like biomedical regulation. The generals at the Pentagon quite rightly do not seek the public's council before they draw up battlefield plans, so why should scientists be subjected to an unjustifiable level of public scrutiny? Besides, there is a good chance that a substantial proportion of feedback is fake, anyway: A Wall Street Journal investigation uncovered that thousands of posts on federal websites seeking public comment on topics like net neutrality are fraudulent.
In other cases, out-of-date regulations remain on the books, holding back progress. For more than 20 years, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment has tied the hands of the NIH, essentially preventing it from funding any research that must first create human embryos or derive new embryonic stem cell lines. This seriously impedes progress in regenerative medicine and dampens the potential revolutionary potential of CRISPR, a genome editing tool that could someday be used in adult gene therapy or to "fix" unhealthy human embryos.
"Regulators and especially politicians give the false impression that any new scientific innovation should be made perfectly safe before it is allowed on the market."
Biomedicine isn't the only science to suffer at the hands of regulators. For years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) – an organization ostensibly concerned about nuclear safety – instead has played politics with nuclear power, particularly over a proposed waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain. Going all the way back to the Reagan administration, Yucca has been subjected to partisan assaults, culminating in the Obama administration's mothballing the project. Under the Trump administration, the NRC is once again reconsidering its future.
Perhaps the biggest problem that results from overregulation is a change in the culture. Regulators and especially politicians give the false impression that any new scientific innovation should be made perfectly safe before it is allowed on the market. This notion is known as the precautionary principle, and it is the law in the European Union. The precautionary principle is a form of technological timidity that is partially to blame for Europe's lagging behind America in groundbreaking research.
Besides, perfect safety is an impossible goal. Nothing in life is perfectly safe. The same people who drive to Whole Foods to avoid GMOs and synthetic pesticides seem not to care that automobiles kill 30,000 Americans every single year.
Government regulation is necessary because people rightfully expect a safe place to work and live. However, charlatans and lawbreakers will always exist, no matter how many new rules are added. The proliferation of safety regulations, therefore, often results in increasing the burden on innovators without any concomitant increase in safety. Like an invasive weed, government regulation has spread far beyond its proper place in the ecosystem. It's time for a weedkiller.
[Ed. Note: Check out the opposite viewpoint here, and follow LeapsMag on social media to share your perspective.]
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.