This Revolutionary Medical Breakthrough Is Not a Treatment or a Cure
What is a disease? This seemingly abstract and theoretical question is actually among the most practical questions in all of biomedicine. How patients are diagnosed, treated, managed and excused from various social and moral obligations hinges on the answer that is given. So do issues of how research is done and health care paid for. The question is also becoming one of the most problematic issues that those in health care will face in the next decade.
"The revolution in our understanding of the human genome, molecular biology, and genetics is creating a huge--if little acknowledged--shift in the understanding of what a disease is."
That is because the current conception of disease is undergoing a revolutionary change, fueled by progress in genetics and molecular biology. The consequences of this shift in the definition of disease promise to be as impactful as any other advance in biomedicine has ever been, which is admittedly saying a lot for what is in essence a conceptual change rather than one based on an empirical scientific advance.
For a long time, disease was defined by patient reports of feeling sick. It was not until the twentieth century that a shift occurred away from subjective reports of clusters of symptoms to defining diseases in terms of physiological states. Doctors began to realize that not all symptoms of fever represented the presence of the same disease. Flu got distinguished from malaria. Diseases such as hypertension, osteoporosis, cancer, lipidemia, silent myocardial infarction, retinopathy, blood clots and many others were recognized as not producing any or slight symptoms until suddenly the patient had a stroke or died.
The ability to assess both biology and biochemistry and to predict the consequences of subclinical pathological processes caused a distinction to be made between illness—what a person experiences—and disease—an underlying pathological process with a predictable course. Some conditions, such as Gulf War Syndrome, PTSD, many mental illnesses and fibromyalgia, remain controversial because no underlying pathological process has been found that correlates with them—a landmark criterion for diagnosing disease throughout most of the last century.
"Diseases for which no relationship had ever been posited are being lumped together due to common biochemical causal pathways...that are amenable to the same curative intervention."
The revolution in our understanding of the human genome, molecular biology, and genetics is creating a huge--if little acknowledged--shift in the understanding of what a disease is. A better understanding of the genetic and molecular roots of pathophysiology is leading to the reclassification of many familiar diseases. The test of disease is now not the pathophysiology but the presence of a gene, set of genes or molecular pathway that causes pathophysiology. Just as fever was differentiated into a multitude of diseases in the last century, cancer, cognitive impairment, addiction and many other diseases are being broken or split into many subkinds. And other diseases for which no relationship had ever been posited are being lumped together due to common biochemical causal pathways or the presence of similar dangerous biochemical products that are amenable to the same curative intervention, no matter how disparate the patients' symptoms or organic pathologies might appear.
We used to differentiate ovarian and breast cancers. Now we are thinking of them as outcomes of the same mutations in certain genes in the BRCA regions. They may eventually lump together as BRCA disease.
Other diseases such as familial amyloid polyneuropathy (FAP) which causes polyneuropathy and autonomic dysfunction are being split apart into new types or kinds. The disease is the product of mutations in the transthyretin gene. It was thought to be an autosomal dominant disease with symptomatic onset between 20-40 years of age. However, as genetic testing has improved, it has become clear that FAP's traditional clinical presentation represents a relatively small portion of those with FAP. Many patients with mutations in transthyretin — even mutations commonly seen in traditional FAP patients — do not fit the common clinical presentation. As the mutations begin to be understood, some people that were previously thought to have other polyneuropathies, such as chronic inflammatory demyelinating neuropathy, are now being rediagnosed with newly discovered variants of FAP.
"We are at the start of a major conceptual shift in how we organize the world of disease, and for that matter, health promotion."
Genome-wide association studies are beginning to find many links between diseases not thought to have any connection or association. For example some forms of diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disease may be the products of a small family of genetic mutations.
So why is this shift toward a genetic and molecular diagnostics likely to shake up medicine? One obvious way is that research projects may propose to recruit subjects not according to current standards of disease but on the basis of common genetic mutations or similar errors in biochemical pathways. It won't matter in a future study if subjects in a trial have what today might be termed nicotine addiction or Parkinsonism. If the molecular pathways producing the pathology are the same, then both groups might well wind up in the same trial of a drug.
In addition, what today look like common maladies—pancreatic cancer, severe depression, or acne, for example, could wind up being subdivided into so many highly differentiated versions of these conditions that each must be treated as what we now classify as a rare or ultra-rare disease. Unique biochemical markers or genetic messages may see many diseases broken into a huge number of distinct individual disease entities.
Patients may find that common genetic pathways or multiple effects from a single gene may create new alliances for fund-raising and advocacy. Groups fighting to cure mental and physical illnesses may wind up forgetting about their outward differences in the effort to alter genes or attack common protein markers.
Disease classification appears stable to us—until it isn't. And we are at the start of a major conceptual shift in how we organize the world of disease, and for that matter, health promotion. Classic reductionism, the view that all observable biological phenomena can be explained in terms of underlying chemical and physical principles, may turn out not to be true. But the molecular and genetic revolutions churning through medicine are illustrating that reductionism is going to have an enormous influence on disease classification. That is not a bad thing, but it is something that is going to take a lot to get used to.
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.