Applied mathematician Sara del Valle works at the U.S.'s foremost nuclear weapons lab: Los Alamos. Once colloquially called Atomic City, it's a hidden place 45 minutes into the mountains northwest of Santa Fe. Here, engineers developed the first atomic bomb.
Like AccuWeather, an app for disease prediction could help people alter their behavior to live better lives.
Today, Los Alamos still a small science town, though no longer a secret, nor in the business of building new bombs. Instead, it's tasked with, among other things, keeping the stockpile of nuclear weapons safe and stable: not exploding when they're not supposed to (yes, please) and exploding if someone presses that red button (please, no).
Del Valle, though, doesn't work on any of that. Los Alamos is also interested in other kinds of booms—like the explosion of a contagious disease that could take down a city. Predicting (and, ideally, preventing) such epidemics is del Valle's passion. She hopes to develop an app that's like AccuWeather for germs: It would tell you your chance of getting the flu, or dengue or Zika, in your city on a given day. And like AccuWeather, it could help people alter their behavior to live better lives, whether that means staying home on a snowy morning or washing their hands on a sickness-heavy commute.
Sara del Valle of Los Alamos is working to predict and prevent epidemics using data and machine learning.
Since the beginning of del Valle's career, she's been driven by one thing: using data and predictions to help people behave practically around pathogens. As a kid, she'd always been good at math, but when she found out she could use it to capture the tentacular spread of disease, and not just manipulate abstractions, she was hooked.
When she made her way to Los Alamos, she started looking at what people were doing during outbreaks. Using social media like Twitter, Google search data, and Wikipedia, the team started to sift for trends. Were people talking about hygiene, like hand-washing? Or about being sick? Were they Googling information about mosquitoes? Searching Wikipedia for symptoms? And how did those things correlate with the spread of disease?
It was a new, faster way to think about how pathogens propagate in the real world. Usually, there's a 10- to 14-day lag in the U.S. between when doctors tap numbers into spreadsheets and when that information becomes public. By then, the world has moved on, and so has the disease—to other villages, other victims.
"We found there was a correlation between actual flu incidents in a community and the number of searches online and the number of tweets online," says del Valle. That was when she first let herself dream about a real-time forecast, not a 10-days-later backcast. Del Valle's group—computer scientists, mathematicians, statisticians, economists, public health professionals, epidemiologists, satellite analysis experts—has continued to work on the problem ever since their first Twitter parsing, in 2011.
They've had their share of outbreaks to track. Looking back at the 2009 swine flu pandemic, they saw people buying face masks and paying attention to the cleanliness of their hands. "People were talking about whether or not they needed to cancel their vacation," she says, and also whether pork products—which have nothing to do with swine flu—were safe to buy.
At the latest meeting with all the prediction groups, del Valle's flu models took first and second place.
They watched internet conversations during the measles outbreak in California. "There's a lot of online discussion about anti-vax sentiment, and people trying to convince people to vaccinate children and vice versa," she says.
Today, they work on predicting the spread of Zika, Chikungunya, and dengue fever, as well as the plain old flu. And according to the CDC, that latter effort is going well.
Since 2015, the CDC has run the Epidemic Prediction Initiative, a competition in which teams like de Valle's submit weekly predictions of how raging the flu will be in particular locations, along with other ailments occasionally. Michael Johannson is co-founder and leader of the program, which began with the Dengue Forecasting Project. Its goal, he says, was to predict when dengue cases would blow up, when previously an area just had a low-level baseline of sick people. "You'll get this massive epidemic where all of a sudden, instead of 3,000 to 4,000 cases, you have 20,000 cases," he says. "They kind of come out of nowhere."
But the "kind of" is key: The outbreaks surely come out of somewhere and, if scientists applied research and data the right way, they could forecast the upswing and perhaps dodge a bomb before it hit big-time. Questions about how big, when, and where are also key to the flu.
A big part of these projects is the CDC giving the right researchers access to the right information, and the structure to both forecast useful public-health outcomes and to compare how well the models are doing. The extra information has been great for the Los Alamos effort. "We don't have to call departments and beg for data," says del Valle.
When data isn't available, "proxies"—things like symptom searches, tweets about empty offices, satellite images showing a green, wet, mosquito-friendly landscape—are helpful: You don't have to rely on anyone's health department.
At the latest meeting with all the prediction groups, del Valle's flu models took first and second place. But del Valle wants more than weekly numbers on a government website; she wants that weather-app-inspired fortune-teller, incorporating the many diseases you could get today, standing right where you are. "That's our dream," she says.
This plot shows the the correlations between the online data stream, from Wikipedia, and various infectious diseases in different countries. The results of del Valle's predictive models are shown in brown, while the actual number of cases or illness rates are shown in blue.
(Courtesy del Valle)
The goal isn't to turn you into a germophobic agoraphobe. It's to make you more aware when you do go out. "If you know it's going to rain today, you're more likely to bring an umbrella," del Valle says. "When you go on vacation, you always look at the weather and make sure you bring the appropriate clothing. If you do the same thing for diseases, you think, 'There's Zika spreading in Sao Paulo, so maybe I should bring even more mosquito repellent and bring more long sleeves and pants.'"
They're not there yet (don't hold your breath, but do stop touching your mouth). She estimates it's at least a decade away, but advances in machine learning could accelerate that hypothetical timeline. "We're doing baby steps," says del Valle, starting with the flu in the U.S., dengue in Brazil, and other efforts in Colombia, Ecuador, and Canada. "Going from there to forecasting all diseases around the globe is a long way," she says.
But even AccuWeather started small: One man began predicting weather for a utility company, then helping ski resorts optimize their snowmaking. His influence snowballed, and now private forecasting apps, including AccuWeather's, populate phones across the planet. The company's progression hasn't been without controversy—privacy incursions, inaccuracy of long-term forecasts, fights with the government—but it has continued, for better and for worse.
Disease apps, perhaps spun out of a small, unlikely team at a nuclear-weapons lab, could grow and breed in a similar way. And both the controversies and public-health benefits that may someday spin out of them lie in the future, impossible to predict with certainty.
In early 2020, Moderna Inc. was a barely-known biotechnology company with an unproven approach. It wanted to produce messenger RNA molecules to carry instructions into the body, teaching it to ward off disease. Experts doubted the Boston-based company would meet success.
Today, Moderna is a pharmaceutical power thanks to its success developing an effective Covid-19 vaccine. The company is worth $124 billion, more than giants including GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, and evidence has emerged that Moderna's shots are more protective than those produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and other vaccine makers. Pressure is building on the company to deliver more of its doses to people around the world, especially in poorer countries, and Moderna is working on vaccines against other pathogens, including Zika, influenza and cytomegalovirus.
But Moderna encountered such difficulties over the course of its eleven-year history that some executives worried it wouldn't survive. Two unlikely scientists helped save the company. Their breakthroughs paved the way for Moderna's Covid-19 shots but their work has never been publicized nor have their contributions been properly appreciated.
Derrick Rossi, a scientist at MIT, and Noubar Afeyan, a Cambridge-based investor, launched Moderna in September 2010. Their idea was to create mRNA molecules capable of delivering instructions to the body's cells, directing them to make proteins to heal ailments and cure disease. Need a statin, immunosuppressive, or other drug or vaccine? Just use mRNA to send a message to the body's cells to produce it. Rossi and Afeyan were convinced injecting mRNA into the body could turn it into its own laboratory, generating specific medications or vaccines as needed.
At the time, the notion that one might be able to teach the body to make proteins bordered on heresy. Everyone knew mRNA was unstable and set off the body's immune system on its way into cells. But in the late 2000's, two scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, had figured out how to modify mRNA's chemical building blocks so the molecule could escape the notice of the immune system and enter the cell. Rossi and Afeyan couldn't convince the University of Pennsylvania to license Karikó and Weissman's patent, however, stymying Moderna's early ambitions. At the same time, the Penn scientists' technique seemed more applicable to an academic lab than a biotech company that needed to produce drugs or shots consistently and in bulk. Rossi and Afeyan's new company needed their own solution to help mRNA evade the body's defenses.
Some of Moderna's founders doubted Schrum could find success and they worried if their venture was doomed from the start.
The Scientist Who Modified mRNA: Jason Schrum
In 2010, Afeyan's firm subleased laboratory space in the basement of another Cambridge biotech company to begin scientific work. Afeyan chose a young scientist on his staff, Jason Schrum, to be Moderna's first employee, charging him with getting mRNA into cells without relying on Karikó and Weissman's solutions.
Schrum seemed well suited for the task. Months earlier, he had received a PhD in biological chemistry at Harvard University, where he had focused on nucleotide chemistry. Schrum even had the look of someone who might do big things. The baby-faced twenty-eight-year-old favored a relaxed, start-up look: khakis, button-downs, and Converse All-Stars.
Schrum felt immediate strain, however. He hadn't told anyone, but he was dealing with intense pain in his hands and joints, a condition that later would be diagnosed as degenerative arthritis. Soon Schrum couldn't bend two fingers on his left hand, making lab work difficult. He joined a drug trial, but the medicine proved useless. Schrum tried corticosteroid injections and anti-inflammatory drugs, but his left hand ached, restricting his experiments.
"It just wasn't useful," Schrum says, referring to his tender hand.
He persisted, nonetheless. Each day in the fall of 2010, Schrum walked through double air-locked doors into a sterile "clean room" before entering a basement laboratory, in the bowels of an office in Cambridge's Kendall Square neighborhood, where he worked deep into the night. Schrum searched for potential modifications of mRNA nucleosides, hoping they might enable the molecule to produce proteins. Like all such rooms, there were no windows, so Schrum had to check a clock to know if it was day or night. A colleague came to visit once in a while, but most of the time, Schrum was alone.
Some of Moderna's founders doubted Schrum could find success and they worried if their venture was doomed from the start. An established MIT scientist turned down a job with the start-up to join pharmaceutical giant Novartis, dubious of Moderna's approach. Colleagues wondered if mRNA could produce proteins, at least on a consistent basis.
As Schrum began testing the modifications in January 2011, he made an unexpected discovery. Karikó and Weissman saw that by turned one of the building blocks for mRNA, a ribonucleoside called uridine, into a slightly different form called pseudouridine, the cell's immune system ignored the mRNA and the molecule avoided an immune response. After a series of experiments in the basement lab, Schrum discovered that a variant of pseudouridine called N1- methyl-pseudouridine did an even better job reducing the cell's innate immune response. Schrum's nucleoside switch enabled even higher protein production than Karikó and Weissman had generated, and Schrum's mRNAs lasted longer than either unmodified molecules or the modified mRNA the Penn academics had used, startling the young researcher. Working alone in a dreary basement and through intense pain, he had actually improved on the Penn professors' work.
Years later, Karikó and Weissman who would win acclaim. In September 2021, the scientists were awarded the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. Some predict they eventually will win a Nobel prize. But it would be Schrum's innovation that would form the backbone of both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine, not the chemical modifications that Karikó and Weissman developed. For Schrum, necessity had truly been the mother of invention.
The Scientist Who Solved Delivery: Kerry Benenato
For several years, Moderna would make slow progress developing drugs to treat various diseases. Eventually, the company decided that mRNA was likely better suited for vaccines. By 2017, Moderna and the National Institutes of Health were discussing working together to develop mRNA–based vaccines, a partnership that buoyed Moderna's executives. There remained a huge obstacle in Moderna's way, however. It was up to Kerry Benenato to find a solution.
Benenato received an early hint of the hurdle in front of her three years earlier, when the organic chemist was first hired. When a colleague gave her a company tour, she was introduced to Moderna's chief scientific officer, Joseph Bolen, who seemed unusually excited to meet her.
"Oh, great!" Bolen said with a smile. "She's the one who's gonna solve delivery."
Bolen gave a hearty laugh and walked away, but Benenato detected seriousness in his quip.
It was a lot to expect from a 37-year-old scientist already dealing with insecurities and self-doubt. Benenato was an accomplished researcher who most recently had worked at AstraZeneca after completing post-doctoral studies at Harvard University. Despite her impressive credentials, Benenato battled a lack of confidence that sometimes got in her way. Performance reviews from past employers had been positive, but they usually produced similar critiques: Be more vocal. Do a better job advocating for your ideas. Give us more, Kerry.
Benenato was petite and soft-spoken. She sometimes stuttered or relied on "ums" and "ahs" when she became nervous, especially in front of groups, part of why she sometimes didn't feel comfortable speaking up.
"I'm an introvert," she says. "Self-confidence is something that's always been an issue."
To Benenato, Moderna's vaccine approach seemed promising—the team was packaging mRNAs in microscopic fatty-acid compounds called lipid nanoparticles, or LNPs, that protected the molecules on their way into cells. Moderna's shots should have been producing ample and long-lasting proteins. But the company's scientists were alarmed—they were injecting shots deep into the muscle of mice, but their immune systems were mounting spirited responses to the foreign components of the LNPs, which had been developed by a Canadian company.
This toxicity was a huge issue: A vaccine or drug that caused sharp pain and awful fevers wasn't going to prove very popular. The Moderna team was in a bind: Its mRNA had to be wrapped in the fatty nanoparticles to have a chance at producing plentiful proteins, but the body wasn't tolerating the microscopic encasements, especially upon repeated dosing.
The company's scientists had done everything they could to try to make the molecule's swathing material disappear soon after entering the cells, in order to avoid the unfortunate side effects, such as chills and headaches, but they weren't making headway. Frustration mounted. Somehow, the researchers had to find a way to get the encasements—made of little balls of fat, cholesterol, and other substances—to deliver their payload mRNA and then quickly vanish, like a parent dropping a teenager off at a party, to avoid setting off the immune system in unpleasant ways, even as the RNA and the proteins the molecule created stuck around.
Benenato wasn't entirely shocked by the challenges Moderna was facing. One of the reasons she had joined the upstart company was to help develop its delivery technology. She just didn't realize how pressing the issue was, or how stymied the researchers had become. Benenato also didn't know that Moderna board members were among those most discouraged by the delivery issue. In meetings, some of them pointed out that pharmaceutical giants like Roche Holding and Novartis had worked on similar issues and hadn't managed to develop lipid nanoparticles that were both effective and well tolerated by the body. Why would Moderna have any more luck?
Stephen Hoge insisted the company could yet find a solution.
"There's no way the only innovations in LNP are going to come from some academics and a small Canadian company," insisted Hoge, who had convinced the executives that hiring Benenato might help deliver an answer.
Benenato realized that while Moderna might have been a hot Boston-area start- up, it wasn't set up to do the chemistry necessary to solve their LNP problem. Much of its equipment was old or secondhand, and it was the kind used to tinker with mRNAs, not lipids.
"It was scary," she says.
When Benenato saw the company had a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, which allows chemists to see the molecular structure of material, she let out a sigh of relief. Then Benenato inspected the machine and realized it was a jalopy. The hulking, aging instrument had been decommissioned and left behind by a previous tenant, too old and banged up to bring with them.
Benenato began experimenting with different chemical changes for Moderna's LNPs, but without a working spectrometer she and her colleagues had to have samples ready by noon each day, so they could be picked up by an outside company that would perform the necessary analysis. After a few weeks, her superiors received an enormous bill for the outsourced work and decided to pay to get the old spectrometer running again.
After months of futility, Benenato became impatient. An overachiever who could be hard on herself, she was eager to impress her new bosses. Benenato felt pressure outside the office, as well. She was married with a preschool-age daughter and an eighteen-month-old son. In her last job, Benenato's commute had been a twenty-minute trip to Astra-Zeneca's office in Waltham, outside Boston; now she was traveling an hour to Moderna's Cambridge offices. She became anxious—how was she going to devote the long hours she realized were necessary to solve their LNP quandary while providing her children proper care? Joining Moderna was beginning to feel like a possible mistake.
She turned to her husband and father for help. They reminded her of the hard work she had devoted to establishing her career and said it would be a shame if she couldn't take on the new challenge. Benenato's husband said he was happy to stay home with the kids, alleviating some of her concerns.
Back in the office, she got to work. She wanted to make lipids that were easier for the body to chop into smaller pieces, so they could be eliminated by the body's enzymes. Until then, Moderna, like most others, relied on all kinds of complicated chemicals to hold its LNP packaging together. They weren't natural, though, so the body was having a hard time breaking them down, causing the toxicity.
Benenato began experimenting with simpler chemicals. She inserted "ester bonds"—compounds referred to in chemical circles as "handles" because the body easily grabs them and breaks them apart. Ester bonds had two things going for them: They were strong enough to help ensure the LNP remained stable, acting much like a drop of oil in water, but they also gave the body's enzymes something to target and break down as soon as the LNP entered the cell, a way to quickly rid the body of the potentially toxic LNP components. Benenato thought the inclusion of these chemicals might speed the elimination of the LNP delivery material.
This idea, Benenato realized, was nothing more than traditional, medicinal chemistry. Most people didn't use ester bonds because they were pretty unsophisticated. But, hey, the tricky stuff wasn't working, so Benenato thought she'd see if the simple stuff worked.
Benenato also wanted to try to replace a group of unnatural chemicals in the LNP that was contributing to the spirited and unwelcome response from the immune system. Benenato set out to build a new and improved chemical combination. She began with ethanolamine, a colorless, natural chemical, an obvious start for any chemist hoping to build a more complex chemical combination. No one relied on ethanolamine on its own.
Benenato was curious, though. What would happen if she used just these two simple modifications to the LNP: ethanolamine with the ester bonds? Right away, Benenato noticed her new, super-simple compound helped mRNA create some protein in animals. It wasn't much, but it was a surprising and positive sign. Benenato spent over a year refining her solution, testing more than one hundred variations, all using ethanolamine and ester bonds, showing improvements with each new version of LNP. After finishing her 102nd version of the lipid molecule, which she named SM102, Benenato was confident enough in her work to show it to Hoge and others.
They immediately got excited. The team kept tweaking the composition of the lipid encasement. In 2017, they wrapped it around mRNA molecules and injected the new combination in mice and then monkeys. They saw plentiful, potent proteins were being produced and the lipids were quickly being eliminated, just as Benenato and her colleagues had hoped. Moderna had its special sauce.
That year, Benenato was asked to deliver a presentation to Stephane Bancel, Moderna's chief executive, Afeyan, and Moderna's executive committee to explain why it made sense to use the new, simpler LNP formulation for all its mRNA vaccines. She still needed approval from the executives to make the change. Ahead of the meeting, she was apprehensive, as some of her earlier anxieties returned. But an unusual calm came over her as she began speaking to the group. Benenato explained how experimenting with basic, overlooked chemicals had led to her discovery.
She said she had merely stumbled onto the company's solution, though her bosses understood the efforts that had been necessary for the breakthrough. The board complimented her work and agreed with the idea of switching to the new LNP. Benenato beamed with pride.
"As a scientist, serendipity has been my best friend," she told the executives.
Over the next few years, Benenato and her colleagues would improve on their methods and develop even more tolerable and potent LNP encasement for mRNA molecules. Their work enabled Moderna to include higher doses of vaccine in its shots. In early 2020, Moderna developed Covid-19 shots that included 100 micrograms of vaccine, compared with 30 micrograms in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That difference appears to help the Moderna vaccine generate higher titers and provide more protection.
"You set out in a career in drug discovery to want to make a difference," Benenato says. "Seeing it come to reality has been surreal and emotional."
Editor's Note: This essay is excerpted from A SHOT TO SAVE THE WORLD: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine by Gregory Zuckerman, now on sale from Portfolio/Penguin.
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Kira Peikoff is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young sons. Follow her on Twitter @KiraPeikoff.