Scientists have long been aware that some people live with what's known as "congenital insensitivity to pain"—the inability to register the tingles, jolts, and aches that alert most people to injury or illness.
"If you break the chain of transmission somewhere along there, it doesn't matter what the message is—the recipient will not get it."
On the ospposite end of the spectrum, others suffer from hyperalgesia, or extreme pain; for those with erythromelalgia, also known as "Man on Fire Syndrome," warm temperatures can feel like searing heat—even wearing socks and shoes can make walking unbearable.
Strangely enough, the two conditions can be traced to mutations in the same gene, SCN9A. It produces a protein that exists in spinal cells—specifically, in the dorsal root ganglion—which transmits the sensation of pain from the nerves at the peripheral site of an injury into the central nervous system and to the brain. This fact may become the key to pain relief for the roughly 20 percent of Americans who suffer from chronic pain, and countless other patients around the world.
"If you break the chain of transmission somewhere along there, it doesn't matter what the message is—the recipient will not get it," said Dr. Fyodor Urnov, director of the Innovative Genomics Institute and a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley. "For scientists and clinicians who study this, [there's] this consistent tracking of: You break this gene, you stop feeling pain; make this gene hyperactive, you feel lots of pain—that really cuts through the correlation versus causation question."
Researchers tried for years, without much success, to find a chemical that would block that protein from working and therefore mute the pain sensation. The CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool could completely sidestep that approach and "turn off" pain directly.
Yet as CRISPR makes such targeted therapies increasingly possible, the ethical questions surrounding gene editing have taken on a new and more urgent cast—particularly in light of the work of the disgraced Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who announced in late 2018 that he had created the world's first genetically edited babies. He used CRISPR to edit two embryos, with the goal of disabling a gene that makes people susceptible to HIV infection; but then took the unprecedented step of implanting the edited embryos for pregnancy and birth.
Edits to germline cells, like the ones He undertook, involve alterations to gametes or embryos and carry much higher risk than somatic cell edits, since changes will be passed on to any future generations. There are also concerns that imprecise edits could result in mutations and end up causing more disorders. Recent developments, particularly the "search-and replace" prime-editing technique published last fall, will help minimize those accidental edits, but the fact remains that we have little understanding of the long-term effects of these germline edits—for the future of the patients themselves, or for the broader gene pool.
"We need to have appropriate venues where we deliberate and consider the ethical, legal and social implications of gene editing as a society."
It is much harder to predict the effects, harmful or otherwise, on the larger human population as a result of interactions with the environment or other genetic variations; with somatic cell edits, on the other hand— like the ones that would be made in an individual to turn off pain—only the person receiving the treatment is affected.
Beyond the somatic/germline distinction, there is also a larger ethical question over how much genetic interference society is willing to tolerate, which may be couched as the difference between therapeutic editing—interventions in response to a demonstrated medical need—and "enhancement" editing. The Chinese scientist He was roundly criticized in the scientific community for the fact that there are already much safer and more proven methods of preventing the parent-to-child transmission of HIV through the IVF process, making his genetic edits medically unnecessary. (The edits may also have increased the girls' risk of susceptibility to other viruses, like influenza and the West Nile virus.)
Yet there are even more extreme goals that CRISPR could be used to reach, ones further removed from any sort of medical treatment. The 1997 science fiction movie Gattaca imagined a dystopian future where genetic selection for strength and intelligence is common, creating a society that explicitly and unapologetically endorses eugenics. In the real world, Russian President Vladimir Putin has commented that genetic editing could be used to create "a genius mathematician, a brilliant musician or a soldier, a man who can fight without fear, compassion, regret or pain."
"[Such uses] would be considered using gene editing for 'enhancement,'" said Dr. Zubin Master, an associate professor of biomedical ethics at the Mayo Clinic, who noted that a series of studies have strongly suggested that members of the public, in the U.S. and around the world, are much less amenable to the prospect of gene editing for these purposes than for the treatment of illness and disease.
Putin's comments were made in 2017, before news of He's experiment broke; since then no country has moved to continue experiments on germline editing (although one Russian IVF specialist, Denis Rebrikov, appears ready to do so, if given approval). Master noted that the World Health Organization has an 18-person committee currently dedicated to considering these questions. The Expert Advisory Committee on Developing Global Standards for Governance and Oversight of Human Genome Editing first convened in March 2019; that July, it issued a recommendation to regulatory and ethics authorities in all countries to refrain from approving clinical application requests for work on human germline genome editing—the kind of alterations to genetic cells used by He. The committee's report and a fleshed-out set of guidelines is expected after its final meeting, in Geneva this September (unless the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts the timeline).
Regardless of the WHO's report, in the U.S., all regulations of new medical procedures are overseen at the federal level, subjected to extensive regulatory review by the FDA; the chance of any doctor or company going rogue is minimal to none. Likewise, the challenges we face are more on the regulatory end of the spectrum than the Gattaca end. Dr. Stephanie Malia Fullerton, a bioethics professor at the University of Washington, pointed out that eugenics not only typically involves state-sponsored control of reproduction, but requires a much more clearly delineated genetic basis of common complex traits—indeed, SCN9A is one way to get to pain, but is not the only source—and suggested that current concerns about over-prescribing opioids are a more pressing question for society to address.
In fact, Navega Therapeutics, based in San Diego, hopes to find out whether the intersection of this research into SCN9A and CRISPR would be an effective way to address the U.S. opioid crisis. Currently in a preclinical funding stage, Navega's approach focuses on editing epigenetic molecules attached to the basic DNA strand—the idea is that the gene's expression can be activated or suppressed rather than removed entirely, reducing the risk of unwanted side effects from permanently altering the genetic code.
As these studies focused on the sensation of pain go forward, what we are likely to see simultaneously is the use of CRISPR to target diseases that are the root causes of that pain. Last summer, Victoria Gray, a Mississippi woman with sickle cell disease was the second-ever person to be treated with CRISPR therapy in the U.S. The disease is caused by a genetic mutation that creates malformed blood cells, which can't carry oxygen as normal and get stuck inside blood vessels, causing debilitating pain. For the study, conducted in concert with CRISPR Therapeutics, of Cambridge, Mass., cells were removed from Gray's bone marrow, modified using CRISPR, and infused back into her body, a technique called ex vivo editing.
In early February this year, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania published a study on a first-in-human phase 1 clinical trial, in which three patients with advanced cancer received an infusion of ex vivo engineered T cells in an effort to improve antitumor immunity. The modified cells persisted for up to nine months, and the patients experienced no serious adverse side effects, suggesting that this sort of therapeutic gene editing can be performed safely and could potentially allow patients to avoid the excruciating process of chemotherapy.
Then, just this spring, researchers made another advance: The first attempt at in vivo CRISPR editing—where the edits happen inside the patient's body—is currently underway, as doctors attempt to treat a patient blinded by Leber congenital amaurosis, a rare genetic disorder. In an Oregon study sponsored by Editas Medicine and Allergan, the patient, a volunteer, was injected with a harmless virus carrying CRISPR gene-editing machinery; the hope is that the tool will be able to edit out the genetic defect and restore production of a crucial protein. Based on preliminary safety reports, the study has been cleared to continue, and data on higher doses may be available by the end of 2020. Editas Medicine and CRISPR Therapeutics are joined in this sphere by Intellia Therapeutics, which is seeking approval for a trial later this year on amyloidosis, a rare liver condition.
For any such treatment targeting SCN9A to make its way to human subjects, it would first need to undergo years' worth of testing—on mice, on primates, and then on volunteer patients after an extended informed-consent process. If everything went perfectly, Urnov estimates it could take at least three to four years end to end and cost between $5 and 10 million—but that "if" is huge.
"The idea of a regular human being, genetically pure of pain?"
And as that happens, "we need to have appropriate venues where we deliberate and consider the ethical, legal and social implications of gene editing as a society," Master said. CRISPR itself is open-source, but its application is subject to the approval of governments, institutions, and societies, which will need to figure out where to draw the line between miracle treatments and playing God. Something as unpleasant and ubiquitous as pain may in fact be the most appropriate place to start.
"The pain circuit is very old," Urnov said. "We have evolved with the senses that we have, and have become the species that we are, as a result of who we are, physiologically. Yes, I take Advil—but when I get a headache! The idea of a regular human being, genetically pure of pain?... The permanent disabling or turning down of the pain sensation, for anything other than a medical reason? … That seems to be challenging Mother Nature in the wrong ways."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- How to improve your working memory
- A plain old solution to stress
- Progress on a deadly cancer for first time since 1995*
- Rise of the robot surgeon
- Tomato brain power
And in an honorable mention this week, new research on the gut connection to better brain health after strokes.
* The methodology for this study has come under scrutiny here.
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 percent of patients die from the attack, and 20 percent 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 percent 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 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 percent 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 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."
This article was originally published by Leaps.org on July 28, 2021.