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."
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."