Scientists May Soon Be Able to Turn Off Pain with Gene Editing: Should They?
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."
Tiny, tough “water bears” may help bring new vaccines and medicines to sub-Saharan Africa
Microscopic tardigrades, widely considered to be some of the toughest animals on earth, can survive for decades without oxygen or water and are thought to have lived through a crash-landing on the moon. Also known as water bears, they survive by fully dehydrating and later rehydrating themselves – a feat only a few animals can accomplish. Now scientists are harnessing tardigrades’ talents to make medicines that can be dried and stored at ambient temperatures and later rehydrated for use—instead of being kept refrigerated or frozen.
Many biologics—pharmaceutical products made by using living cells or synthesized from biological sources—require refrigeration, which isn’t always available in many remote locales or places with unreliable electricity. These products include mRNA and other vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and immuno-therapies for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions. Cooling is also needed for medicines for blood clotting disorders like hemophilia and for trauma patients.
Formulating biologics to withstand drying and hot temperatures has been the holy grail for pharmaceutical researchers for decades. It’s a hard feat to manage. “Biologic pharmaceuticals are highly efficacious, but many are inherently unstable,” says Thomas Boothby, assistant professor of molecular biology at University of Wyoming. Therefore, during storage and shipping, they must be refrigerated at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit). Some must be frozen, typically at -20 degrees Celsius, but sometimes as low -90 degrees Celsius as was the case with the Pfizer Covid vaccine.
For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
The costly cold chain
The logistics network that ensures those temperature requirements are met from production to administration is called the cold chain. This cold chain network is often unreliable or entirely lacking in remote, rural areas in developing nations that have malfunctioning electrical grids. “Almost all routine vaccines require a cold chain,” says Christopher Fox, senior vice president of formulations at the Access to Advanced Health Institute. But when the power goes out, so does refrigeration, putting refrigerated or frozen medical products at risk. Consequently, the mRNA vaccines developed for Covid-19 and other conditions, as well as more traditional vaccines for cholera, tetanus and other diseases, often can’t be delivered to the most remote parts of the world.
To understand the scope of the challenge, consider this: In the U.S., more than 984 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been distributed so far. Each one needed refrigeration that, even in the U.S., proved challenging. Now extrapolate to all vaccines and the entire world. For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
Globally, the cold chain packaging market is valued at over $15 billion and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033.
Freeze-drying, also called lyophilization, which is common for many vaccines, isn’t always an option. Many freeze-dried vaccines still need refrigeration, and even medicines approved for storage at ambient temperatures break down in the heat of sub-Saharan Africa. “Even in a freeze-dried state, biologics often will undergo partial rehydration and dehydration, which can be extremely damaging,” Boothby explains.
The cold chain is also very expensive to maintain. The global pharmaceutical cold chain packaging market is valued at more than $15 billion, and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033, according to a report by Future Market Insights. This cost is only expected to grow. According to the consulting company Accenture, the number of medicines that require the cold chain are expected to grow by 48 percent, compared to only 21 percent for non-cold-chain therapies.
Tardigrades to the rescue
Tardigrades are only about a millimeter long – with four legs and claws, and they lumber around like bears, thus their nickname – but could provide a big solution. “Tardigrades are unique in the animal kingdom, in that they’re able to survive a vast array of environmental insults,” says Boothby, the Wyoming professor. “They can be dried out, frozen, heated past the boiling point of water and irradiated at levels that are thousands of times more than you or I could survive.” So, his team is gradually unlocking tardigrades’ survival secrets and applying them to biologic pharmaceuticals to make them withstand both extreme heat and desiccation without losing efficacy.
Boothby’s team is focusing on blood clotting factor VIII, which, as the name implies, causes blood to clot. Currently, Boothby is concentrating on the so-called cytoplasmic abundant heat soluble (CAHS) protein family, which is found only in tardigrades, protecting them when they dry out. “We showed we can desiccate a biologic (blood clotting factor VIII, a key clotting component) in the presence of tardigrade proteins,” he says—without losing any of its effectiveness.
The researchers mixed the tardigrade protein with the blood clotting factor and then dried and rehydrated that substance six times without damaging the latter. This suggests that biologics protected with tardigrade proteins can withstand real-world fluctuations in humidity.
Furthermore, Boothby’s team found that when the blood clotting factor was dried and stabilized with tardigrade proteins, it retained its efficacy at temperatures as high as 95 degrees Celsius. That’s over 200 degrees Fahrenheit, much hotter than the 58 degrees Celsius that the World Meteorological Organization lists as the hottest recorded air temperature on earth. In contrast, without the protein, the blood clotting factor degraded significantly. The team published their findings in the journal Nature in March.
Although tardigrades rarely live more than 2.5 years, they have survived in a desiccated state for up to two decades, according to Animal Diversity Web. This suggests that tardigrades’ CAHS protein can protect biologic pharmaceuticals nearly indefinitely without refrigeration or freezing, which makes it significantly easier to deliver them in locations where refrigeration is unreliable or doesn’t exist.
The tricks of the tardigrades
Besides the CAHS proteins, tardigrades rely on a type of sugar called trehalose and some other protectants. So, rather than drying up, their cells solidify into rigid, glass-like structures. As that happens, viscosity between cells increases, thereby slowing their biological functions so much that they all but stop.
Now Boothby is combining CAHS D, one of the proteins in the CAHS family, with trehalose. He found that CAHS D and trehalose each protected proteins through repeated drying and rehydrating cycles. They also work synergistically, which means that together they might stabilize biologics under a variety of dry storage conditions.
“We’re finding the protective effect is not just additive but actually is synergistic,” he says. “We’re keen to see if something like that also holds true with different protein combinations.” If so, combinations could possibly protect against a variety of conditions.
Before any stabilization technology for biologics can be commercialized, it first must be approved by the appropriate regulators. In the U.S., that’s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Developing a new formulation would require clinical testing and vast numbers of participants. So existing vaccines and biologics likely won’t be re-formulated for dry storage. “Many were developed decades ago,” says Fox. “They‘re not going to be reformulated into thermo-stable vaccines overnight,” if ever, he predicts.
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits.
Instead, this technology is most likely to be used for the new products and formulations that are just being created. New and improved vaccines will be the first to benefit. Good candidates include the plethora of mRNA vaccines, as well as biologic pharmaceuticals for neglected diseases that affect parts of the world where reliable cold chain is difficult to maintain, Boothby says. Some examples include new, more effective vaccines for malaria and for pathogenic Escherichia coli, which causes diarrhea.
Tallying up the benefits
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits. For instance, MenAfriVac, a meningitis vaccine (without tardigrade proteins) developed for sub-Saharan Africa, can be stored at up to 40 degrees Celsius for four days before administration. “If you have a few days where you don’t need to maintain the cold chain, it’s easier to transport vaccines to remote areas,” Fox says, where refrigeration does not exist or is not reliable.
Better health is an obvious benefit. MenAfriVac reduced suspected meningitis cases by 57 percent in the overall population and more than 99 percent among vaccinated individuals.
Lower healthcare costs are another benefit. One study done in Togo found that the cold chain-related costs increased the per dose vaccine price up to 11-fold. The ability to ship the vaccines using the usual cold chain, but transporting them at ambient temperatures for the final few days cut the cost in half.
There are environmental benefits, too, such as reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Cold chain transports consume 20 percent more fuel than non-cold chain shipping, due to refrigeration equipment, according to the International Trade Administration.
A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University compared the greenhouse gas emissions of the new, oral Vaxart COVID-19 vaccine (which doesn’t require refrigeration) with four intramuscular vaccines (which require refrigeration or freezing). While the Vaxart vaccine is still in clinical trials, the study found that “up to 82.25 million kilograms of CO2 could be averted by using oral vaccines in the U.S. alone.” That is akin to taking 17,700 vehicles out of service for one year.
Although tardigrades’ protective proteins won’t be a component of biologic pharmaceutics for several years, scientists are proving that this approach is viable. They are hopeful that a day will come when vaccines and biologics can be delivered anywhere in the world without needing refrigerators or freezers en route.
Man Who Got the First Fecal Transplant to Cure Melanoma Shares His Experience
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
"I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads," Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" --Diwakar Davar.
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar and his team knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of Clostridioides difficile, a persistant intestinal infection, and they wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
The ABCDE of melanoma detection
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral fecal microbiota product for C. difficile, hopefully paving the way for more.
An older version of this hit article was first published on May 18, 2021