Here's a riddle: What do the Moon, nuclear weapons, clean energy of the future, terrorism, and lung disease all have in common?
One goal of India's upcoming space probe is to locate deposits of helium-3 that are worth trillions of dollars.
The answer is helium-3, a gas that's extremely rare on Earth but 100 million times more abundant on the Moon. This past October, the Lockheed Martin corporation announced a concept for a lunar landing craft that may return humans to the Moon in the coming decade, and yesterday China successfully landed the Change-4 probe on the far side of the Moon. Landing inside the Moon's deepest crater, the Chinese achieved a first in space exploration history.
Meanwhile, later this month, India's Chandrayaan-2 space probe will also land on the lunar surface. One of its goals is to locate deposits of helium-3 that are worth trillions of dollars, because it could be a fuel for nuclear fusion energy to generate electricity or propel a rocket.
The standard way that nuclear engineers are trying to achieve sustainable fusion uses fuels that are more plentiful on Earth: deuterium and tritium. But MIT researchers have found that adding small amounts of helium-3 to the mix could make it much more efficient, and thus a viable energy source much sooner that once thought.
Even if fusion is proven practical tomorrow, any kind of nuclear energy involves long waits for power plant construction measured in decades. However, mining helium-3 could be useful now, because of its non-energy applications. A major one is its ability to detect neutrons coming from plutonium that could be used in terrorist attacks. Here's how it works: a small amount of helium-3 is contained within a forensic instrument. When a neutron hits an atom of helium-3, the reaction produces tritium, a proton, and an electrical charge, alerting investigators to the possibility that plutonium is nearby.
Ironically, as global concern about a potential for hidden nuclear material increased in the early 2000s, so did the supply of helium-3 on Earth. That's because helium-3 comes from the decay of tritium, used in thermonuclear warheads (H-bombs). Thousands of such weapons have been dismantled from U.S. and Russian arsenals, making helium-3 available for plutonium detection, research, and other applications--including in the world of healthcare.
Helium-3 can help doctors diagnose lung diseases, since it enables imaging of the lungs in real time.
Helium-3 dramatically improves the ability of doctors to image the lungs in a range of diseases including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema, cystic fibrosis, and bronchopulmonary dysplasia, which happens particularly in premature infants. Specifically, helium-3 is useful in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a procedure that creates images from within the body for diagnostic purposes.
But while a standard MRI allows doctors to visualize parts of the body like the heart or brain, it's useless for seeing the lungs. Because lungs are filled with air, which is much less dense than water or fat, effectively no signals are produced that would enable imaging.
To compensate for this problem, a patient can inhale gas that is hyperpolarized –meaning enhanced with special procedures so that the magnetic resonance signals from the lungs are finally readable. This gas is safe to breathe when mixed with enough oxygen to support life. Helium-3 is one such gas that can be hyperpolarized; since it produces such a strong signal, the MRI can literally see the air inside the lungs and in all of the airways, revealing intricate details of the bronchopulmonary tree. And it can do this in real time
The capability to show anatomic details of the lungs and airways, and the ability to display functional imaging as a patient breathes, makes helium-3 MRI far better than the standard method of testing lung function. Called spirometry, this method tells physicians how the lungs function overall, but does not home in on particular areas that may be causing a problem. Plus, spirometry requires patients to follow instructions and hold their breath, so it is not great for testing young children with pulmonary disease.
In recent years, the cost of helium-3 on Earth has skyrocketed.
Over the past several years, researchers have been developing MRI for lung testing using other hyperpolarized gases. The main alternative to helium-3 is xenon-129. Over the years, researchers have learned to overcome certain disadvantages of the latter, such as its potential to put patients to sleep. Since helium-3 provides the strongest signal, though, it is still the best gas for MRI studies in many lung conditions.
But the supply of helium-3 on Earth has been decreasing in recent years, due to the declining rate of dismantling of warheads, just as the Department of Homeland Security has required more and more of the gas for neutron detection. As a result, the cost of the gas has skyrocketed. Less is available now for medical uses – unless, of course, we begin mining it on the moon.
The question is: Are the benefits worth the 239,000-mile trip?
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. 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 and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby