For David Walden, a Southern Californian, surfing is a lifestyle, not a hobby. The 38-year-old works nights at a seafood restaurant to leave his mornings free for surfing.
While the surfers are doing what they love, they are also collecting information that is helping scientists better understand the ocean.
"Once you fall in love with the ocean, you need it like a daily cleanse or refresher," he says. "The positive mental and physical effects of the ocean, the endorphins and dopamine, keep you addicted in a good way."
Given his dedication to surfing, Walden was delighted when he became one of more than 200 surfers last year to test Smartfin, a 5-1/2-inch surfboard fin that contains a circuit board, a rechargeable battery, a GPS device, a sensor that captures temperature to one-hundredth of a degree, and a motion sensor that tracks the movement of the waves. While Walden and his fellow surfers are doing what they love, they are also collecting information that is helping scientists better understand the health of the near-shore ocean and how its chemistry is shifting due to climate change.
"I'm excited to be a part of it," Walden says. "I like to tell people I surf for science."
Back on shore, the surfers download the Smartfin data via a smartphone app so they can be accessed by scientists and other interested parties. (You can see where Smartfin surfers go at this interactive map.)
By putting sensors directly onto surfboards, oceanographers can collect data to help them better understand the global-warming related changes occurring in coastal oceans in temperature, salinity, and pH, all properties that have huge implications for the species that live in near-shore ecosystems.
There is much unknown about coastal waters because it's so difficult to obtain meaningful measurements. Traditional methods to monitor the close shore, such as bottle samples and buoys, are time consuming and expensive and tend to get damaged by the surf.
The Smartfin is the brainchild of Dr. Andy Stern, a retired neurologist. He and his brother-in-law, sculptor and filmmaker Todd McGrain, run The Lost Bird Project, a nonprofit devoted to raising awareness about climate change and other environmental issues. Stern brought his super fin idea to engineer Benjamin Thompson, who spent several years creating a prototype in his garage workshop. Smartfin was further developed by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego.
"The big challenge was to make a sensor small enough to fit in the fin but still produce good measurements," says Andreas Andersson, an associate professor of geoscience research at Scripps.
The Surfrider Foundation, a surfer-led nonprofit environmental organization, came aboard two years ago to distribute the Smartfin to its San Diego members.
Smartfin has also made a splash with scientists at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland on the eastern coast of Australia. They are using the fin's temperature sensor to better understand how climate change is affecting the movement and distribution of marine life. And at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in Plymouth, United Kingdom, the Smartfin's precise temperature readings of the near-shore ocean's surface are being used to improve the accuracy of satellites that monitor the ocean from hundreds of miles away.
"It's hard to talk about climate change in a way that's not boring or gloomy, but there's nothing gloomy or depressing about surfers and Smartfin."
"The hope is that Smartfin will improve the satellite measurements, which could improve the retrieval of temperature data around the world," says Dr. Phil Bresnahan, Smartfin's lead engineer at Scripps. In the future, the fin will include sensors to measure pH, chlorophyll (algae), dissolved oxygen, and turbidity (water clarity).
Stern envisions a time when thousands of surfers, paddle boarders, and other water enthusiasts worldwide will have Smartfins and be downloading data for scientists and environmentalists. Right now, there are approximately 70 surfers in the San Diego area using Smartfin and an additional 30 globally.
Scientists have plenty of evidence that global warming is largely caused by humans. Now they are trying to figure out what the long-term effects of climate change may be. For example, scientists are trying to predict which sections of coral reef, which house 25 percent of marine species, are most vulnerable so interventions can be developed to save them. Because of its small size, Smartfin is ideal to measure temperature changes in coral reefs.
Smartfin was also intended to be an educational tool. "It's a great way to start a different conversation about climate change," says Stern. "It's hard to talk about climate change in a way that's not boring or gloomy, but there's nothing gloomy or depressing about surfers and Smartfin. People want to hear more."
Turning surfers into citizen scientists makes perfect sense, says David Pasquini, 35, a longtime surfer who works for the British Consulate General's office in Oceanside, Calif. "Anyone who spends a lot of time in the ocean is aware of the changes happening in the ecosystem, the climate," says Pasquini. "Everyone asks, 'What can I do?'" Surfing with Smartfin, Pasquini feels like he is giving back.
"I know the data will be analyzed and eventually used to make a policy that helps with climate change. That's a great feeling--just by surfing, doing something you love, you're contributing."
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.