The largest ever seizure of fentanyl in the United States – 254 pounds of the white powder, enough to kill 1 in 3 Americans by overdose – was found under a shipment of cucumbers recently.
A policing approach alone is insufficient to take on the opioid crisis.
Those types of stories barely make the headlines any more, in part because illicit drugs are no longer just handsold by drug dealers; these sales have gone online. The neighborhood dealer faces the same evolving environment as other retailers and may soon go the way of Sears.
But opioids themselves are not going away. I could make an opioid purchase online in about 30 seconds and have it sent to my door, says Joe Smyser. The epidemiologist and president of The Public Good Projects isn't bragging, he's simply stating a fact about the opioid crisis that has struck the United States. The U.S Drug Enforcement Agency, social media companies, and some foreign governments have undertaken massive efforts to shut down sites selling illegal drugs, and they have gotten very good at it, shuttering most within a day of their opening.
But it's a Whac-A-Mole situation in which new ones pop up as quickly as older ones are closed; they are promoted through hashtags, social media networks, and ubiquitous email spam to lure visitors to a website or call a WhatsApp number to make a purchase. The online disruption by law enforcement has become simply another cost of doing business for drug sellers. Fentanyl, and similar analogues created to evade detection and the law, are at the center of it. Small amounts can be mixed with other "safer" opioids to get a high, and the growth of online sales have all contributed to the surge of opioid-related deaths: about 17,500 in 2006; 47,600 in 2017; and a projected 82,000 a year by 2025.
All of this has occurred even while authorities have been cracking down on the prescribing of opioids, and prescription-related deaths have declined. Clearly a policing approach alone is insufficient to take on the opioid crisis.
Building the Tools
The Public Good Projects (PGP), a nonprofit organization founded by concerned experts, was set up to better understand public health issues in this new online environment and better shape responses. The first step is to understand what people are hearing and the language they are using by monitoring social media and other forms of public communications. "We're collecting data from every publicly available media source that we can get our hands on. It's broadcast television data, it's radio, it's print newspapers and magazines. And then it's online data; it's online video, social media, blogs, websites," Smyser explains.
The purpose was to better understand the opioid crisis and find out if there were differences between affected rural and urban populations.
"Then our job is to create queries, create searches of all of that data so that we find what is the information that Americans are exposed to about a topic, and then what … Americans [are] sharing amongst themselves about that same topic."
He says it's the same thing business has been doing for years to monitor their "brand health" and be prepared for possible negative issues that might arise about their products and services. He believes PGP is the first group to use those tools for public health.
Looking At Opioids
PGP's work on opioids started with a contract from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) through the National Science Foundation. The purpose was simply to better understand the opioid crisis in the United States and in particular find out if there were differences between affected rural and urban populations. A team of data scientists, public health professionals, and cultural anthropologists needed several months to sort out and organize the algorithms from the sheer volume of data.
Drug use is particularly rich in slang, where a specific drug or way of using it can be referred to in multiple ways in different towns and social groups. Traditional media often uses clinical terms, Twitter shorthand, and all of that has to be structured and integrated "so that it isn't just spitting out data that is gobbledygook and of no use to anyone," says Smyser.
The data they gather is both cumulative and in real time, tabulated and visually represented in constantly morphing hashtag and word clouds where the color and size of the word indicates the source and volume of its use.
Popular hashtags on Twitter relating to the opioid crisis.
(Credit: The Public Good Projects)
The visual presentation of data helps to understand what different groups are saying and how they are saying it. For example, compare the hashtag and word clouds. Younger people are more likely to use the hashtags of Twitter, while older people are more likely to use older forms of media, and that is reflected in their concerns and language in those clouds.
Popular words relating to the opioid crisis gathered from older forms of media.
(Credit: The Public Good Projects)
A Ping map shows the origin of messages, while a Spidey map shows the network of how messages are being forwarded and shared among people. These sets of data can be overlaid with zip code, census, and socioeconomic data to provide an even deeper sense of who is saying what. And when integrated together, they provide clues to topics and language that might best engage people in each niche.
A Ping map showing the origin of messages around the opioid crisis.
(Credit: The Public Good Projects)
One thing that quickly became apparent to PGP in monitoring the media is that "over half of the information that the American public is exposed to about opioids is a very distant policy debate," says Smyser.
It is political pronouncements in DC, the legal system going after pharmaceutical companies that promoted prescription opioids for pain relief (and more), or mandatory prison terms for offenders. Relatively little is about treatment, the impact on families and communities, and what people can do themselves. That is particularly important in light of another key finding: residents of "Trump-land," the rural areas that supported the president and are being ravaged by opioids, talk about the problem and solutions very differently from urban areas.
"In rural communities there is usually a huge emphasis on self-reliance, and we take care of each other; that's why we enjoy living here. We are a neighborhood, we come together and we fix our own problems," according to Smyser.
In contrast, urban communities tend to be more transient, less likely to live in multigenerational households and neighborhoods, and look to formal institutions rather than themselves for solutions. "The message that we're sending people is one where there is really no role whatsoever for self-efficacy...we're giving them nothing to do" to help solve the problem themselves, says Smyser. "In fact, I could argue it is reducing self-efficacy."
Residents of "Trump-land," the rural areas that supported the president and are being ravaged by opioids, talk about the problem and solutions very differently from urban areas.
The opioid crisis is complex and improving the situation will be too. Smyser believes a top-down policing approach alone will not work; it is better to provide front-line public health officers at the state and local level with more and current intelligence so they can respond in their communities.
"I think that would be enormously impactful. But right now, we just don't have that service." SAMHSA declined multiple requests to discuss this project paid for with federal money. A spokesman concluded with: "That project occurred under the previous administration, and we did not have a direct relationship with PGP. As a result, I am unable to comment on the project."
The Milken Institute Center for Public Health, a think tank that is working to find solutions to the opioid epidemic, had an upbeat response. Director Sabrina Spitaletta said, "PGP's work to provide real-time data that monitors topics of high concern in public health has been very helpful to many of the front-line organizations working to combat this crisis."
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.