breakthroughs

Amy Jenkins is a program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Biological Technologies Office, which runs a project called the Pandemic Prevention Platform.

Photo credit: Neil Jenkins

Amy Jenkins was in her office at DARPA, a research and development agency within the Department of Defense, when she first heard about a respiratory illness plaguing the Chinese city of Wuhan. Because she's a program manager for DARPA's Biological Technologies Office, her colleagues started stopping by. "It's really unusual, isn't it?" they would say.

At the time, China had a few dozen cases of what we now call COVID-19. "We should maybe keep an eye on that," she thought.

Early in 2020, still just keeping watch, she was visiting researchers working on DARPA's Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3), a project to develop treatments for "any known or previously unknown infectious threat," within 60 days of its appearance. "We looked at each other and said, 'Should we be doing something?'" she says.

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Sarah Scoles
Sarah Scoles is a freelance science journalist based in Denver. She is a contributing writer at Wired, a contributing editor at Popular Science, and the author of the book Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Implantable sensors and other surveillance technologies offer tremendous health benefits -- and ethical challenges.

(© Unsplash and Microgen/Adobe)

The same way that it's harder to lose 100 pounds than it is to not gain 100 pounds, it's easier to stop a disease before it happens than to treat an illness once it's developed.

In Morris' dream scenario "everyone will be implanted with a sensor" ("…the same way most people are vaccinated") and the sensor will alert people to go to the doctor if something is awry.

Bio-engineers working on the next generation of diagnostic tools say today's technology, such as colonoscopies or mammograms, are reactionary; that is, they tell a person they are sick often when it's too late to reverse course. Surveillance medicine — such as implanted sensors — will detect disease at its onset, in real time.

What Is Possible?

Ever since the Human Genome Project — which concluded in 2003 after mapping the DNA sequence of all 30,000 human genes — modern medicine has shifted to "personalized medicine." Also called, "precision health," 21st-century doctors can in some cases assess a person's risk for specific diseases from his or her DNA. The information enables women with a BRCA gene mutation, for example, to undergo more frequent screenings for breast cancer or to pro-actively choose to remove their breasts, as a "just in case" measure.

But your DNA is not always enough to determine your risk of illness. Not all genetic mutations are harmful, for example, and people can get sick without a genetic cause, such as with an infection. Hence the need for a more "real-time" way to monitor health.

Aaron Morris, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan, wants doctors to be able to predict illness with pinpoint accuracy well before symptoms show up. Working in the lab of Dr. Lonnie Shea, the team is building "a tiny diagnostic lab" that can live under a person's skin and monitor for illness, 24/7. Currently being tested in mice, the Michigan team's porous biodegradable implant becomes part of the body as "cells move right in," says Morris, allowing engineered tissue to be biopsied and analyzed for diseases. The information collected by the sensors will enable doctors to predict disease flareups, such as for cancer relapses, so that therapies can begin well before a person comes out of remission. The technology will also measure the effectiveness of those therapies in real time.

In Morris' dream scenario "everyone will be implanted with a sensor" ("…the same way most people are vaccinated") and the sensor will alert people to go to the doctor if something is awry.

While it may be four or five decades before Morris' sensor becomes mainstream, "the age of surveillance medicine is here," says Jamie Metzl, a technology and healthcare futurist who penned Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity. "It will get more effective and sophisticated and less obtrusive over time," says Metzl.

Already, Google compiles public health data about disease hotspots by amalgamating individual searches for medical symptoms; pill technology can digitally track when and how much medication a patient takes; and, the Apple watch heart app can predict with 85-percent accuracy if an individual using the wrist device has Atrial Fibrulation (AFib) — a condition that causes stroke, blood clots and heart failure, and goes undiagnosed in 700,000 people each year in the U.S.

"We'll never be able to predict everything," says Metzl. "But we will always be able to predict and prevent more and more; that is the future of healthcare and medicine."

Morris believes that within ten years there will be surveillance tools that can predict if an individual has contracted the flu well before symptoms develop.

At City College of New York, Ryan Williams, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has built an implantable nano-sensor that works with a florescent wand to scope out if cancer cells are growing at the implant site. "Instead of having the ovary or breast removed, the patient could just have this [surveillance] device that can say 'hey we're monitoring for this' in real-time… [to] measure whether the cancer is maybe coming back,' as opposed to having biopsy tests or undergoing treatments or invasive procedures."

Not all surveillance technologies that are being developed need to be implanted. At Case Western, Colin Drummond, PhD, MBA, a data scientist and assistant department chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is building a "surroundable." He describes it as an Alexa-style surveillance system (he's named her Regina) that will "tell" the user, if a need arises for medication, how much to take and when.

Bioethical Red Flags

"Everyone should be extremely excited about our move toward what I call predictive and preventive health care and health," says Metzl. "We should also be worried about it. Because all of these technologies can be used well and they can [also] be abused." The concerns are many layered:

Discriminatory practices

For years now, bioethicists have expressed concerns about employee-sponsored wellness programs that encourage fitness while also tracking employee health data."Getting access to your health data can change the way your employer thinks about your employability," says Keisha Ray, assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). Such access can lead to discriminatory practices against employees that are less fit. "Surveillance medicine only heightens those risks," says Ray.

Who owns the data?

Surveillance medicine may help "democratize healthcare" which could be a good thing, says Anita Ho, an associate professor in bioethics at both the University of California, San Francisco and at the University of British Columbia. It would enable easier access by patients to their health data, delivered to smart phones, for example, rather than waiting for a call from the doctor. But, she also wonders who will own the data collected and if that owner has the right to share it or sell it. "A direct-to-consumer device is where the lines get a little blurry," says Ho. Currently, health data collected by Apple Watch is owned by Apple. "So we have to ask bigger ethical questions in terms of what consent should be required" by users.

Insurance coverage

"Consumers of these products deserve some sort of assurance that using a product that will predict future needs won't in any way jeopardize their ability to access care for those needs," says Hastings Center bioethicist Carolyn Neuhaus. She is urging lawmakers to begin tackling policy issues created by surveillance medicine, now, well ahead of the technology becoming mainstream, not unlike GINA, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 -- a federal law designed to prevent discrimination in health insurance on the basis of genetic information.

And, because not all Americans have insurance, Ho wants to know, who's going to pay for this technology and how much will it cost?

Trusting our guts

Some bioethicists are concerned that surveillance technology will reduce individuals to their "risk profiles," leaving health care systems to perceive them as nothing more than a "bundle of health and security risks." And further, in our quest to predict and prevent ailments, Neuhaus wonders if an over-reliance on data could damage the ability of future generations to trust their gut and tune into their own bodies?

It "sounds kind of hippy-dippy and feel-goodie," she admits. But in our culture of medicine where efficiency is highly valued, there's "a tendency to not value and appreciate what one feels inside of their own body … [because] it's easier to look at data than to listen to people's really messy stories of how they 'felt weird' the other day. It takes a lot less time to look at a sheet, to read out what the sensor implanted inside your body or planted around your house says."

Ho, too, worries about lost narratives. "For surveillance medicine to actually work we have to think about how we educate clinicians about the utility of these devices and how to how to interpret the data in the broader context of patients' lives."

Over-diagnosing

While one of the goals of surveillance medicine is to cut down on doctor visits, Ho wonders if the technology will have the opposite effect. "People may be going to the doctor more for things that actually are benign and are really not of concern yet," says Ho. She is also concerned that surveillance tools could make healthcare almost "recreational" and underscores the importance of making sure that the goals of surveillance medicine are met before the technology is unleashed.

"We can't just assume that any of these technologies are inherently technologies of liberation."

AI doesn't fix existing healthcare problems

"Knowing that you're going to have a fall or going to relapse or have a disease isn't all that helpful if you have no access to the follow-up care and you can't afford it and you can't afford the prescription medication that's going to ward off the onset," says Neuhaus. "It may still be worth knowing … but we can't fool ourselves into thinking that this technology is going to reshape medicine in America if we don't pay attention to … the infrastructure that we don't currently have."

Race-based medicine

How surveillances devices are tested before being approved for human use is a major concern for Ho. In recent years, alerts have been raised about the homogeneity of study group participants — too white and too male. Ho wonders if the devices will be able to "accurately predict the disease progression for people whose data has not been used in developing the technology?" COVID-19 has killed Black people at a rate 2.5 time greater than white people, for example, and new, virtual clinical research is focused on recruiting more people of color.

The Biggest Question

"We can't just assume that any of these technologies are inherently technologies of liberation," says Metzl.

Especially because we haven't yet asked the 64-thousand dollar question: Would patients even want to know?

Jenny Ahlstrom is an IT professional who was diagnosed at 43 with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that typically attacks people in their late 60s and 70s and for which there is no cure. She believes that most people won't want to know about their declining health in real time. People like to live "optimistically in denial most of the time. If they don't have a problem, they don't want to really think they have a problem until they have [it]," especially when there is no cure. "Psychologically? That would be hard to know."

Ahlstrom says there's also the issue of trust, something she experienced first-hand when she launched her non-profit, HealthTree, a crowdsourcing tool to help myeloma patients "find their genetic twin" and learn what therapies may or may not work. "People want to share their story, not their data," says Ahlstrom. "We have been so conditioned as a nation to believe that our medical data is so valuable."

Metzl acknowledges that adoption of new technologies will be uneven. But he also believes that "over time, it will be abundantly clear that it's much, much cheaper to predict and prevent disease than it is to treat disease once it's already emerged."

Beyond cost, the tremendous potential of these technologies to help us live healthier and longer lives is a game-changer, he says, as long as we find ways "to ultimately navigate this terrain and put systems in place ... to minimize any potential harms."

Cari Shane
Cari Shane is a freelance journalist and corporate writer, skier, swimmer and Airbnb Superhost. Originally from Manhattan, Shane now lives carless in Washington, DC and writes for The Washington Post (newspaper and magazine), USA Today, OZY, Fodor’s, NextAve, and more.
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Meg Newman, who suffered from C. difficile, underwent a fecal transplant that helped restore her to health.

Photo courtesy of Newman

C. difficile had Meg Newman's number; it had struck her 18 different times beginning in 1985. The bacterial infection takes over the gut bringing explosive diarrhea, dehydration, weight loss, and at its worst depletes blood platelets. It causes nearly 30,000 deaths each year in the U.S. alone.

"I was one sick puppy as that point and literally three days after the transplant I was doing pretty well, day four even better."

Meg knew these statistics not just from personal experience but also because she was a doctor at San Francisco General Hospital. Antibiotics had sometimes helped to treat the infection, but it never quite seemed to go away. Now, "It felt like part of my colon was sort of sliding off as I had the bowel movement." On her worst day she counted 33 bowel movements. It was 2005 and she knew she was at the end of her rope.

Medical training had taught Meg to look at the data. So when antibiotics failed, she searched the literature for other options. One was a seemingly off-the-wall treatment called fecal transplants, which essentially gives poop from a healthy person to one who is sick.

Its roots stretch back to "yellow soup" used to treat dysentery in China nearly two thousand years ago, in which ancient Chinese treaters would combine stool with liquid, mash it up, and administer it. The approach also is commonly used in veterinary medicine today. However, there were only about three papers on its use in humans in the medical literature at that time, she recalls. Still, the logic of the intervention appealed to her.

The gut microbiome as a concept and even a word were not widely known fifteen years ago. But the idea that the microbial community in her gut was in disarray, and a transplant of organisms from a healthy gut might help restore a more normal ecology made sense. And besides, the failure of standard medicine left her few options.

Meg spoke with a colleague, gastroenterologist Neil Stollman, about a possible fecal microbial transplant (FMT). Only a handful of doctors in the U.S. had ever done the procedure; Stollman had tried it just once before. After conversation with Newman, he agreed to do it.

They decided on Meg's partner Sherry as the donor. "I try very hard to use intimate sexual partners as the donor," explains Stollman. The reason is to reduce disease risk: "The logic there is pretty straightforward. If you have unprotected sex with this individual, in a monogamous way for a period of time, you have assumed pretty much any infectious risk," like hepatitis, HIV, and syphilis, he says. Other donors would be screened using the same criteria used to screen blood donations, plus screening for parasites that can live in stool but not blood.

The procedure

Martini aficionados fall into two camps, fans of shaken or stirred. In the early days the options for producing of fecal transplants were a blender or hand shaken. Stollman took the hands-on approach, mixing Sherry's fecal donation with saline to create "a milkshake in essence." He filtered it several times through gauze to get out the lumps.

Then he inserted a colonoscope, a long flexible tube, through the anus into Meg's colon. Generally a camera goes through the tube to look for polyps and cancers, while other tools can snip off polyps and retrieve tissue samples. Today he used it to insert the fecal "milkshake" as high up the colon as he could go. Imodium and bed rest were the final pieces. It works about 90 percent of the time today.

Meg went home with fingers crossed. "And within about two weeks things just slowed down; the diarrhea just stopped. I felt better so my appetite was better." The tide had turned, though it would take months to slowly repair the toll taken on her body from disease and antibiotics.

Then in 2011 another serious medical challenge required heavy use of antibiotics and Meg's C. difficile came roaring back; she needed a second FMT. Sherry had a bad sinus infection and had been on antibiotics, so that ruled her out as a donor. Red, Meg's godson, volunteered. He was twenty-one and had little or no exposure to antibiotics, which can harm friendly bacteria living in the gut.

"I was one sick puppy as that point," Meg recalls, "and literally three days after the transplant [from Red] I was doing pretty well, day four even better. It was unbelievable." It illustrated that donors are not the same, and that while an intimate partner may be the safest option, it also may not be the most efficacious donation in terms of providing missing parts of the microbial ecosystem.

Going mainstream

By then, FMTs were starting to come out of the shadows as more than just a medical oddity. One gigantic milestone in changing perceptions was a Dutch study on using the procedure to treat C. difficile that was published in January 2013 in the New England Journal of Medicine. "That was the first trial where people said, look this isn't voodoo. This wasn't made up; it really worked," says Colleen Kelly, another pioneer in using FMTs to treat C. difficile and a researcher at Brown University. A single dose was successful more than 80 percent of the time in resolving disease in patients who had failed multiple regimens of antibiotics.

Charlatans pounced on the growing interest in the microbiome, promoting FMT as a cure for all sorts of ailments for which there was no scientific evidence. The FDA stepped in, announcing it would regulate the procedure as a drug, and essentially banned use of FMTs until it wrote regulations. But the outcry from physicians and patients was so great it was forced to retreat and has allowed continued use in treating C. difficile albeit on an interim regulatory basis that has continued since 2013.

Another major change was the emergence of stool banks, modeled on blood banks. The most widely know is OpenBiome, established in 2012 as a nonprofit by young researchers at Harvard and MIT. It aimed to standardize donation of stool and screening for disease, and package them in frozen form for colonoscopic delivery, or pill form. It greatly simplified the process and more doctors became willing to use FMTs to treat C. difficile. Today, some gastroenterologists specialize in administering the transplants as a feature of their practice.

To be sure, there have been some setbacks, including a transplant between family members where the recipient became obese, likely in part because of bacteria in the material she received. The same thing has occurred in studies in mice. And last year, an elderly man died from a toxic strain of E. coli that was in material provided by a stool bank. That caused the FDA to add that pathogen to the list of those one must screen for in products designed for use as fecal transplants.

Cost remains an issue. OpenBiome charges $1500-$2000 per transplant dose, depending on whether a frozen or pill form of the product is used. And that is likely to go up as the FDA increases the number of diseases that must be screened for, such as the virus that causes COVID-19, which is present in feces and likely can be transmitted through feces. Most insurance companies do not cover FMTs because no product has been formally approved for use by the FDA.

One of the greatest treatment challenges is making the correct diagnosis, says physician Robin Patel, who initially treated patients at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota but now spends most of her time there developing new diagnostics. Many things can cause diarrhea and the simple presence of the organism does not mean that C. difficile is causing it. In addition, many people are colonized with the bug but never develop symptoms of the disease.

Patel used the expensive tool of whole genome sequencing to look in great detail at C. difficile in patients who were treated with antibiotics for the infection and had recurrent diarrhea. "Some of them, as you might predict, were getting their symptoms with the same exact strain [of C. difficile] but others were not, it was a different strain," suggesting that they had been reinfected.

If it is a different strain, you might want to try antibiotics, she says, but if the same strain is present, then you might want to try a different approach such as FMT. Whole genome sequencing is still too slow and expensive to use in regularly treating patients today, but Patel hopes to develop a rapid, cost-effective test to help doctors make those types of decisions.

Biotech companies are trying to develop alternatives to poop as a source for transplant to treat C. difficile. They are picking and choosing different bacteria that they can grow and then combine into a product, to varying degrees of success, but none have yet crossed the finish line of FDA approval.

"I think [the future of FMTs] is going to be targeted, even custom-made."

The FDA would like such a product because it is used to dealing with small molecule drugs that are standardized and produced in batches. Companies are pursing it because, as Kelly says, they are like sharks "smelling money in the water." Approval of such a product might cause the FDA to shut down existing stool banks that now exist in a regulatory limbo, leaving the company with a monopoly of exclusive rights to the treatment.

Back when Meg received her first fecal transplant, the procedure was so obscure that the guidelines for treating C. difficile put out by the American College of Gastroenterology didn't even mention FMT. The procedure crept into the 2013 revision of those guidelines as a treatment of last resort. Guidance under review for release later this year or early next year will ease use further but stop short of making it a first option.

Stollman imagines a future holy grail in treating C. difficile: "You give me a stool specimen and I run it through a scanner that tells me you have too much of this and too little of that. I have a sense of what normal [microbial composition of the gut] should be and add some of this and subtract some of that. Maybe I even give you some antibiotics to get rid of some of the bad guys, give you some probiotics. I think it is going to be targeted, even custom-made."

His complete vision for treating C. difficile won't arrive tomorrow, but given how rapidly FMTs have become part of medicine, it is likely to arrive in pieces and more quickly than one might think.

About five years ago Meg discovered she had an antibody deficiency that contributed to her health problems, including vulnerability to C. difficile. She began supplementation with immunoglobulin and "that has made a huge difference in my health. It is just unbelievable how much better I am." She is grateful that fecal transplants gave her the time to figure that out. She believes "there's every reason to consider it [FMT] as a first-line treatment and do the studies, ASAP."

Bob Roehr
Bob Roehr is a biomedical journalist based in Washington, DC. Over the last twenty-five years he has written extensively for The BMJ, Scientific American, PNAS, Proto, and myriad other publications. He is primarily interested in HIV, infectious disease, immunology, and how growing knowledge of the microbiome is changing our understanding of health and disease. He is working on a book about the ways the body can at least partially control HIV and how that has influenced (or not) the search for a treatment and cure.

Dr. Barry Marshall (along with a collaborator) discovered that the bacteria H. Pylori, pictured, caused stomach ulcers.

(Photo credit: Barry Marshall on Twitter and UEG)

[Editor's Note: Welcome to Leaps of the Past, a new monthly column that spotlights the fascinating backstory behind a medical or scientific breakthrough from history.]

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.

Anne, Stan, and grandson Louie during vacation in Mexico, 2019. INSET: Anne post-op in 2017.

(Courtesy of Shabason)

[Editor's Note: On June 6, 2017, Anne Shabason, an artist, hospice educator, and mother of two from Bolton, Ontario, a small town about 30 miles outside of Toronto, underwent Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) to treat her Parkinson's disease. The FDA approved DBS for Parkinson's disease in 2002. Although it's shown to be safe and effective, agreeing to invasive brain surgery is no easy decision, even when you have your family and one of North America's premier neurosurgeons at your side.

Here, with support from Stan, her husband of the past 40 years, Anne talks about her life before Parkinson's, what the disease took away, and what she got back because of DBS. As told to writer Heather R. Johnson.]

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Heather R. Johnson
Heather R. Johnson writes about medical devices, healthcare technology and various medical and life sciences topics from Oakland, California. Follow her on Twitter @HeatherRae71.