Bile duct cancer is a rare and aggressive form of cancer that is often difficult to diagnose. Patients with advanced forms of the disease have an average life expectancy of less than two years.
Many patients who get cancer in their bile ducts – the tubes that carry digestive fluid from the liver to the small intestine – have mutations in the protein FGFR2, which leads cells to grow uncontrollably. One treatment option is chemotherapy, but it’s toxic to both cancer cells and healthy cells, failing to distinguish between the two. Increasingly, cancer researchers are focusing on biomarker directed therapy, or making drugs that target a particular molecule that causes the disease – FGFR2, in the case of bile duct cancer.
A problem is that in targeting FGFR2, these drugs inadvertently inhibit the FGFR1 protein, which looks almost identical. This causes elevated phosphate levels, which is a sign of kidney damage, so doses are often limited to prevent complications.
In recent years, though, a company called Relay has taken a unique approach to picking out FGFR2, using a powerful supercomputer to simulate how proteins move and change shape. The team, leveraging this AI capability, discovered that FGFR2 and FGFR1 move differently, which enabled them to create a more precise drug.
Preliminary studies have shown robust activity of this drug, called RLY-4008, in FGFR2 altered tumors, especially in bile duct cancer. The drug did not inhibit FGFR1 or cause significant side effects. “RLY-4008 is a prime example of a precision oncology therapeutic with its highly selective and potent targeting of FGFR2 genetic alterations and resistance mutations,” says Lipika Goyal, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. She is a principal investigator of Relay’s phase 1-2 clinical trial.
Boosts from AI and a billionaire
Traditional drug design has been very much a case of trial and error, as scientists investigate many molecules to see which ones bind to the intended target and bind less to other targets.
“It’s being done almost blindly, without really being guided by structure, so it fails very often,” says Olivier Elemento, associate director of the Institute for Computational Biomedicine at Cornell. “The issue is that they are not sampling enough molecules to cover some of the chemical space that would be specific to the target of interest and not specific to others.”
Relay’s unique hardware and software allow simulations that could never be achieved through traditional experiments, Elemento says.
Some scientists have tried to use X-rays of crystallized proteins to look at the structure of proteins and design better drugs. But they have failed to account for an important factor: proteins are moving and constantly folding into different shapes.
David Shaw, a hedge fund billionaire, wanted to help improve drug discovery and understood that a key obstacle was that computer models of molecular dynamics were limited; they simulated motion for less than 10 millionths of a second.
In 2001, Shaw set up his own research facility, D.E. Shaw Research, to create a supercomputer that would be specifically designed to simulate protein motion. Seven years later, he succeeded in firing up a supercomputer that can now conduct high speed simulations roughly 100 times faster than others. Called Anton, it has special computer chips to enable this speed, and its software is powered by AI to conduct many simulations.
After creating the supercomputer, Shaw teamed up with leading scientists who were interested in molecular motion, and they founded Relay Therapeutics.
Elemento believes that Relay’s approach is highly beneficial in designing a better drug for bile duct cancer. “Relay Therapeutics has a cutting-edge approach for molecular dynamics that I don’t believe any other companies have, at least not as advanced.” Relay’s unique hardware and software allow simulations that could never be achieved through traditional experiments, Elemento says.
How it works
Relay used both experimental and computational approaches to design RLY-4008. The team started out by taking X-rays of crystallized versions of both their intended target, FGFR2, and the almost identical FGFR1. This enabled them to get a 3D snapshot of each of their structures. They then fed the X-rays into the Anton supercomputer to simulate how the proteins were likely to move.
Anton’s simulations showed that the FGFR1 protein had a flap that moved more frequently than FGFR2. Based on this distinct motion, the team tried to design a compound that would recognize this flap shifting around and bind to FGFR2 while steering away from its more active lookalike.
For that, they went back Anton, using the supercomputer to simulate the behavior of thousands of potential molecules for over a year, looking at what made a particular molecule selective to the target versus another molecule that wasn’t. These insights led them to determine the best compounds to make and test in the lab and, ultimately, they found that RLY-4008 was the most effective.
Promising results so far
Relay began phase 1-2 trials in 2020 and will continue until 2024. Preliminary results showed that, in the 17 patients taking a 70 mg dose of RLY-4008, the drug worked to shrink tumors in 88 percent of patients. This was a significant increase compared to other FGFR inhibitors. For instance, Futibatinib, which recently got FDA approval, had a response rate of only 42 percent.
Across all dose levels, RLY-4008 shrank tumors by 63 percent in 38 patients. In more good news, the drug didn’t elevate their phosphate levels, which suggests that it could be taken without increasing patients’ risk for kidney disease.
“Objectively, this is pretty remarkable,” says Elemento. “In a small patient study, you have a molecule that is able to shrink tumors in such a high fraction of patients. It is unusual to see such good results in a phase 1-2 trial.”
A simulated future
The research team is continuing to use molecular dynamic simulations to develop other new drug, such as one that is being studied in patients with solid tumors and breast cancer.
As for their bile duct cancer drug, RLY-4008, Relay plans by 2024 to have tested it in around 440 patients. “The mature results of the phase 1-2 trial are highly anticipated,” says Goyal, the principal investigator of the trial.
Sameek Roychowdhury, an oncologist and associate professor of internal medicine at Ohio State University, highlights the need for caution. “This has early signs of benefit, but we will look forward to seeing longer term results for benefit and side effect profiles. We need to think a few more steps ahead - these treatments are like the ’Whack-a-Mole game’ where cancer finds a way to become resistant to each subsequent drug.”
“I think the issue is going to be how durable are the responses to the drug and what are the mechanisms of resistance,” says Raymond Wadlow, an oncologist at the Inova Medical Group who specializes in gastrointestinal and haematological cancer. “But the results look promising. It is a much more selective inhibitor of the FGFR protein and less toxic. It’s been an exciting development.”
What if a few painless electrical zaps to your brain could help you recall names, perform better on Wordle or even ward off dementia?
This is where neuroscientists are going in efforts to stave off age-related memory loss as well as Alzheimer’s disease. Medications have shown limited effectiveness in reversing or managing loss of brain function so far. But new studies suggest that firing up an aging neural network with electrical or magnetic current might keep brains spry as we age.
Welcome to non-invasive brain stimulation (NIBS). No surgery or anesthesia is required. One day, a jolt in the morning with your own battery-operated kit could replace your wake-up coffee.
Scientists believe brain circuits tend to uncouple as we age. Since brain neurons communicate by exchanging electrical impulses with each other, the breakdown of these links and associations could be what causes the “senior moment”—when you can’t remember the name of the movie you just watched.
In 2019, Boston University researchers led by Robert Reinhart, director of the Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience Laboratory, showed that memory loss in healthy older adults is likely caused by these disconnected brain networks. When Reinhart and his team stimulated two key areas of the brain with mild electrical current, they were able to bring the brains of older adult subjects back into sync — enough so that their ability to remember small differences between two images matched that of much younger subjects for at least 50 minutes after the testing stopped.
Reinhart wowed the neuroscience community once again this fall. His newer study in Nature Neuroscience presented 150 healthy participants, ages 65 to 88, who were able to recall more words on a given list after 20 minutes of low-intensity electrical stimulation sessions over four consecutive days. This amounted to a 50 to 65 percent boost in their recall.
Even Reinhart was surprised to discover the enhanced performance of his subjects lasted a full month when they were tested again later. Those who benefited most were the participants who were the most forgetful at the start.
An older person participates in Robert Reinhart's research on brain stimulation.
Reinhart’s subjects only suffered normal age-related memory deficits, but NIBS has great potential to help people with cognitive impairment and dementia, too, says Krista Lanctôt, the Bernick Chair of Geriatric Psychopharmacology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in Toronto. Plus, “it is remarkably safe,” she says.
Lanctôt was the senior author on a meta-analysis of brain stimulation studies published last year on people with mild cognitive impairment or later stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The review concluded that magnetic stimulation to the brain significantly improved the research participants’ neuropsychiatric symptoms, such as apathy and depression. The stimulation also enhanced global cognition, which includes memory, attention, executive function and more.
This is the frontier of neuroscience.
The two main forms of NIBS – and many questions surrounding them
There are two types of NIBS. They differ based on whether electrical or magnetic stimulation is used to create the electric field, the type of device that delivers the electrical current and the strength of the current.
Transcranial Current Brain Stimulation (tES) is an umbrella term for a group of techniques using low-wattage electrical currents to manipulate activity in the brain. The current is delivered to the scalp or forehead via electrodes attached to a nylon elastic cap or rubber headband.
Variations include how the current is delivered—in an alternating pattern or in a constant, direct mode, for instance. Tweaking frequency, potency or target brain area can produce different effects as well. Reinhart’s 2022 study demonstrated that low or high frequencies and alternating currents were uniquely tied to either short-term or long-term memory improvements.
Sessions may be 20 minutes per day over the course of several days or two weeks. “[The subject] may feel a tingling, warming, poking or itching sensation,” says Reinhart, which typically goes away within a minute.
The other main approach to NIBS is Transcranial Magnetic Simulation (TMS). It involves the use of an electromagnetic coil that is held or placed against the forehead or scalp to activate nerve cells in the brain through short pulses. The stimulation is stronger than tES but similar to a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
The subject may feel a slight knocking or tapping on the head during a 20-to-60-minute session. Scalp discomfort and headaches are reported by some; in very rare cases, a seizure can occur.
No head-to-head trials have been conducted yet to evaluate the differences and effectiveness between electrical and magnetic current stimulation, notes Lanctôt, who is also a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto. Although TMS was approved by the FDA in 2008 to treat major depression, both techniques are considered experimental for the purpose of cognitive enhancement.
“One attractive feature of tES is that it’s inexpensive—one-fifth the price of magnetic stimulation,” Reinhart notes.
Don’t confuse either of these procedures with the horrors of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) in the 1950s and ‘60s. ECT is a more powerful, riskier procedure used only as a last resort in treating severe mental illness today.
Clinical studies on NIBS remain scarce. Standardized parameters and measures for testing have not been developed. The high heterogeneity among the many existing small NIBS studies makes it difficult to draw general conclusions. Few of the studies have been replicated and inconsistencies abound.
Scientists are still lacking so much fundamental knowledge about the brain and how it works, says Reinhart. “We don’t know how information is represented in the brain or how it’s carried forward in time. It’s more complex than physics.”
Lanctôt’s meta-analysis showed improvements in global cognition from delivering the magnetic form of the stimulation to people with Alzheimer’s, and this finding was replicated inan analysis in the Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease this fall. Neither meta-analysis found clear evidence that applying the electrical currents, was helpful for Alzheimer’s subjects, but Lanctôt suggests this might be merely because the sample size for tES was smaller compared to the groups that received TMS.
At the same time, London neuroscientist Marco Sandrini, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Roehampton, critically reviewed a series of studies on the effects of tES on episodic memory. Often declining with age, episodic memory relates to recalling a person’s own experiences from the past. Sandrini’s review concluded that delivering tES to the prefrontal or temporoparietal cortices of the brain might enhance episodic memory in older adults with Alzheimer’s disease and amnesiac mild cognitive impairment (the predementia phase of Alzheimer’s when people start to have symptoms).
Researchers readily tick off studies needed to explore, clarify and validate existing NIBS data. What is the optimal stimulus session frequency, spacing and duration? How intense should the stimulus be and where should it be targeted for what effect? How might genetics or degree of brain impairment affect responsiveness? Would adjunct medication or cognitive training boost positive results? Could administering the stimulus while someone sleeps expedite memory consolidation?
Using MRI or another brain scan along with computational modeling of the current flow, a clinician could create a treatment that is customized to each person’s brain.
While Sandrini’s review reported improvements induced by tES in the recall or recognition of words and images, there is no evidence it will translate into improvements in daily activities. This is another question that will require more research and testing, Sandrini notes.
Scientists are still lacking so much fundamental knowledge about the brain and how it works, says Reinhart. “We don’t know how information is represented in the brain or how it’s carried forward in time. It’s more complex than physics.”
Where the science is headed
Learning how to apply precision medicine to NIBS is the next focus in advancing this technology, says Shankar Tumati, a post-doctoral fellow working with Lanctôt.
There is great variability in each person’s brain anatomy—the thickness of the skull, the brain’s unique folds, the amount of cerebrospinal fluid. All of these structural differences impact how electrical or magnetic stimulation is distributed in the brain and ultimately the effects.
Using MRI or another brain scan along with computational modeling of the current flow, a clinician could create a treatment that is customized to each person’s brain, from where to put the electrodes to determining the exact dose and duration of stimulation needed to achieve lasting results, Sandrini says.
Above all, most neuroscientists say that largescale research studies over long periods of time are necessary to confirm the safety and durability of this therapy for the purpose of boosting memory. Short of that, there can be no FDA approval or medical regulation for this clinical use.
Lanctôt urges people to seek out clinical NIBS trials in their area if they want to see the science advance. “That is how we’ll find the answers,” she says, predicting it will be 5 to 10 years to develop each additional clinical application of NIBS. Ultimately, she predicts that reigning in Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment will require a multi-pronged approach that includes lifestyle and medications, too.
Sandrini believes that scientific efforts should focus on preventing or delaying Alzheimer’s. “We need to start intervention earlier—as soon as people start to complain about forgetting things,” he says. “Changes in the brain start 10 years before [there is a problem]. Once Alzheimer’s develops, it is too late.”
In March, Sonja Bauman, 39, used an online platform called Papa, which offers “family on demand,” to meet Mariela Florez, an 83-year-old retiree. Despite living with her adult children, Florez was bored and lonely when they left for work, and her recoveries from a stroke and broken hip were going slowly. That's when Bauman began visiting twice per week. They take walks, strengthening Florez’s hip, and play games like Connect Four for mental stimulation. “It’s very important for me so I don’t feel lonely all day long,” said Florez. Her memories, blurred by the stroke, are gradually returning.
Papa is one of a growing number of tech approaches that are bringing together people of all ages. In addition to platforms like Papa that connect people in real life, other startups use virtual reality and video, with some of them focusing especially on deepening social connections between the generations — relationships that support the health of older and younger people alike. “I enjoy seeing Mariela as much as she enjoys seeing me,” Bauman said.
Connecting in real life
Telehealth expert Andrew Parker founded Papa in 2017 to improve the health outcomes of older adults and families. Seniors can meet people — some their grandkids’ age — for healthy activities, while working parents find retirees to watch their children. These “Papa Pals” are provided as a benefit through Medicare, Medicaid and some employer health plans.
In 2020, Papa connected Bauman, the 39-year-old Floridian, with another woman in her mid-70s who lives alone and has very limited mobility. Bauman began driving her to doctor’s appointments and helping her with chores around the house. “When I’m not there, she doesn’t leave her apartment,” said Bauman. The two have gone to the gym together, and they walk slowly through the neighborhood, chatting so it feels less like exercise.
Parker was driven to start Papa by the problem of social isolation among seniors, exacerbated by the pandemic, but he believes users of all ages can benefit. “Many of our Pals feel more comfortable opening up with older members than their same-aged friends,” he said.
Other platforms aim for similar, in-person connections. Generation Tech unites teens with seniors for technology training. And Mon Ami, which provides case management software for aging and disability service providers, has an app that connects isolated older people with college-age volunteers.
Making new connections through video
Several new sites match you with strangers for real-time video chatting on various topics, such as finding common ground on political issues. Other video platforms focus on intergenerational connections.
S. Jay Olshansky, a gerontology professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, recalls the first time he saw Hyunseung Lee, an 11-year-old from Seoul, through his computer screen. The kid was shy, but Olshansky, 67, encouraged him to ask questions. “Turns out, he was thirsting for this kind of interaction.”
They’d connected through Eldera, a platform that pairs mentors age 60 and up with mentees, using an algorithm, for video conversations. “The time and wisdom of older adults is the most important natural resource we can give future generations,” said Dana Griffin, Eldera's CEO. “Connecting through a screen is the opposite of social media.”
In weekly meetings, Olshansky noticed Lee’s unique interest in math. “There’s something special in you,” Olshansky told him. “How do we bring it to the surface?” He suggested Lee write a book on his favorite subject, and the preteen ran with it, cranking out 70 pages in two weeks. Lee has published his love letter to theorems on Amazon.
Hyunseung Lee, age 11, of Korea, and U.S. college professor Jay Olshanksy, 67, discuss math, strategy and Hyunsung's budding career as a book author during their video chats through a platform called Eldera. (Photo by Dana Palmer/Eldera)
Lee’s parents told Olshansky that their son has become more assertive — a recurring theme, Griffin said. “Confidence is the number one thing parents tell us about.” Since Eldera’s inception last year, the number of mentors has grown exponentially. Even so, Griffin said the waitlist for mentors typically numbers 200 kids.
Another site, Big and Mini, hosts video interactions between seniors and young adults; about 10,000 active users have joined since 2019, said co-founder Aditi Merchant.
Users often bring the benefits of their video interactions to their real-world relationships. Olshansky views Lee as an older version of his grandkids. “Eldera teaches me how to interact with them.” Lee, high on confidence, began instructing his classmates in math. Griffin noted that a group of Eldera mentors in Memphis, who met initially on Eldera, now take walks together in-person to trade ideas for helping each other’s Eldera kids solve problems in their schools and communities.
“We’ve evolved into a community for older adults who want to give back to the world,” said Griffin. Other new tools for connection take the form of virtual reality apps.
Connecting in virtual reality
During pandemic isolation, record numbers of people bought devices for virtual and augmented reality. Such gadgets can convince you that you’re hanging out with friends, even if they’re in another hemisphere. Lifelike simulations from miles away could be especially useful for meaningful interactions between people of different generations, since they’re often geographically segregated.
VR’s benefits require further study, but users report less social isolation and depression, according to MIT research. The immersive, 3-D experience is more compelling than FaceTime or Zoom. “It’s like the difference between a phone call and video call,” said Rick Robinson, Vice President of AARP’s Innovation Labs.
“When VR is designed right, the medium disappears,” said Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford.
Dana Pierce, a 56-year-old government employee in Indiana, got Meta's VR headset in May, 2021, thinking she’d enjoy it more than a new laptop. After many virtual group tours of exotic destinations, she has no regrets. Her adventures occur on Alcove, an app made by Robinson’s Innovation Labs. He co-created it with VR-company Rendever and sought input from people over age 50 to tailor it to their interests. “I’m an introvert,” said Pierce. “I’ve been more socially active since getting my headset than I am in real life.”
Tagging along with her to places like Paris are avatars representing real people around the world. She’s gotten to know VR users in their 70s, 80s and 90s, as well as younger people and some her own age. One is a new friend she plays chess with in relaxing nature settings. Another is her oldest son. He lives 90 minutes away but, earlier this year, Pierce welcomed him and his girlfriend to her virtual house on Alcove. They chatted in the living room decorated with family photos uploaded by Pierce. Then they took out a boat to go VR fishing — because why not — until 2 a.m.
“When VR is designed right, the medium disappears,” said Jeremy Bailenson, a communications professor who directs Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. He’s teaching a class of 175 students entirely in VR. After months of covid isolation, the first time the class met, “there was a big catharsis. It really feels like you’re in a big crowd.” Like-minded people meet in VR for events such as comedy shows and creative writing meetups, while the Swedish pop group ABBA has performed this year as digital versions of themselves (“ABBA-tars”) during a virtual concert tour.
Karen Fingerman, a psychologist and director of the Texas Aging and Longevity Center at the University of Texas-Austin, supports the idea of VR for social connection, though she added that some people need it more than others. Hospitals and assisted-living facilities are using products such as Penumbra’s REAL I-Series and MyndVR to bring VR excursions to isolated patients and seniors. “If you’re in a bed or facility, this gives you something to talk about,” said Gita Barry, Penumbra’s executive vice president.
Pierce uses it on most days. She may see another adult son, who lives with her, less often as a result. But VR helps her manage real-world stressors, more than escaping them. After a long workday, she visits her back porch on Alcove, which overlooks a pond. “It’s my little retreat,” she said. “VR improves my mood. It’s added a lot to my life.”
Some seniors are using more than one technology. Olshansky and Lee discuss strategy while playing Internet chess. And Olshansky recently began using VR. He sees his sister, who lives far away, in a virtual beach house. “It’d be a great way to interact with Hyunseung,” he said. “I should get him a headset.”
A version of this article first appeared in The Washington Post on December 3, 2021.