This past March, headlines suddenly flooded the Internet about a startup company called Nectome. Founded by two graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the new company was charging people $10,000 to join a waiting list to have their brains embalmed, down to the last neuron, using an award-winning chemical compound.
While the lay public presumably burnt their wills and grew ever more excited about the end of humanity's quest for immortality, neurologists let out a collective sigh.
Essentially, participants' brains would turn to a substance like glass and remain in a state of near-perfect preservation indefinitely. "If memories can truly be preserved by a sufficiently good brain banking technique," Nectome's website explains, "we believe that within the century it could become feasible to digitize your preserved brain and use that information to recreate your mind." But as with most Faustian bargains, Nectome's proposition came with a serious caveat -- death.
That's right, in order for Nectome's process to properly preserve your connectome, the comprehensive map of the brain's neural connections, you must be alive (and under anesthesia) while the fluid is injected. This way, the company postulates, when the science advances enough to read and extract your memories someday, your vitrified brain will still contain your perfectly preserved essence--which can then be digitally recreated as a computer simulation.
Almost immediately this story gained buzz with punchy headlines: "Startup wants to upload your brain to the cloud, but has to kill you to do it," "San Junipero is real: Nectome wants to upload your brain," and "New tech firm promises eternal life, but you have to die."
While the lay public presumably burnt their wills and grew ever more excited about the end of humanity's quest for immortality, neurologists let out a collective sigh -- hype had struck the scientific community once again.
The truth about Nectome is that its claims are highly speculative and no hard science exists to suggest that our connectome is the key to our 'being,' nor that it can ever be digitally revived. "We haven't come even close to understanding even the most basic types of functioning in the brain," says neuroscientist Alex Fox, who was educated at the University of Queensland in Australia. "Memory storage in the brain is only a theoretical concept [and] there are some seriously huge gaps in our knowledge base that stand in the way of testing [the connectome] theory."
After the Nectome story broke, Harvard computational neuroscientist Sam Gershman tweeted out:
"Didn't anyone tell them that we've known the C Elegans (a microscopic worm) connectome for over a decade but haven't figured out how to reconstruct all of their memories? And that's only 7000 synapses compared to the trillions of synapses in the human brain!"
Hype can come from researchers themselves, who are under an enormous amount of pressure to publish original work and maintain funding.
How media coverage of Nectome went from an initial fastidiously researched article in the MIT Technology Review by veteran science journalist Antonio Regalado to the click-bait frenzy it became is a prime example of the 'science hype' phenomenon. According to Adam Auch, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, "Hype is a feature of all stages of the scientific dissemination process, from the initial circulation of preliminary findings within particular communities of scientists, to the process by which such findings come to be published in peer-reviewed journals, to the subsequent uptake these findings receive from the non-specialist press and the general public."
In the case of Nectome, hype was present from the word go. Riding the high of several major wins, including having raised over one million dollars in funding and partnering with well-known MIT neurologist Edward Boyden, Nectome founders Michael McCanna and Robert McIntyre launched their website on March 1, 2018. Just one month prior, they were able to purchase and preserve a newly deceased corpse in Portland, Oregon, showing that vitrifixation, their method of chemical preservation, could be used on a human specimen. It had previously won an award for preserving every synaptic structure on a rabbit brain.
The Nectome mission statement, found on its website, is laced with saccharine language that skirts the unproven nature of the procedure the company is peddling for big bucks: "Our mission is to preserve your brain well enough to keep all its memories intact: from that great chapter of your favorite book to the feeling of cold winter air, baking an apple pie, or having dinner with your friends and family."
This rhetoric is an example of hype that can come from researchers themselves, who are under an enormous amount of pressure to publish original work and maintain funding. As a result, there is a constant push to present science as "groundbreaking" when really, as is apparently the case with Nectome, it is only a small piece in a much larger effort.
Calling out the audacity of Nectome's posited future, neuroscientist Gershman commented to another publication, "The important question is whether the connectome is sufficient for memory: Can I reconstruct all memories knowing only the connections between neurons? The answer is almost certainly no, given our knowledge about how memories are stored (itself a controversial topic)."
The former home page of Nectome's website, which has now been replaced by a statement titled, "Response to recent press."
Furthermore, universities like MIT, who entered into a subcontract with Nectome, are under pressure to seek funding through partnerships with industry as a result of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. Also known as the Patent and Trademark Law Amendments Act, this piece of legislation allows universities to commercialize inventions developed under federally funded research programs, like Nectome's method of preserving brains, formally called Aldehyde-Stabilized Cryopreservation.
"[Universities use] every incentive now to talk about innovation," explains Dr. Ivan Oransky, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and co-founder of retractionwatch.com, a blog that catalogues errors and fraud in published research. "Innovation to me is often a fancy word for hype. The role of journalists should not be to glorify what universities [say, but to] tell the closest version of the truth they can."
In this case, a combination of the hyperbolic press, combined with some impressively researched expose pieces, led MIT to cut its ties with Nectome on April 2nd, 2018, just two weeks after the news of their company broke.
The solution to the dangers of hype, experts say, is a more scientifically literate public—and less clickbait-driven journalism.
Because of its multi-layered nature, science hype carries several disturbing consequences. For one, exaggerated coverage of a discovery could mislead the public by giving them false hope or unfounded worry. And media hype can contribute to a general mistrust of science. In these instances, people might, as Auch puts it, "fall back on previously held beliefs, evocative narratives, or comforting biases instead of well-justified scientific evidence."
All of this is especially dangerous in today's 'fake news' era, when companies or political parties sow public confusion for their own benefit, such as with global warming. In the case of Nectome, the danger is that people might opt to end their lives based off a lacking scientific theory. In fact, the company is hoping to enlist terminal patients in California, where doctor-assisted suicide is legal. And 25 people have paid the $10,000 to join Nectome's waiting list, including Sam Altman, president of the famed startup accelerator Y Combinator. Nectome now has offered to refund the money.
Founders McCanna and McIntyre did not return repeated requests for comment for this article. A new statement on their website begins: "Vitrifixation today is a powerful research tool, but needs more research and development before anyone considers applying it in a context other than research."
The solution to the dangers of hype, experts say, is a more scientifically literate public—and less clickbait-driven journalism. Until then, it seems that companies like Nectome will continue to enjoy at least 15 minutes of fame.
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.