In October 2006, Craig Mello received a strange phone call from Sweden at 4:30 a.m. The voice at the other end of the line told him to get dressed and that his life was about to change.
"We think this could be effective in [the early] phase, helping the body clear the virus and preventing progression to that severe hyperimmune response which occurs in some patients."
Shortly afterwards, he was informed that along with his colleague Andrew Fire, he had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Eight years earlier, biologists Fire and Mello had made a landmark discovery in the history of genetics. In a series of experiments conducted in worms, they had revealed an ancient evolutionary mechanism present in all animals that allows RNA – the structures within our cells that take genetic information from DNA and use it to make proteins – to selectively switch off genes.
At the time, scientists heralded the dawn of a new field of medical research utilizing this mechanism, known as RNA interference or RNAi, to tackle rare genetic diseases and deactivate viruses. Now, 14 years later, the pharmaceutical company Alnylam — which has pioneered the development of RNAi-based treatments over the past decade — is looking to use it to develop a groundbreaking drug for the virus that causes COVID-19.
"We can design small interfering RNAs to target regions of the viral genome and bind to them," said Akin Akinc, who manages several of Alnylam's drug development programs. "What we're learning about COVID-19 is that there's an early phase where there's lots of viral replication and a high viral load. We think this could be effective in that phase, helping the body clear the virus and preventing progression to that severe hyperimmune response which occurs in some patients."
Called ALN-COV, Alnylam's treatment hypothetically works by switching off a key gene in the virus, inhibiting its ability to replicate itself. In order to deliver it to the epithelial cells deep in the lung tissue, where the virus resides, patients will inhale a fine mist containing the RNAi molecules mixed in a saline solution, using a nebulizer.
But before human trials of the drug can begin, the company needs to convince regulators that it is both safe and effective in a series of preclinical trials. While early results appear promising - when mixed with the virus in a test tube, the drug displayed a 95 percent inhibition rate – experts are reserving judgment until it performs in clinical trials.
"If successful this could be a very important milestone in the development of RNAi therapies, but virus infections are very complicated and it can be hard to predict whether a given level of inhibition in cell culture will be sufficient to have a significant impact on the course of the infection," said Si-Ping Han, who researches RNAi therapeutics at California Institute of Technology and is not involved in the development of this drug.
So far, Alnylam has had success in using RNAi to treat rare genetic diseases. It currently has treatments licensed for Hereditary ATTR Amyloidosis and Acute Hepatic Porphyria. Another treatment, for Primary Hyperoxaluria Type 1, is currently under regulatory review. But its only previous attempt to use RNAi to tackle a respiratory infection was a failed effort to develop a drug for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) almost a decade ago.
However, the technology has advanced considerably since then. "Back then, RNAi drugs had no chemical modifications whatsoever, so they were readily degraded by the body, and they could also result in unintended immune stimulation," said Akinc. "Since then, we've learned how to chemically modify our RNAi's to make them immunosilent and give them improved potency, stability, and duration of action."
"It would be a very important milestone in the development of RNAi therapies."
But one key challenge the company will face is the sheer speed at which viruses evolve, meaning they can become drug-resistant very quickly. Scientists predict that Alnylam will ultimately have to develop a series of RNAi drugs for the coronavirus that work together.
"There's been considerable interest in using RNAi to treat viral infections, as RNA therapies can be developed more rapidly than protein therapies like monoclonal antibodies, since one only needs to know the viral genome sequence to begin to design them," said David Schaffer, professor of bioengineering at University of California, Berkeley. "But viruses can evolve their sequences rapidly around single drugs so it is likely that a combinatorial RNAi therapy may be needed."
In the meantime, Alnylam is conducting further preclinical trials over the summer and fall, with the aim of launching testing in human volunteers by the end of this year -- an ambitious aim that would represent a breakneck pace for a drug development program.
If the approach does ultimately succeed, it would represent a major breakthrough for the field as a whole, potentially opening the door to a whole new wave of RNAi treatments for different lung infections and diseases.
"It would be a very important milestone in the development of RNAi therapies," said Han, the Caltech researcher. "It would be both the first time that an RNAi drug has been successfully used to treat a respiratory infection and as far as I know, the first time that one has been successful in treating any disease in the lungs. RNAi is a platform that can be reconfigured to hit different targets, and so once the first drug has been developed, we can expect a rapid flow of variants targeting other respiratory infections or other lung diseases."
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.