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."
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.