Dr. Sara Browne, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Diego, is a specialist in infectious diseases and, less formally, "a global health person." She often travels to southern Africa to meet with colleagues working on the twin epidemics of HIV and tuberculosis.
"This technology, in my opinion, is an absolute slam dunk for tuberculosis."
Lately she has asked them to name the most pressing things she can help with as a researcher based in a wealthier country. "Over and over and over again," she says, "the only thing they wanted to know is whether their patients are taking the drugs."
Tuberculosis is one of world's deadliest diseases; every year there are 10 million new infections and more than a million deaths. When a patient with tuberculosis is prescribed medicine to combat the disease, adherence to the regimen is important not just for the individual's health, but also for the health of the community. Poor adherence can lead to lengthier and more costly treatment and, perhaps more importantly, to drug-resistant strains of the disease -- an increasing global threat.
Browne is testing a new method to help healthcare workers track their patients' adherence with greater precision—close to exact precision even. They're called digital pills, and they involve a patient swallowing medicine as they normally would, only the capsule contains a sensor that—when it contacts stomach acid—transmits a signal to a small device worn on or near the body. That device in turn sends a signal to the patient's phone or tablet and into a cloud-based database. The fact that the pill has been swallowed has therefore been recorded almost in real time, and notice is available to whoever has access to the database.
"This technology, in my opinion, is an absolute slam dunk for tuberculosis," Browne says. TB is much more prevalent in poorer regions of the world—in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example—than in richer places like the U.S., where Browne's studies thus far have taken place. But when someone is diagnosed in the U.S., because of the risk to others if it spreads, they will likely have to deal with "directly observed therapy" to ensure that they take their medicines correctly.
DOT, as it's called, requires the patient to meet with a healthcare worker several days a week, or every day, so that the medicine intake can be observed in person -- an expensive and time-consuming process. Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says (emphasis theirs), "DOT should be used for ALL patients with TB disease, including children and adolescents. There is no way to accurately predict whether a patient will adhere to treatment without this assistance."
Digital pills can help with both the cost and time involved, and potentially improve adherence in places where DOT is impossibly expensive. With the sensors, you can monitor a patient's adherence without a healthcare worker physically being in the room. Patients can live their normal lives and if they miss a pill, they can receive a reminder by text or a phone call from the clinic or hospital. "They can get on with their lives," said Browne. "They don't need the healthcare system to interrupt them."
A 56-year-old patient who participated in one of Browne's studies when he was undergoing TB treatment says that before he started taking the digital pills, he would go to the clinic at least once every day, except weekends. Once he switched to digital pills, he could go to work and spend time with his wife and children instead of fighting traffic every day to get to the clinic. He just had to wear a small patch on his abdomen, which would send the signal to a tablet provided by Browne's team. When he returned from work, he could see the results—that he'd taken the pill—in a database accessed via the tablet. (He could also see his heart rate and respiratory rate.) "I could do my daily activities without interference," he said.
Dr. Peter Chai, a medical toxicologist and emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, is studying digital pills in a slightly different context, to help fight the country's opioid overdose crisis. Doctors like Chai prescribe pain medicine, he says, but then immediately put the onus on the patient to decide when to take it. This lack of guidance can lead to abuse and addiction. Patients are often told to take the meds "as needed." Chai and his colleagues wondered, "What does that mean to patients? And are people taking more than they actually need? Because pain is such a subjective experience."
The patients "liked the fact that somebody was watching them."
They wanted to see what "take as needed" actually led to, so they designed a study with patients who had broken a bone and come to the hospital's emergency department to get it fixed. Those who were prescribed oxycodone—a pharmaceutical opioid for pain relief—got enough digital pills to last one week. They were supposed to take the pills as needed, or as many as three pills per day. When the pills were ingested, the sensor sent a signal to a card worn on a lanyard around the neck.
Chai and his colleagues were able to see exactly when the patients took the pills and how many, and to detect patterns of ingestion more precisely than ever before. They talked to the patients after the seven days were up, and Chai said most were happy to be taking digital pills. The patients saw it as a layer of protection from afar. "They liked the fact that somebody was watching them," Chai said.
Both doctors, Browne and Chai, are in early stages of studies with patients taking pre-exposure prophylaxis, medicines that can protect people with a high-risk of contracting HIV, such as injectable drug users. Without good adherence, patients leave themselves open to getting the virus. If a patient is supposed to take a pill at 2 p.m. but the digital pill sensor isn't triggered, the healthcare provider can have an automatic message sent as a reminder. Or a reminder to one of the patient's friends or loved ones.
"Like Swallowing Your Phone"?
Deven Desai, an associate professor of law and ethics at Georgia Tech, says that digital pills sound like a great idea for helping with patient adherence, a big issue that self-reporting doesn't fully solve. He likes the idea of a physician you trust having better information about whether you're taking your medication on time. "On the surface that's just cool," he says. "That's a good thing." But Desai, who formerly worked as academic research counsel at Google, said that some of the same questions that have come up in recent years with social media and the Internet in general also apply to digital pills.
"Think of it like your phone, but you swallowed it," he says. "At first it could be great, simple, very much about the user—in this case, the patient—and the data is going between you and your doctor and the medical people it ought to be going to. Wonderful. But over time, phones change. They become 'smarter.'" And when phones and other technologies become smarter, he says, the companies behind them tend to expand the type of data they collect, because they can. Desai says it will be crucial that prescribers be completely transparent about who is getting the patients' data and for what purpose.
"We're putting stuff in our body in good faith with our medical providers, and what if it turned out later that all of a sudden someone was data mining or putting in location trackers and we never knew about that?" Desai asks. "What science has to realize is if they don't start thinking about this, what could be a wonderful technology will get killed."
Leigh Turner, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics, agrees with Desai that digital pills have great promise, and also that there are clear reasons to be concerned about their use. Turner compared the pills to credit cards and social media, in that the data from them can potentially be stolen or leaked. One question he would want answered before the pills were normalized: "What kind of protective measures are in place to make sure that personal information isn't spilling out and being acquired by others or used by others in unexpected and unwanted ways?"
If digital pills catch on, some experts worry that they may one day not be a voluntary technology.
Turner also wonders who will have access to the pills themselves. Only those who can afford both the medicine plus the smartphones that are currently required for their use? Or will people from all economic classes have access? If digital pills catch on, he also worries they may one day not be a voluntary technology.
"When it comes to digital pills, it's not something that's really being foisted on individuals. It's more something that people can be informed of and can choose to take or not to take," he says. "But down the road, I can imagine a scenario where we move away from purely voluntary agreements to it becoming more of an expectation."
He says it's easy to picture a scenario in which insurance companies demand that patient medicinal intake data be tracked and collected or else. Refuse to have your adherence tracked and you risk higher rates or even overall coverage. Maybe patients who don't take the digital pills suffer dire consequences financially or medically. "Maybe it becomes beneficial as much to health insurers and payers as it is to individual patients," Turner says.
In November 2017, the FDA approved the first-ever digital pill that includes a sensor, a drug called Abilify MyCite, made by Otsuka Pharmaceutical Company. The drug, which is yet to be released, is used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. With a built-in sensor developed by Proteus Digital Health, patients can give their doctors permission to see when exactly they are taking, or not taking, their meds. For patients with mental illness, the ability to help them stick to their prescribed regime can be life-saving.
But Turner wonders if Abilify is the best drug to be a forerunner for digital pills. Some people with schizophrenia might be suffering from paranoia, and perhaps giving them a pill developed by a large corporation that sends data from their body to be tracked by other people might not be the best idea. It could in fact exacerbate their sense of paranoia.
The Bottom Line: Protect the Data
We all have relatives who have pillboxes with separate compartments for each day of the week, or who carry pillboxes that beep when it's time to take the meds. But that's not always good enough for people with dementia, mental illness, drug addiction, or other life situations that make it difficult to remember to take their pills. Digital pills can play an important role in helping these people.
"The absolute principle here is that the data has to belong to the patient."
The one time the patient from Browne's study forgot to take his pills, he got a beeping reminder from his tablet that he'd missed a dose. "Taking a medication on a daily basis, sometimes we just forget, right?" he admits. "With our very accelerated lives nowadays, it helps us to remember that we have to take the medications. So patients are able to be on top of their own treatment."
Browne is convinced that digital pills can help people in developing countries with high rates of TB and HIV, though like Turner and Desai she cautions that patients' data must be protected. "I think it can be a tremendous technology for patient empowerment and I also think if properly used it can help the medical system to support patients that need it," she said. "But the absolute principle here is that the data has to belong to the patient."
In early 2020, Moderna Inc. was a barely-known biotechnology company with an unproven approach. It wanted to produce messenger RNA molecules to carry instructions into the body, teaching it to ward off disease. Experts doubted the Boston-based company would meet success.
Today, Moderna is a pharmaceutical power thanks to its success developing an effective Covid-19 vaccine. The company is worth $124 billion, more than giants including GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, and evidence has emerged that Moderna's shots are more protective than those produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and other vaccine makers. Pressure is building on the company to deliver more of its doses to people around the world, especially in poorer countries, and Moderna is working on vaccines against other pathogens, including Zika, influenza and cytomegalovirus.
But Moderna encountered such difficulties over the course of its eleven-year history that some executives worried it wouldn't survive. Two unlikely scientists helped save the company. Their breakthroughs paved the way for Moderna's Covid-19 shots but their work has never been publicized nor have their contributions been properly appreciated.
Derrick Rossi, a scientist at MIT, and Noubar Afeyan, a Cambridge-based investor, launched Moderna in September 2010. Their idea was to create mRNA molecules capable of delivering instructions to the body's cells, directing them to make proteins to heal ailments and cure disease. Need a statin, immunosuppressive, or other drug or vaccine? Just use mRNA to send a message to the body's cells to produce it. Rossi and Afeyan were convinced injecting mRNA into the body could turn it into its own laboratory, generating specific medications or vaccines as needed.
At the time, the notion that one might be able to teach the body to make proteins bordered on heresy. Everyone knew mRNA was unstable and set off the body's immune system on its way into cells. But in the late 2000's, two scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, had figured out how to modify mRNA's chemical building blocks so the molecule could escape the notice of the immune system and enter the cell. Rossi and Afeyan couldn't convince the University of Pennsylvania to license Karikó and Weissman's patent, however, stymying Moderna's early ambitions. At the same time, the Penn scientists' technique seemed more applicable to an academic lab than a biotech company that needed to produce drugs or shots consistently and in bulk. Rossi and Afeyan's new company needed their own solution to help mRNA evade the body's defenses.
Some of Moderna's founders doubted Schrum could find success and they worried if their venture was doomed from the start.
The Scientist Who Modified mRNA: Jason Schrum
In 2010, Afeyan's firm subleased laboratory space in the basement of another Cambridge biotech company to begin scientific work. Afeyan chose a young scientist on his staff, Jason Schrum, to be Moderna's first employee, charging him with getting mRNA into cells without relying on Karikó and Weissman's solutions.
Schrum seemed well suited for the task. Months earlier, he had received a PhD in biological chemistry at Harvard University, where he had focused on nucleotide chemistry. Schrum even had the look of someone who might do big things. The baby-faced twenty-eight-year-old favored a relaxed, start-up look: khakis, button-downs, and Converse All-Stars.
Schrum felt immediate strain, however. He hadn't told anyone, but he was dealing with intense pain in his hands and joints, a condition that later would be diagnosed as degenerative arthritis. Soon Schrum couldn't bend two fingers on his left hand, making lab work difficult. He joined a drug trial, but the medicine proved useless. Schrum tried corticosteroid injections and anti-inflammatory drugs, but his left hand ached, restricting his experiments.
"It just wasn't useful," Schrum says, referring to his tender hand.
He persisted, nonetheless. Each day in the fall of 2010, Schrum walked through double air-locked doors into a sterile "clean room" before entering a basement laboratory, in the bowels of an office in Cambridge's Kendall Square neighborhood, where he worked deep into the night. Schrum searched for potential modifications of mRNA nucleosides, hoping they might enable the molecule to produce proteins. Like all such rooms, there were no windows, so Schrum had to check a clock to know if it was day or night. A colleague came to visit once in a while, but most of the time, Schrum was alone.
Some of Moderna's founders doubted Schrum could find success and they worried if their venture was doomed from the start. An established MIT scientist turned down a job with the start-up to join pharmaceutical giant Novartis, dubious of Moderna's approach. Colleagues wondered if mRNA could produce proteins, at least on a consistent basis.
As Schrum began testing the modifications in January 2011, he made an unexpected discovery. Karikó and Weissman saw that by turned one of the building blocks for mRNA, a ribonucleoside called uridine, into a slightly different form called pseudouridine, the cell's immune system ignored the mRNA and the molecule avoided an immune response. After a series of experiments in the basement lab, Schrum discovered that a variant of pseudouridine called N1- methyl-pseudouridine did an even better job reducing the cell's innate immune response. Schrum's nucleoside switch enabled even higher protein production than Karikó and Weissman had generated, and Schrum's mRNAs lasted longer than either unmodified molecules or the modified mRNA the Penn academics had used, startling the young researcher. Working alone in a dreary basement and through intense pain, he had actually improved on the Penn professors' work.
Years later, Karikó and Weissman who would win acclaim. In September 2021, the scientists were awarded the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. Some predict they eventually will win a Nobel prize. But it would be Schrum's innovation that would form the backbone of both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine, not the chemical modifications that Karikó and Weissman developed. For Schrum, necessity had truly been the mother of invention.
The Scientist Who Solved Delivery: Kerry Benenato
For several years, Moderna would make slow progress developing drugs to treat various diseases. Eventually, the company decided that mRNA was likely better suited for vaccines. By 2017, Moderna and the National Institutes of Health were discussing working together to develop mRNA–based vaccines, a partnership that buoyed Moderna's executives. There remained a huge obstacle in Moderna's way, however. It was up to Kerry Benenato to find a solution.
Benenato received an early hint of the hurdle in front of her three years earlier, when the organic chemist was first hired. When a colleague gave her a company tour, she was introduced to Moderna's chief scientific officer, Joseph Bolen, who seemed unusually excited to meet her.
"Oh, great!" Bolen said with a smile. "She's the one who's gonna solve delivery."
Bolen gave a hearty laugh and walked away, but Benenato detected seriousness in his quip.
It was a lot to expect from a 37-year-old scientist already dealing with insecurities and self-doubt. Benenato was an accomplished researcher who most recently had worked at AstraZeneca after completing post-doctoral studies at Harvard University. Despite her impressive credentials, Benenato battled a lack of confidence that sometimes got in her way. Performance reviews from past employers had been positive, but they usually produced similar critiques: Be more vocal. Do a better job advocating for your ideas. Give us more, Kerry.
Benenato was petite and soft-spoken. She sometimes stuttered or relied on "ums" and "ahs" when she became nervous, especially in front of groups, part of why she sometimes didn't feel comfortable speaking up.
"I'm an introvert," she says. "Self-confidence is something that's always been an issue."
To Benenato, Moderna's vaccine approach seemed promising—the team was packaging mRNAs in microscopic fatty-acid compounds called lipid nanoparticles, or LNPs, that protected the molecules on their way into cells. Moderna's shots should have been producing ample and long-lasting proteins. But the company's scientists were alarmed—they were injecting shots deep into the muscle of mice, but their immune systems were mounting spirited responses to the foreign components of the LNPs, which had been developed by a Canadian company.
This toxicity was a huge issue: A vaccine or drug that caused sharp pain and awful fevers wasn't going to prove very popular. The Moderna team was in a bind: Its mRNA had to be wrapped in the fatty nanoparticles to have a chance at producing plentiful proteins, but the body wasn't tolerating the microscopic encasements, especially upon repeated dosing.
The company's scientists had done everything they could to try to make the molecule's swathing material disappear soon after entering the cells, in order to avoid the unfortunate side effects, such as chills and headaches, but they weren't making headway. Frustration mounted. Somehow, the researchers had to find a way to get the encasements—made of little balls of fat, cholesterol, and other substances—to deliver their payload mRNA and then quickly vanish, like a parent dropping a teenager off at a party, to avoid setting off the immune system in unpleasant ways, even as the RNA and the proteins the molecule created stuck around.
Benenato wasn't entirely shocked by the challenges Moderna was facing. One of the reasons she had joined the upstart company was to help develop its delivery technology. She just didn't realize how pressing the issue was, or how stymied the researchers had become. Benenato also didn't know that Moderna board members were among those most discouraged by the delivery issue. In meetings, some of them pointed out that pharmaceutical giants like Roche Holding and Novartis had worked on similar issues and hadn't managed to develop lipid nanoparticles that were both effective and well tolerated by the body. Why would Moderna have any more luck?
Stephen Hoge insisted the company could yet find a solution.
"There's no way the only innovations in LNP are going to come from some academics and a small Canadian company," insisted Hoge, who had convinced the executives that hiring Benenato might help deliver an answer.
Benenato realized that while Moderna might have been a hot Boston-area start- up, it wasn't set up to do the chemistry necessary to solve their LNP problem. Much of its equipment was old or secondhand, and it was the kind used to tinker with mRNAs, not lipids.
"It was scary," she says.
When Benenato saw the company had a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, which allows chemists to see the molecular structure of material, she let out a sigh of relief. Then Benenato inspected the machine and realized it was a jalopy. The hulking, aging instrument had been decommissioned and left behind by a previous tenant, too old and banged up to bring with them.
Benenato began experimenting with different chemical changes for Moderna's LNPs, but without a working spectrometer she and her colleagues had to have samples ready by noon each day, so they could be picked up by an outside company that would perform the necessary analysis. After a few weeks, her superiors received an enormous bill for the outsourced work and decided to pay to get the old spectrometer running again.
After months of futility, Benenato became impatient. An overachiever who could be hard on herself, she was eager to impress her new bosses. Benenato felt pressure outside the office, as well. She was married with a preschool-age daughter and an eighteen-month-old son. In her last job, Benenato's commute had been a twenty-minute trip to Astra-Zeneca's office in Waltham, outside Boston; now she was traveling an hour to Moderna's Cambridge offices. She became anxious—how was she going to devote the long hours she realized were necessary to solve their LNP quandary while providing her children proper care? Joining Moderna was beginning to feel like a possible mistake.
She turned to her husband and father for help. They reminded her of the hard work she had devoted to establishing her career and said it would be a shame if she couldn't take on the new challenge. Benenato's husband said he was happy to stay home with the kids, alleviating some of her concerns.
Back in the office, she got to work. She wanted to make lipids that were easier for the body to chop into smaller pieces, so they could be eliminated by the body's enzymes. Until then, Moderna, like most others, relied on all kinds of complicated chemicals to hold its LNP packaging together. They weren't natural, though, so the body was having a hard time breaking them down, causing the toxicity.
Benenato began experimenting with simpler chemicals. She inserted "ester bonds"—compounds referred to in chemical circles as "handles" because the body easily grabs them and breaks them apart. Ester bonds had two things going for them: They were strong enough to help ensure the LNP remained stable, acting much like a drop of oil in water, but they also gave the body's enzymes something to target and break down as soon as the LNP entered the cell, a way to quickly rid the body of the potentially toxic LNP components. Benenato thought the inclusion of these chemicals might speed the elimination of the LNP delivery material.
This idea, Benenato realized, was nothing more than traditional, medicinal chemistry. Most people didn't use ester bonds because they were pretty unsophisticated. But, hey, the tricky stuff wasn't working, so Benenato thought she'd see if the simple stuff worked.
Benenato also wanted to try to replace a group of unnatural chemicals in the LNP that was contributing to the spirited and unwelcome response from the immune system. Benenato set out to build a new and improved chemical combination. She began with ethanolamine, a colorless, natural chemical, an obvious start for any chemist hoping to build a more complex chemical combination. No one relied on ethanolamine on its own.
Benenato was curious, though. What would happen if she used just these two simple modifications to the LNP: ethanolamine with the ester bonds? Right away, Benenato noticed her new, super-simple compound helped mRNA create some protein in animals. It wasn't much, but it was a surprising and positive sign. Benenato spent over a year refining her solution, testing more than one hundred variations, all using ethanolamine and ester bonds, showing improvements with each new version of LNP. After finishing her 102nd version of the lipid molecule, which she named SM102, Benenato was confident enough in her work to show it to Hoge and others.
They immediately got excited. The team kept tweaking the composition of the lipid encasement. In 2017, they wrapped it around mRNA molecules and injected the new combination in mice and then monkeys. They saw plentiful, potent proteins were being produced and the lipids were quickly being eliminated, just as Benenato and her colleagues had hoped. Moderna had its special sauce.
That year, Benenato was asked to deliver a presentation to Stephane Bancel, Moderna's chief executive, Afeyan, and Moderna's executive committee to explain why it made sense to use the new, simpler LNP formulation for all its mRNA vaccines. She still needed approval from the executives to make the change. Ahead of the meeting, she was apprehensive, as some of her earlier anxieties returned. But an unusual calm came over her as she began speaking to the group. Benenato explained how experimenting with basic, overlooked chemicals had led to her discovery.
She said she had merely stumbled onto the company's solution, though her bosses understood the efforts that had been necessary for the breakthrough. The board complimented her work and agreed with the idea of switching to the new LNP. Benenato beamed with pride.
"As a scientist, serendipity has been my best friend," she told the executives.
Over the next few years, Benenato and her colleagues would improve on their methods and develop even more tolerable and potent LNP encasement for mRNA molecules. Their work enabled Moderna to include higher doses of vaccine in its shots. In early 2020, Moderna developed Covid-19 shots that included 100 micrograms of vaccine, compared with 30 micrograms in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That difference appears to help the Moderna vaccine generate higher titers and provide more protection.
"You set out in a career in drug discovery to want to make a difference," Benenato says. "Seeing it come to reality has been surreal and emotional."
Editor's Note: This essay is excerpted from A SHOT TO SAVE THE WORLD: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine by Gregory Zuckerman, now on sale from Portfolio/Penguin.
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Kira Peikoff is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young sons. Follow her on Twitter @KiraPeikoff.