Introduction by Mary Inman, Whistleblower Attorney
For most people, when they see the word "whistleblower," the image that leaps to mind is a lone individual bravely stepping forward to shine a light on misconduct she has witnessed first-hand. Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood exposing safety violations observed while working the line at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant. Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre in The Informant!, capturing on his pocket recorder clandestine meetings between his employer and its competitors to fix the price of lysine. However, a new breed of whistleblower is emerging who isn't at the scene of the crime but instead figures it out after the fact through laborious review of publicly available information and expert analysis. Elisabeth Bik belongs to this new class of whistleblower.
"There's this delicate balance where on one hand we want to spread results really fast as scientists, but on the other hand, we know it's incomplete, it's rushed and it's not great."
Using her expertise as a microbiologist and her trained eye, Bik studies publicly available scientific papers to sniff out potential irregularities in the images that suggest research fraud, later seeking retraction of the offending paper from the journal's publisher. There's no smoking gun, no first-hand account of any kind. Just countless hours spent reviewing scores of scientific papers and Bik's skills and dedication as a science fraud sleuth.
While Bik's story may not as readily lend itself to the big screen, her work is nonetheless equally heroic. By tirelessly combing scientific papers to expose research fraud, Bik is playing a vital role in holding the scientific publishing process accountable and ensuring that misleading information does not spread unchecked. This is important work in any age, but particularly so in the time of COVID, where we can ill afford the setbacks and delays of scientists building on false science. In the present climate, where science is politicized and scientific principles are under attack, strong voices like Bik's must rise above the din to ensure the scientific information we receive, and our governments act upon, is accurate. Our health and wellbeing depend on it.
Whistleblower outsiders like Bik are challenging the traditional concept of what it means to be a whistleblower. Fortunately for us, the whistleblower community is a broad church. As with most ecosystems, we all benefit from a diversity of voices —whistleblower insiders and outsiders alike. What follows is an illuminating conversation between Bik, and Ivan Oransky, the co-founder of Retraction Watch, an influential blog that reports on retractions of scientific papers and related topics. (Conversation facilitated by LeapsMag Editor-in-Chief Kira Peikoff)
Elisabeth Bik and Ivan Oransky.
(Photo credits Michel & Co Photography, San Jose, CA and Elizabeth Solaka)
I'd like to hear your thoughts, Elisabeth, on an L.A. Times story, which was picking up a preprint about mutations and the novel coronavirus, alleging that the virus is mutating to become more infectious – even though this conclusion wasn't actually warranted.
A lot of the news around it is picking up on one particular side of the story that is maybe not that much exaggerated by the scientists. I don't think this paper really showed that the mutations were causing the virus to be more virulent. Some of these viruses continuously mutate and mutate and mutate, and that doesn't necessarily make a strain more virulent. I think in many cases, a lot of people want to read something in a paper that is not actually there.
The tone level, everything that's being published now, it's problematic. It's being rushed, here it wasn't even peer-reviewed. But even when they are peer-reviewed, they're being peer-reviewed by people who often aren't really an expert in that particular area.
To me, it's all problematic. At the same time, it's all really good that it's all getting out there. I think that five or 10 years ago, or if we weren't in a pandemic, maybe that paper wouldn't have appeared at all. It would have maybe been submitted to a top-ranked journal and not have been accepted, or maybe it would have been improved during peer review and bounced down the ladder a bit to a lower-level journal.
Yet, now, because it's about coronavirus, it's in a major newspaper and, in fact, it's getting critiqued immediately.
Maybe it's too Pollyanna-ish, but I actually think that quick uploading is a good thing. The fear people have about preprint servers is based on this idea that the peer-reviewed literature is perfect. Once it is in a peer-reviewed journal, they think it must have gone through this incredible process. You're laughing because-
I am laughing.
You know it's not true.
Yes, we both know that. I agree and I think in this particular situation, a pandemic that is unlike something our generation has seen before, there is a great, great need for fast dissemination of science.
If you have new findings, it is great that there is a thing called a preprint server where scientists can quickly share their results, with, of course, the caveat that it's not peer-reviewed yet.
It's unlike the traditional way of publishing papers, which can take months or years. Preprint publishing is a very fast way of spreading your results in a good way so that is what the world needs right now.
On the other hand, of course, there's the caveat that these are brand new results and a good scientist usually thinks about their results to really interpret it well. You have to look at it from all sides and I think with the rushed publication of preprint papers, there is no such thing as carefully thinking about what results might mean.
So there's this delicate balance where on one hand we want to spread results really fast as scientists, but on the other hand, we know it's incomplete, it's rushed and it's not great. This might be hard for the general audience to understand.
I still think the benefits of that dissemination are more positive than negative.
Right. But there's also so many papers that come out now on preprint servers and most of them are not that great, but there are some really good studies in there. It's hard to find those nuggets of really great papers. There's just a lot of papers that come out now.
Well, you've made more than a habit of finding problems in papers. These are mostly, of course, until now published papers that you examined, but what is this time like for you? How is it different?
It's different because in the beginning I looked at several COVID-19-related papers that came out and wrote some critiques about it. I did experience a lot of backlash because of that. So I felt I had to take a break from social media and from writing about COVID-19.
I focused a little bit more on other work because I just felt that a lot of these papers on COVID-19 became so politically divisive that if you tried to be a scientist and think critically about a paper, you were actually assigned to a particular political party or to be against other political parties. It's hard for me to be sucked into the political discussion and to the way that our society now is so completely divided into two camps that seem to be not listening to each other.
I was curious about that because I've followed your work for a number of years, as you know, and certainly you have had critics before. I'm thinking of the case in China that you uncovered, the leading figure in the Chinese Academy who was really a powerful political figure in addition to being a scientist.
So that was a case in which I found a couple of papers at first from a particular group in China, and I was just posting on a website called PubPeer, where you can post comments, concerns about papers. And in this case, these were image duplication issues, which is my specialty.
I did not realize that the group I was looking at at that moment was led by one of the highest ranked scientists in China. If I had known that, I would probably not have posted that under my full name, but under a pseudonym. Since I had already posted, some people were starting to send me direct messages on Twitter like, "OMG, the guy you're posting about now is the top scientist in China so you're going to have a lot of backlash."
Then I decided I'll just continue doing this. I found a total of around 50 papers from this group and posted all of them on PubPeer. That story quickly became a very popular story in China: number two on Sina Weibo, a social media site in China.
I was surprised it wasn't suppressed by the Chinese government, it was actually allowed by journalists that were writing about it, and I didn't experience a lot of backlash because of that.
Actually the Chinese doctor wrote me an email saying that he appreciated my feedback and that he would look into these cases. He sent a very polite email so I sent him back that I appreciated that he would look into these cases and left it there.
There are certain subjects that I know when we write about them in Retraction Watch, they have tended in the past to really draw a lot of ire. I'm thinking anything about vaccines and autism, anything about climate change, stem cell research.
For a while that last subject has sort of died down. But now it's become a highly politically charged atmosphere. Do you feel that this pandemic has raised the profile of people such as yourself who we refer to as scientific sleuths, people who look critically and analytically at new research?
Yeah, some people. But I'm also worried that some people who are great scientists and have shown a lot of critical thinking are being attacked because of that. If you just look at what happened to Dr. Fauci, I think that's a prime example. Where somebody who actually is very knowledgeable and very cautious of new science has not been widely accepted as a great leader, in our country at least. It's sad to see that. I'm just worried how long he will be at his position, to be honest.
We noticed a big uptick in our traffic in the last few days to Retraction Watch and it turns out it was because someone we wrote about a number of years ago has really hopped on the bandwagon to try and discredit and even try to have Dr. Fauci fired.
It's one of these reminders that the way people think about scientists has, in many cases, far more to do with their own history or their own perspective going in than with any reality or anything about the science. It's pretty disturbing, but it's not a new thing. This has been happening for a while.
You can go back and read sociologists of science from 50-60 years ago and see the same thing, but I just don't think that it's in the same way that it is now, maybe in part because of social media.
I've been personally very critical about several studies, but this is the first time I've experienced being attacked by trolls and having some nasty websites written about me. It is very disturbing to read.
"I don't think that something that's been peer-reviewed is perfect and something that hasn't been peer reviewed, you should never bother reading it."
It is. Yet you have been a fearless and vocal critic of some very high-profile papers, like the infamous French study about hydroxychloroquine.
Right, the paper that came out was immediately tweeted by the President of the United States. At first I thought it was great that our President tweeted about science! I thought that was a major breakthrough. I took a look at this paper.
It had just come out that day, I believe. The first thing I noticed is that it was accepted within 24 hours of being submitted to the journal. It was actually published in a journal where one of the authors is the editor-in-chief, which is a huge conflict of interest, but it happens.
But in this particular case, there were also a lot of flaws with the study and that, I think, should have been caught during peer review. The paper was first published on a preprint server and then within 24 hours or so it was published in that paper, supposedly after peer review.
There were very few changes between the preprint version and the peer review paper. There were just a couple of extra lines, extra sentences added here and there, but it wasn't really, I think, critically looked at. Because there were a lot of things that I thought were flaws.
Just to go over a couple of them. This paper showed supposedly that people who were treated with hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin were doing much better by clearing their virus much faster than people who were not treated with these drugs.
But if you look carefully at the paper there were a couple of people who were left out of the study. So they were treated with hydroxychloroquine, but they were not shown in the end results of the paper. All six people who were treated with the drug combination were clearing the virus within six days, but there were a couple of others who were left out of the study. They also started the drug combination, but they stopped taking the drugs for several reasons and three of them were admitted to the intensive care, one died, one had some side effects and one apparently walked out of the hospital.
They were left out of the study but they were actually not doing very well with the drug combination. It's not very good science if you leave out people who don't do very well with your drug combination in your study. That was one of my biggest critiques of the paper.
What struck us about that case was, in addition to what you, of course, mentioned, the fact that Trump tweeted it and was talking about hydroxychloroquine, was that it seemed to be a perfect example of, "well, it was in a peer review journal." Yeah, it was a preprint first, but, well, it's a peer review journal. And yet, as you point out, when you look at the history of the paper, it was accepted in 24 hours.
If you talk to most scientists, the actual act of a peer review, once you sit down to do it and can concentrate, a good one takes, again, these are averages, but four hours, a half a day is not unreasonable. So you had to find three people who could suddenly review this paper. As you pointed out, it was in a journal where one of the authors was editor.
Then some strange things also happened, right? The society that actually publishes the journal, they came out with a statement saying this wasn't up to our standards, which is odd. Then Elsevier came in, they're the ones who are actually contracted to publish the journal for the society. They said, basically, "Oh, we're going to look into this now too."
It just makes you wonder what happened before the paper was actually published. All the people who were supposed to have been involved in doing the peer review or checking on it are clearly very distraught about what actually happened. It's that scene from Casablanca, "I'm shocked, shocked there's gambling going on here." And then, "Your winnings, sir."
And I don't actually blame the public, I don't blame reporters for getting a bit confused about what it all means and what they should trust. I don't think trust is a binary any more than anything else is a binary. I don't think that something that's been peer-reviewed is perfect and something that hasn't been peer reviewed, you should never bother reading it. I think everything is much more gray.
Yet we've turned things into a binary. Even if you go back before coronavirus, coffee is good for you, coffee is bad for you, red wine, chocolate, all the rest of it. A lot of that is because of this sort of binary construct of the world for journalists, frankly, for scientists that need to get their next grants. And certainly for the general public, they want answers.
On the one hand, if I had to choose what group of experts, or what field of human endeavor would I trust with finding the answer to a pandemic like this, or to any crisis, it would absolutely be scientists. Hands down. This is coming from someone who writes about scientific fraud.
But on the other hand, that means that if scientists aren't clear about what they don't know and about the nuances and about what the scientific method actually allows us to do and learn, that just sets them up for failure. It sets people like Dr. Fauci up for failure.
It sets up any public health official who has a discussion about models. There's a famous saying: "All models are wrong, but some are useful."
Just because the projections change, it's not proof of wrongness, it's not proof that the model is fatally flawed. In fact, I'd be really concerned if the projections didn't change based on new information. I would love it if this whole episode did lead to a better understanding of the scientific process and how scientific publishing fits into that — and doesn't fit into it.
Yes, I'm with you. I'm very worried that the general audience's perspective is based on maybe watching too many movies where the scientist comes up with a conclusion one hour into the movie when everything is about to fail. Like that scene in Contagion where somebody injects, I think, eight monkeys, and one of the monkeys survives and boom we have the vaccine. That's not really how science works. Everything takes many, many years and many, many applications where usually your first ideas and your first hypothesis turn out to be completely wrong.
Then you go back to the drawing board, you develop another hypothesis and this is a very reiterative process that usually takes years. Most of the people who watch the movie might have a very wrong idea and wrong expectations about how science works. We're living in the movie Contagion and by September, we'll all be vaccinated and we can go on and live our lives. But that's not what is going to happen. It's going to take much, much longer and we're going to have to change the models every time and change our expectations. Just because we don't know all the numbers and all the facts yet.
Generally it takes a fairly long time to change medical practice. A lot of times people see that as a bad thing. What I think that ignores, or at least doesn't take into as much account as I would, is that you don't want doctors and other health care professionals to turn on a dime and suddenly switch. Unless, of course, it turns out there was no evidence for what you were looking at.
It's a complicated situation.
Everybody wants scientists to be engineers, right?
I'm not saying engineering isn't scientific, nor am I saying that science is just completely whimsical, but there's a different process. It's a different way of looking at things and you can't just throw all the data into a big supercomputer, which is what I think a lot of people seem to want us to do, and then the obvious answer will come out on the other side.
No. It's true and a lot of engineers suddenly feel their inherent need to solve this as a problem. They're not scientists and it's not building a bridge over a big river. But we're dealing with something that is very hard to solve because we don't understand the problem yet. I think scientists are usually first analyzing the problem and trying to understand what the problem actually is before you can even think about a solution.
I think we're still at the understanding the problem phase.
Exactly. And going back to the French group paper, that promised such a result and that was interpreted as such by a lot of people including presidents, but it's a very rare thing to find a medication that will have a 100% curation rate. That's something that I wish the people would understand better. We all want that to happen, but it's very unlikely and very unprecedented in the best of times.
I would second that and also say that the world needs to better value the work that people like Elisabeth and others are doing. Because we're not going to get to a better answer if we're not rigorous about scrutinizing the literature and scrutinizing the methodology and scrutinizing the results.
"I quit my job to be able to do this work."
It's a relatively new phenomenon that you're able to do this at any scale at all, and even now it's at a very small scale. Elisabeth mentioned PubPeer and I'm a big fan — also full disclosure, I'm on their board of directors as a volunteer — it's a very powerful engine for readers and journal editors and other scientists to discuss issues.
And Elisabeth has used it really, really well. I think we need to start giving credit to people like that. And, also creating incentives for that kind of work in a way that science hasn't yet.
Yeah. I quit my job to be able to do this work. It's really hard to combine it with a job either in academia or industry because we're looking for or criticizing papers and it's hard when you are still employed to do that.
I try to make it about the papers and do it in a polite way, but still it's a very hard job to do if you have a daytime job and a position and a career to worry about. Because if you're critical of other academics, that could actually mean the end of your career and that's sad. They should be more open to polite criticism.
And for the general public, if you're reading a newspaper story or something online about a single study and it doesn't mention any other studies that have said the same thing or similar, or frankly, if it doesn't say anything about any studies that contradicted it, that's probably also telling you something.
Say you're looking at a huge painting of a shoreline, a beach, and a forest. Any single study is just a one-centimeter-by-one-centimeter square of any part of that canvas. If you just look at that, you would either think it was a painting of the sea, of a beach, or of the forest. It's actually all three of those things.
We just need to be patient, and that's very challenging to us as human beings, but we need to take the time to look at the whole picture.
DISCLAIMER: Neither Elisabeth Bik nor Ivan Oransky was compensated for participation in The Pandemic Issue. While the magazine's editors suggested broad topics for discussion, consistent with Bik's and Oransky's work, neither they nor the magazine's underwriters had any influence on their conversation.
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]
Rochelle "Shelley" Buffenstein has one of the world's largest, if not the largest, lab-dwelling colonies of the naked mole rat. (No one has done a worldwide tabulation, but she has 4,500 of them.) Buffenstein has spent decades studying the little subterranean-dwelling rodents. Over the years, she and her colleagues have uncovered one surprising discovery after another, which has led them to re-orient the whole field of anti-aging research.
Naked mole rats defy everything we thought we knew about aging. These strange little rodents from arid regions of Africa, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, live up to ten times longer than their size would suggest. And unlike virtually every other animal, they don't lose physical or cognitive abilities with age, and even retain their fertility up until the end of life. They appear to have active defenses against the ravages of time, suggesting that aging may not be inevitable. Could these unusual creatures teach humans how to extend life and ameliorate aging?
Buffenstein, who is senior principle investigator at Calico Life Sciences, has dedicated her life to finding out. Her early interest in the animals of what is now Zimbabwe led to her current position as a cutting-edge anti-aging researcher at Calico, the Google-funded health venture launched in 2013. The notoriously secretive company is focused on untangling the mysteries of why animals and people age, and whether there are ways to slow or temporarily arrest the process.
The small, wrinkly animal, which lives in underground burrows in the hot, arid regions of Africa, is hardly the beauty queen of the mammalian kingdom. Furless, buck-toothed and tiny-eyed, the creatures look like they could use a good orthodontist, a protective suit of clothes and possibly, some spectacles to enhance their eyesight. But these rats more than make up for their unimpressive looks with their superlative ability to adapt to some of the most inhospitable conditions on earth.
Based on the usual rule that body size predicts lifespan, naked mole rats shouldn't live that long. After all, similarly-sized rodents like mice have a life expectancy of two years or less. But Buffenstein was one of the first scientists to recognize that naked mole rats live an extraordinarily long time, with her oldest animal approaching 39 years of age. In addition, they never become geriatric in the human sense, defying the common signs of aging — age-related diseases, cognitive decline and even menopause. In fact, the queens, or females that do all the breeding in a bee-like underground colony, remain fertile and give birth to healthy pups up until what would be considered very old age in humans. And the naked mole rat has other curious abilities, such as the ability to endure extreme low-oxygen, or hypoxic, conditions like those they encounter in their underground nests.
"One thing we've learned from these animals is that they stay healthy until the very end."
It's not that the naked mole rat isn't subject to the vicissitudes of life, or the normal wear and tear of biological processes. Over the years, Buffenstein and her colleagues have discovered that, while the process of oxidative stress — thought for 50 years to be the main cause of aging — occurs in the naked mole rat just as in any other animal, its damage does not accumulate with age. Oxidative stress occurs during normal cell metabolism when oxygen "free radicals" with one or more unpaired electrons wreak havoc on large cellular molecules, leaving microscopic debris in their wake that clogs up the gears of healthy cell function. Somehow, naked mole rats have an enhanced ability to clear out the damaged cells and molecules before they can set off the usual chain reaction of cell dysfunction and death, according to a 2013 paper in which Buffenstein is the lead author.
Oxidative stress is not the only factor known to be problematic in aging. Slowly accumulating damage to DNA typically leads to protein malfunction and improper folding. In humans and most other animals, these protein fragments can accumulate in cells and gum up the works. Only not so much in naked mole rats, which are able to maintain normal protein folding throughout their long life. After years of discoveries like these, Buffenstein has gradually reframed her focus from "what goes wrong to produce aging?" to "what goes right in the naked mole rat to help it defy the normal wear and tear of life?" Buffenstein's research suggests that the tiny mammals have a unique ability to somehow clear out damaged protein fragments and other toxic debris before they can cause disease and aging.
How She Got Here
Buffenstein ascribes her initial acquaintance with the naked mole rat to serendipity. Back in 1979, her postgraduate mentor Jenny Jarvis at the University of Cape Town in South Africa kept a small colony of rats in her office while studying the mechanisms that lead to the animals' unusual adaptive capabilities. It was Buffenstein's job to take care of them. Working with Jarvis, Buffenstein focused on understanding their unique adaptations to the extreme conditions of their natural habitat.
They studied the unusual behaviors regulating the rat colonies. For instance, they observed that designated "workers" dig the entire colony's underground tunnels and a single reproducing female breeds with only a small number of males. Buffenstein also examined how these animals are able to survive without the "sunshine hormone" — vitamin D — and their unusual modes of regulating their internal temperatures and converting food into energy. Though classified as mammals, the rodents simply don't conform to the mammalian handbook, having found ingenuous ways to alter their bodies and behavior that is fine-tuned to the scorching heat and aridity of their environment.
To escape the heat, they simply burrow underground and live in elaborate tunnels. To cope with the low-oxygen conditions underground, they slowed their metabolism and learned to live for extended periods of time in such hypoxic conditions that an ordinary animal would quickly suffocate. But it was slowly dawning on Buffenstein that the small creatures were exceptional in additional ways.
When Buffenstein got her first academic position at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Jarvis said she could take some of the naked mole rats with her. When she did, Buffenstein noticed that the animals were living far longer than similarly sized rodents. "At that stage, they were about ten years old. Little did I know how long they would eventually show us they could live," she says.
In 1997, after accepting a position at the City College of New York, Buffenstein moved to the U.S. and took her rat colony with her. There she was able to pursue an evolving narrative about the humble naked mole rat that continued to defy expectations. As the years passed, it was becoming more and more evident that her observations could have major implications for aging research. Eventually, she took a position at the Barshop Institute for Aging and Longevity Studies in San Antonio, Texas.
One early observation of Buffenstein's suggested that the species most often used in aging research—mice, roundworms, fruit flies and yeast—have short lifespans and poor defenses against aging. These animals provide important insights into how aging works, and have revealed possible targets for intervention. But they don't show what goes right in apparently non-aging animals like the naked mole rat.
Buffenstein's years of studying the rats has laid the foundation for a whole new perspective in aging research.
"My hypothesis," she says, "is that naked mole rats are very good at removing damaged macromolecules and cells, thereby maintaining homeostasis and cell and tissue function. All the repair pathways examined by us and others in the field point to more efficient repair and more rapid responses to damaging agents." These include things like free radicals and radiation.
Some researchers today are building on Buffenstein's foundational discoveries to home in on possible anti-aging mechanisms that lead to the extraordinary resilience of naked mole rats. University of Cambridge researcher and co-founder of the institution's Naked Mole-Rat Initiative, Ewan St. John Smith, is studying the animal's resistance to cancer.
In a 2020 paper published in Nature, Smith and his colleagues established that naked mole rats harbor cancer-causing genes, and these genes occasionally create cancer cells. But something in the rats shuts the multiplication process down before the cells can grow out of control and form tumors. Now, scientists want to know what mechanisms, exactly, are at play in preventing the cells from invading healthy tissues. Smith has hypothesized that the answer is somehow embedded in interactions in the cells' microenvironment.
He also thinks the animal's immune system could just be very effective at seeking out and destroying cancer cells. Several current cancer therapies work by boosting the body's immune system so it can attack and eliminate the toxic cells. It's possible that the naked mole rat's immune system naturally goes into hyper-drive when cancer cells appear, enabling it to nip the disease in the bud before tumors can form. A pharmacologist by training, Smith thinks that if there is some chemical mediator in the naked mole rat that supercharges its immune cells, perhaps that mediator can be synthesized in a drug to treat humans for cancer.
The naked mole rat's extreme tolerance to hypoxia could also play a role. "Interestingly," he says, "when cells become cancerous, they also become hypoxic, and naked mole rats are known to be very resistant to hypoxia.
He notes that a form of low-level hypoxia is also present in the bodies and brains of both aged mice and older humans. It's commonly seen in the brains of humans with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of age-related dementia. This suggests that hypoxia in humans — and in other mammals — may have a role to play in Alzheimer's and the aging process itself. Resistance to hypoxia could be why the naked mole rat, in Smith's words, "chugs along quite happily" in conditions that in humans are associated with disease and decline.
Smith cheerfully acknowledges his debt to Buffenstein for laying so much of the groundwork in a field rife with possible implications for anti-aging. "Shelley is amazing," he says. "Naked mole rats have a queen and I always refer to her as the queen of the naked mole rat world." In fact, Buffenstein gave Smith his first colony of rats, which he's since grown to about 150. "Some of them will still be around when I retire," he jokes.
Vera Gorbunova, a professor of biology and oncology at the University of Rochester who studies both longevity and cancer in naked mole rats, credits Buffenstein with getting others to study the animals for anti-aging purposes. Gorbunova believes that "cancer and aging go hand-in-hand" and that longer-lived animals have better, more accurate DNA repair.
Gorbunova is especially interested in the naked mole rat's ability to secrete a superabundance of a "super-sugar" molecule called hyaluronan, a ubiquitous additive to skin creams for its moisturizing effect. Gorbunova and others have observed that the presence of high concentrations of hyaluronan in the naked mole rat's extracellular matrix — the chemical-rich solution between cells — prevents the overcrowding of cells. This, perhaps, could be the key to the animal's ability to stop tumors from forming.
Hyaluronan is also present in the extracellular matrix of humans, but the naked mole rat molecule is more than five times larger than the versions found in humans or mice, and is thought to play a significant part in the animal's DNA repair. But just rubbing a cream containing hyaluronan over your skin won't stop cancer or aging. High concentrations of the substance in the extracellular matrix throughout your body would likely be needed.
Gorbunova notes that the naked mole rat offers a multitude of possibilities that could eventually lead to drugs to slow human aging. "I'm optimistic that there are many different strategies, because the naked mole rat likely has many processes going on that fight aging," she says. "I think that in a relatively short time, there will be bonafide treatments to test in animals. One thing we've learned from these animals is that they stay healthy until the very end."
So if naked mole rats don't become frail with age or develop age-related diseases, what does kill them? The answer, unfortunately, is usually other naked mole rats. Buffenstein has long noted that even though they live in highly cooperative colonies, they can be quite cantankerous when there's a disruption in the hierarchy, a sentiment echoed by Gorbunova. "Sometimes there are periods of peace and quiet, but if something happens to the queen, all hell breaks loose," she says. "If the queen is strong, everybody knows their place," but if the queen dies, the new queen is inevitably decided by violent competition.
To the casual observer, a strange, wrinkly rodent like the naked mole rat might seem to have little to teach us about ourselves, but Buffenstein is confident that her discoveries could have major implications for human longevity research. Today, at Calico's labs in San Francisco, she's focused entirely on the determining how anti-aging defense mechanisms in the rats could lead to similar defenses being stimulated or introduced in humans.
"The million-dollar question is, what are the mechanisms protecting against aging, and can these be translated into therapies to delay or abrogate human aging, too?"
Buffenstein fired up a new generation of scientists with multiple discoveries, especially the fundamental one that naked mole rats are subject to the same wear and tear over time as the rest of us, but somehow manage to reverse it. These days, the trailblazer is at work on untangling the molecular mechanisms involved in the animal's resistance to cardiac aging. On top of everything else, the small creature has a unique ability to fight off the scourge of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the industrialized world.
After all, the point is not to extend old age, but to slow down aging itself so that frailty and disability are compressed into a brief period after a long-extended period of vitality. By switching the focus from what goes wrong to mechanisms that defend against aging in the first place, the discoveries of Buffenstein and a new generation of researchers who are building on her groundbreaking research promise to be a driving force in the quest to extend not only life, but healthy, vigorous life in humans.
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."