Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
A few days before Christmas 2015, Paige Alexandria, a 28-year-old counselor at the Austin Women's Health Center in Texas, found out she was pregnant.
Alexandria had missed the cutoff for a medication abortion by three days.
"It was an unplanned pregnancy, and instantaneously I knew I needed an abortion," Alexandria recalls. Already a mother of two children, one with special needs, a third child was not something Alexandria and her husband felt prepared to take on. "Mentally, I knew my limit. I wasn't prepared for a third and I didn't want one," she says.
At an ultrasound appointment one week later, scans showed she was a little over eight weeks pregnant. Alexandria opted to have an abortion as soon as possible, and preferably with medication. "I really wanted to avoid a surgical abortion," she says. "It sounded a lot more invasive, and I'm already uncomfortable with pap smears and pelvic exams, so I initially went in wanting to do the pill."
But at the time, medication guidelines stipulated that one of the pills, called Mifepristone, could only be prescribed to end a pregnancy at eight weeks gestation or earlier – Alexandria had missed the cutoff by three days. If she wanted to end the pregnancy, she would need to undergo a surgical abortion, otherwise known as a vacuum aspiration abortion.
With a vacuum aspiration abortion, doctors dilate the cervix and manually aspirate out the contents of the uterus. Medication abortion, on the other hand, consists of the patient taking two pills – Mifepristone, which blocks the hormones that help the pregnancy develop, and Misoprostol, which empties the uterus over a period of days, identical to a miscarriage.
Alexandria was upset about the change of plans but resolute in her decision to end the pregnancy. "The fact that I didn't really have a choice in how my procedure was performed has made the experience just a little more sensitive for me," she says. She scheduled the earliest available appointment for a surgical abortion.
Paige Alexandria would have chosen to terminate her pregnancy with medication if the regulations were less stringent.
(Photo courtesy of Alexandria)
Like Alexandria, many people looking to terminate a pregnancy opt to do so with medication. According to research from the Guttmacher Institute, medication abortions accounted for nearly 40 percent of all abortions in the year 2017 – a marked increase from 2001, when medication abortions only accounted for roughly five percent of terminations. Taken 24-48 hours apart, Mifepristone and Misoprostol have a 95-99 percent success rate in terminating pregnancies up to 63 days – or nine weeks – of gestation, according to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG).
But even though the World Health Organization (WHO) considers medical abortion to be highly safe and effective, the medication is still carefully guarded in the United States: Mifepristone is only available for terminating pregnancies up to 10 weeks gestation, per the FDA, even though limited research suggests that both are safe and effective at terminating pregnancies between 12 and 20 weeks.
Additionally, a separate set of regulations known as a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) means that patients can only take Mifepristone under specific circumstances. Mifepristone must be distributed in person by a healthcare provider – usually interpreted in most states as a doctor or nurse practitioner – who has registered with the drug's manufacturer. The medication cannot be distributed through a pharmacy, so doctors who wish to provide the drug must stock the medication in-office, and both the provider and the patient must sign a form that warns them of the "risk of serious complications associated with Mifepristone," according to the FDA.
"REMS is a set of restrictions that the FDA puts on the distribution of drugs it considers dangerous or risky in some way," says Dr. Elizabeth Raymond, an OB-GYN and senior medical associate at Gynuity Health Projects. Although not always called REMS, these restrictions have been imposed on Mifepristone since the medication was approved by the FDA in 2000, Raymond says.
Raymond is part of a growing number of physicians and researchers who want to eliminate the REMS requirements for Mifepristone, also known by its brand name Mifeprex. In 2017, Raymond and several other physicians authored a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) arguing that Mifepristone is extremely safe and needlessly over-regulated.
"When the FDA first approved [Mifepristone] and imposed these requirements, they might have made sense 19 years ago when there was limited information about the use of this treatment in the United States," says Dr. Daniel Grossman, director at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at UCSF and co-author of the 2017 report in the NEJM. "Now, after 19 years, it's clear that this medication is very safe, and safer than a lot of others available in a pharmacy."
Since 2000, Mifepristone has been implicated in 19 deaths, making its mortality rate 0.00063 percent.
According to their research, over three million people have taken Mifepristone since it was approved in 2000. Since then, Mifepristone has been implicated in 19 deaths, making its mortality rate 0.00063 percent. Even then, the risk is inflated, Grossman says.
"The requirement is that practitioners need to report any deaths that occur after taking these medications, and so you'll see deaths included in that figure which are homicides or suicides or something unrelated to taking Mifepristone," says Grossman. In contrast, Acetaminophen – better known as Tylenol – was associated with 458 overdose deaths between 1990 and 1998, as well as 56,000 emergency room visits and 26,000 hospitalizations. Sildenafil, better known as Viagra, was linked to 762 deaths in the first twenty months after it was approved by the FDA. Yet neither Tylenol nor Viagra have been burdened with the same REMS restrictions as Mifepristone.
"It's clearly about more than just the safety of the medication at this point," says Grossman. "It's more about stigma related to abortion and politics."
For people who want a medication abortion, the REMS requirements mean they often need to take off work to schedule a doctor's appointment, arrange for transportation and childcare, and then arrange an additional doctor's appointment days afterward to take the second dose of medication. While surgical abortion procedures are quicker (usually a one-day outpatient procedure, depending on gestation), many people prefer having the abortion in the comfort of their home or surrounded by family instead.
Paige Alexandria, who counsels people seeking abortions at her job, says that survivors of sexual violence often prefer medical abortions to surgical ones. "A lot of time survivors have a trauma associated with medical instruments or having pelvic exams, and so they're more comfortable taking a pill," she says.
But REMS also creates a barrier for healthcare providers, Grossman says. Stocking the medication in-office is "a hassle" and "expensive," while others are reluctant to register their name with the drug manufacturer, fearing harassment or violence from anti-choice protestors. As a result, the number of practitioners willing to provide medical abortions nationwide is severely limited. According to Grossman's own research published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, 28 percent of OBGYNs admitted they would administer medication abortions if it were possible to write a prescription for Mifepristone rather than stock it in-office.
Amazingly, the restrictions on Mifepristone have loosened since it first came on the market. In 2016, the FDA updated the guidelines on Mifepristone to allow its use until 10 weeks gestation, up from eight weeks. But doctors say the REMS restrictions should be eliminated completely so that people can obtain abortions as early as possible.
"REMS restrictions inhibit people from being able to get a timely abortion," says Raymond, who stresses that abortion is generally more comfortable, more affordable, and safer for women the earlier it's done. "Abortion is very safe no matter when you get it, but it's also easier because there's less risk for bleeding, infections, or other complications," Raymond says. Abortions that occur earlier than eight weeks of gestation have a complication rate of less than one percent, while an abortion done at 12 or 13 weeks has a three to six percent chance of complications.
And even for people who want a medication abortion early on in their pregnancy, REMS restrictions make it so that they may not have time to obtain it before the 10-week period lapses, Raymond says.
"If you're seven weeks pregnant but it takes you three weeks to figure out travel and childcare arrangements to go into the doctor and take this medication, now you're at the cutoff date," she says. "Even if you manage to get an abortion at nine weeks, that's still a later gestational age, and so the risks are increased."
In 2016, at a little over nine weeks gestation, Alexandria completed her abortion by having a D&E. But because she didn't have anyone to drive her home after the procedure, she wasn't able to have sedation throughout, something she describes as "traumatic."
"I had the abortion completely aware and coherent, and paired with the fact that I hadn't even wanted a surgical abortion in the first place made it harder to deal with," Alexandria says.
"When you're just a day or two past eight weeks and you want an abortion – why is medication not immediately available?"
Today, Alexandria shares her story publicly to advocate for abortion care. Although she doesn't regret her surgical abortion and acknowledges that not everyone experiences surgical abortion the same way she did, she does wish that she could have gone a different route.
"If I had to do it over, I would still try to do the pill, because [the surgical abortion] was such a terrifying experience," she says. "When you're just a day or two past eight weeks and you want an abortion – why is medication not immediately available? It just doesn't make sense."
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.