These Sisters May Change the Way You Think About Dying
For five weeks, Anita Freeman watched her sister writhe in pain. The colon cancer diagnosed four years earlier became metastatic.
"I still wouldn't wish that ending on my worst enemy."
At this tormenting juncture, her 66-year-old sister, Elizabeth Martin, wanted to die comfortably in her sleep. But doctors wouldn't help fulfill that final wish.
"It haunts me," Freeman, 74, who lives in Long Beach, California, says in recalling the prolonged agony. Her sister "was breaking out of the house and running in her pajamas down the sidewalk, screaming, 'Help me. Help me.' She just went into a total panic."
Finally, a post-acute care center offered pentobarbital, a sedative that induced a state of unconsciousness, but only after an empathetic palliative care doctor called and insisted on ending the inhumane suffering. "We even had to fight the owners of the facility to get them to agree to the recommendations," Freeman says, describing it as "the only option we had at that time; I still wouldn't wish that ending on my worst enemy."
Her sister died a week later, in 2014. That was two years before California's medical aid-in-dying law took effect, making doctors less reliant on palliative sedation to peacefully end unbearable suffering for terminally ill patients. Now, Freeman volunteers for Compassion & Choices, a national grassroots organization based in Portland, Oregon, that advocates for expanding end-of-life options.
Palliative sedation involves medicating a terminally ill patient into lowered awareness or unconsciousness in order to relieve otherwise intractable suffering at the end of life. It is not intended to cause death, which occurs due to the patient's underlying disease.
In contrast, euthanasia involves directly and deliberately ending a patient's life. Euthanasia is legal only in Canada and some European countries and requires a health care professional to administer the medication. In the United States, laws in seven states and Washington, D.C. give terminally ill patients the option to obtain prescription medication they can take to die peacefully in their sleep, but they must be able to self-adminster it.
Recently, palliative sedation has been gaining more acceptance among medical professionals as an occasional means to relieve suffering, even if it may advance the time of death, as some clinicians believe. However, studies have found no evidence of this claim. Many doctors and bioethicists emphasize that intent is what distinguishes palliative sedation from euthanasia. Others disagree. It's common for controversy to swirl around when and how to apply this practice.
Elizabeth Martin with her sister Anita Freeman in happier times, before metastatic cancer caused her tremendous suffering at the end of her life.
(Courtesy Anita Freeman)
"Intent is everything in ethics. The rigor and protocols we have around palliative sedation therapy also speaks to it being an intervention directed to ease refractory distress," says Martha Twaddle, medical director of palliative medicine and supportive care at Northwestern University's Lake Forest Hospital in Lake Forest, Illinois.
Palliative sedation should be considered only when pain, shortness of breath, and other unbearable symptoms don't respond to conventional treatments. Left to his or her own devices, a patient in this predicament could become restless, Twaddle says, noting that "agitated delirium is a horrible symptom for a family to witness."
At other times, "we don't want to be too quick to sedate," particularly in cases of purely "existential distress"—when a patient experiences anticipatory grief around "saying goodbye" to loved ones, she explains. "We want to be sure we're applying the right therapy for the problem."
Encouraging patients to reconcile with their kin may help them find inner peace. Nonmedical interventions worth exploring include quieting the environment and adjusting lighting to simulate day and night, Twaddle says.
Music-thanatology also can have a calming effect. It is live, prescriptive music, mainly employing the harp or voice, tailored to the patient's physiological needs by tuning into vital signs such as heart rate, respiration, and temperature, according to the Music-Thanatology Association International.
"When we integrated this therapeutic modality in 2003, our need for using palliative sedation therapy dropped 75 percent and has remained low ever since," Twaddle observes. "We have this as part of our care for treating refractory symptoms."
"If palliative sedation is being employed properly with the right patient, it should not hasten death."
Ethical concerns surrounding euthanasia often revolve around the term "terminal sedation," which "can entail a physician deciding that the patient is a lost cause—incurable medically and in substantial pain that cannot adequately be relieved," says John Kilner, professor and director of the bioethics programs at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois.
By halting sedation at reasonable intervals, the care team can determine whether significant untreatable pain persists. Periodic discontinuation serves as "evidence that the physician is still working to restore the patient rather than merely to usher the patient painlessly into death," Kilner explains. "Indeed, sometimes after a period of unconsciousness, with the body relieved of unceasing pain, the body can recover enough to make the pain treatable."
The medications for palliative sedation "are tried and true sedatives that we've had for a long time, for many years, so they're predictable," says Joe Rotella, chief medical officer at the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine.
Some patients prefer to keep their eyes open and remain conscious to answer by name, while others tell their doctors in advance that they want to be more heavily sedated while receiving medications to manage pain and other symptoms. "We adjust the dosage until the patient is sleeping at a desired level of sedation," Rotella says.
Sedation is an intrinsic side effect of most medications prescribed to control severe symptoms in terminally ill patients. In general, most people die in a sleepy state, except for instances of sudden, dramatic death resulting from a major heart attack or stroke, says Ryan R. Nash, a palliative medicine physician and director of The Ohio State University Center for Bioethics in Columbus.
"Using those medications to treat pain or shortness of breath is not palliative sedation," Nash says. In addition, providing supplemental nutrition and hydration in situations where death is imminent—with a prognosis limited to hours or days—generally doesn't help prolong life. "If palliative sedation is being employed properly with the right patient," he adds, "it should not hasten death."
Nonetheless, hospice nurses sometimes feel morally distressed over carrying out palliative sedation. Implementing protocols at health systems would help guide them and alleviate some of their concerns, says Gregg VandeKieft, medical director for palliative care at Providence St. Joseph Health's Southwest Washington Region in Olympia, Washington. "It creates guardrails by sort of standardizing and normalizing things," he says.
"Our goal is to restore our patient. It's never to take their life."
The concept of proportionality weighs heavily in the process of palliative sedation. But sometimes substantial doses are necessary. For instance, an opioid-tolerant patient recently needed an unusually large amount of medication to control symptoms. She was in a state of illness-induced confusion and pain, says David E. Smith, a palliative medicine physician at Baptist Health Supportive Care in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Still, "we are parsimonious in what we do. We only use as much therapeutic force as necessary to achieve our goals," Smith says. "Our goal is to restore our patient. It's never to take their life."
Scientists redesign bacteria to tackle the antibiotic resistance crisis
In 1945, almost two decades after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he warned that as antibiotics use grows, they may lose their efficiency. He was prescient—the first case of penicillin resistance was reported two years later. Back then, not many people paid attention to Fleming’s warning. After all, the “golden era” of the antibiotics age had just began. By the 1950s, three new antibiotics derived from soil bacteria — streptomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline — could cure infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis and typhoid fever, among others.
Today, these antibiotics and many of their successors developed through the 1980s are gradually losing their effectiveness. The extensive overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to the rise of drug resistance. The livestock sector buys around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. every year. Farmers feed cows and chickens low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and fatten up the animals, which eventually causes resistant bacterial strains to evolve. If manure from cattle is used on fields, the soil and vegetables can get contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another major factor is doctors overprescribing antibiotics to humans, particularly in low-income countries. Between 2000 to 2018, the global rates of human antibiotic consumption shot up by 46 percent.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring a promising avenue: the use of synthetic biology to engineer new bacteria that may work better than antibiotics. The need continues to grow, as a Lancetstudy linked antibiotic resistance to over 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019, surpassing HIV/AIDS and malaria. The western sub-Saharan Africa region had the highest death rate (27.3 people per 100,000).
Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
To make it worse, our remedy pipelines are drying up. Out of the 18 biggest pharmaceutical companies, 15 abandoned antibiotic development by 2013. According to the AMR Action Fund, venture capital has remained indifferent towards biotech start-ups developing new antibiotics. In 2019, at least two antibiotic start-ups filed for bankruptcy. As of December 2020, there were 43 new antibiotics in clinical development. But because they are based on previously known molecules, scientists say they are inadequate for treating multidrug-resistant bacteria. Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
The rise of synthetic biology
To circumvent this dire future, scientists have been working on alternative solutions using synthetic biology tools, meaning genetically modifying good bacteria to fight the bad ones.
From the time life evolved on earth around 3.8 billion years ago, bacteria have engaged in biological warfare. They constantly strategize new methods to combat each other by synthesizing toxic proteins that kill competition.
For example, Escherichia coli produces bacteriocins or toxins to kill other strains of E.coli that attempt to colonize the same habitat. Microbes like E.coli (which are not all pathogenic) are also naturally present in the human microbiome. The human microbiome harbors up to 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells. The majority of them are beneficial organisms residing in the gut at different compositions.
The chemicals that these “good bacteria” produce do not pose any health risks to us, but can be toxic to other bacteria, particularly to human pathogens. For the last three decades, scientists have been manipulating bacteria’s biological warfare tactics to our collective advantage.
In the late 1990s, researchers drew inspiration from electrical and computing engineering principles that involve constructing digital circuits to control devices. In certain ways, every cell in living organisms works like a tiny computer. The cell receives messages in the form of biochemical molecules that cling on to its surface. Those messages get processed within the cells through a series of complex molecular interactions.
Synthetic biologists can harness these living cells’ information processing skills and use them to construct genetic circuits that perform specific instructions—for example, secrete a toxin that kills pathogenic bacteria. “Any synthetic genetic circuit is merely a piece of information that hangs around in the bacteria’s cytoplasm,” explains José Rubén Morones-Ramírez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, Mexico. Then the ribosome, which synthesizes proteins in the cell, processes that new information, making the compounds scientists want bacteria to make. “The genetic circuit remains separated from the living cell’s DNA,” Morones-Ramírez explains. When the engineered bacteria replicates, the genetic circuit doesn’t become part of its genome.
Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. cholerae strains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut.
In 2000, Boston-based researchers constructed an E.coli with a genetic switch that toggled between turning genes on and off two. Later, they built some safety checks into their bacteria. “To prevent unintentional or deleterious consequences, in 2009, we built a safety switch in the engineered bacteria’s genetic circuit that gets triggered after it gets exposed to a pathogen," says James Collins, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and faculty member at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “After getting rid of the pathogen, the engineered bacteria is designed to switch off and leave the patient's body.”
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes resistant strains to evolve
Seek and destroy
As the field of synthetic biology developed, scientists began using engineered bacteria to tackle superbugs. They first focused on Vibrio cholerae, whichin the 19th and 20th century caused cholera pandemics in India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and Americas. Like many other bacteria, V. cholerae communicate with each other via quorum sensing, a process in which the microorganisms release different signaling molecules, to convey messages to its brethren. Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. choleraestrains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut. When untreated, cholera has a mortality rate of 25 to 50 percent and outbreaks frequently occur in developing countries, especially during floods and droughts.
Sometimes, however, V. cholerae makes mistakes. In 2008, researchers at Cornell University observed that when quorum sensing V. cholerae accidentally released high concentrations of a signaling molecule called CAI-1, it had a counterproductive effect—the pathogen couldn’t colonize the gut.
So the group, led byJohn March, professor of biological and environmental engineering, developed a novel strategy to combat V. cholerae. They genetically engineered E.coli toeavesdrop on V. cholerae communication networks and equipped it with the ability to release the CAI-1 molecules. That interfered with V. cholerae progress.Two years later, the Cornell team showed that V. cholerae-infected mice treated with engineered E.coli had a 92 percent survival rate.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones.
Three years later in 2011, Singapore-based scientists engineered E.coli to detect and destroy Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an oftendrug-resistant pathogen that causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. Once the genetically engineered E.coli found its target through its quorum sensing molecules, it then released a peptide, that could eradicate 99 percent of P. aeruginosa cells in a test-tube experiment. The team outlined their work in a Molecular Systems Biology study.
“At the time, we knew that we were entering new, uncharted territory,” says lead author Matthew Chang, an associate professor and synthetic biologist at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the study. “To date, we are still in the process of trying to understand how long these microbes stay in our bodies and how they might continue to evolve.”
More teams followed the same path. In a 2013 study, MIT researchers also genetically engineered E.coli to detect P. aeruginosa via the pathogen’s quorum-sensing molecules. It then destroyed the pathogen by secreting a lab-made toxin.
Probiotics that fight
A year later in 2014, a Nature study found that the abundance of Ruminococcus obeum, a probiotic bacteria naturally occurring in the human microbiome, interrupts and reduces V.cholerae’s colonization— by detecting the pathogen’s quorum sensing molecules. The natural accumulation of R. obeumin Bangladeshi adults helped them recover from cholera despite living in an area with frequent outbreaks.
The findings from 2008 to 2014 inspired Collins and his team to delve into how good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi can attack drug-resistant bacteria. In 2018, Collins and his team developed the engineered probiotic strategy. They tweaked a commonly found bacteria in yogurt called Lactococcus lactis.
Engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut. --José Rubén Morones-Ramírez.
More scientists followed with more experiments. So far, researchers have engineered various probiotic organisms to fight pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (leading cause of skin, tissue, bone, joint and blood infections) and Clostridium perfringens (which causes watery diarrhea) in test-tube and animal experiments. In 2020, Russian scientists engineered a probiotic called Pichia pastoris to produce an enzyme called lysostaphin that eradicated S. aureus in vitro. Another 2020 study from China used an engineered probiotic bacteria Lactobacilli casei as a vaccine to prevent C. perfringens infection in rabbits.
In a study last year, Ramírez’s group at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, engineered E. coli to detect quorum-sensing molecules from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a notorious superbug. The E. coli then releases a bacteriocin that kills MRSA. “An antibiotic is just a molecule that is not intelligent,” says Ramírez. “On the other hand, engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut.”
Collins and Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, found that engineered E. coli can help treat other conditions—such as phenylketonuria, a rare metabolic disorder, that causes the build-up of an amino acid phenylalanine. Their start-up Synlogic aims to commercialize the technology, and has completed a phase 2 clinical trial.
Circumventing the challenges
The bacteria-engineering technique is not without pitfalls. One major challenge is that beneficial gut bacteria produce their own quorum-sensing molecules that can be similar to those that pathogens secrete. If an engineered bacteria’s biosensor is not specific enough, it will be ineffective.
Another concern is whether engineered bacteria might mutate after entering the gut. “As with any technology, there are risks where bad actors could have the capability to engineer a microbe to act quite nastily,” says Collins of MIT. But Collins and Ramírez both insist that the chances of the engineered bacteria mutating on its own are virtually non-existent. “It is extremely unlikely for the engineered bacteria to mutate,” Ramírez says. “Coaxing a living cell to do anything on command is immensely challenging. Usually, the greater risk is that the engineered bacteria entirely lose its functionality.”
However, the biggest challenge is bringing the curative bacteria to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in antibiotics or their alternatives because it’s less profitable than developing new medicines for non-infectious diseases. Unlike the more chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer that require long-term medications, infectious diseases are usually treated much quicker. Running clinical trials are expensive and antibiotic-alternatives aren’t lucrative enough.
“Unfortunately, new medications for antibiotic resistant infections have been pushed to the bottom of the field,” says Lu of MIT. “It's not because the technology does not work. This is more of a market issue. Because clinical trials cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the only solution is that governments will need to fund them.” Lu stresses that societies must lobby to change how the modern healthcare industry works. “The whole world needs better treatments for antibiotic resistance.”
Meet Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the first Director of President Biden's new health agency, ARPA-H
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Renee Wegrzyn, appointed by President Biden as the first director of a health agency created last year, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. It’s inspired by DARPA, the agency that develops innovations for the Defense department and has been credited with hatching world-changing technologies such as ARPANET, which became the internet.
Time will tell if ARPA-H will lead to similar achievements in the realm of health. That’s what President Biden and Congress expect in return for funding ARPA-H at 2.5 billion dollars over three years.
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How will the agency figure out which projects to take on, especially with so many patient advocates for different diseases demanding moonshot funding for rapid progress?
I talked with Dr. Wegrzyn about the opportunities and challenges, what lessons ARPA-H is borrowing from Operation Warp Speed, how she decided on the first ARPA-H project that was announced recently, why a separate agency was needed instead of reforming HHS and the National Institutes of Health to be better at innovation, and how ARPA-H will make progress on disease prevention in addition to treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among many other health priorities.
Dr. Wegrzyn’s resume leaves no doubt of her suitability for this role. She was a program manager at DARPA where she focused on applying gene editing and synthetic biology to the goal of improving biosecurity. For her work there, she received the Superior Public Service Medal and, in case that wasn’t enough ARPA experience, she also worked at another ARPA that leads advanced projects in intelligence, called I-ARPA. Before that, she ran technical teams in the private sector working on gene therapies and disease diagnostics, among other areas. She has been a vice president of business development at Gingko Bioworks and headed innovation at Concentric by Gingko. Her training and education includes a PhD and undergraduate degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and she did her postdoc as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Heidelberg, Germany.
Dr. Wegrzyn told me that she’s “in the hot seat.” The pressure is on for ARPA-H especially after the need and potential for health innovation was spot lit by the pandemic and the unprecedented speed of vaccine development. We'll soon find out if ARPA-H can produce gamechangers in health that are equivalent to DARPA’s creation of the internet.
ARPA-H - https://arpa-h.gov/
Dr. Wegrzyn profile - https://arpa-h.gov/people/renee-wegrzyn/
Dr. Wegrzyn Twitter - https://twitter.com/rwegrzyn?lang=en
President Biden Announces Dr. Wegrzyn's appointment - https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statement...
Leaps.org coverage of ARPA-H - https://leaps.org/arpa/
ARPA-H program for joints to heal themselves - https://arpa-h.gov/news/nitro/ -
ARPA-H virtual talent search - https://arpa-h.gov/news/aco-talent-search/
Dr. Renee Wegrzyn was appointed director of ARPA-H last October.
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.