After months of looking at dead cells under a microscope, Theo Roth finally glimpsed what he had been hoping to see—flickers of green. His method was working.
"If we can go into the cell and add in new code and instructions, now we can give it whatever new functions we want."
When Roth joined the laboratory of Alex Marson at the University of California, San Francisco in June 2016, he set to work trying to figure out a new way to engineer human T cells, a type of white blood cell that's an important part of the immune system. If he succeeded, the resulting approach could make it easier and faster for scientists to develop and test cell and gene therapies, new treatments that involve genetically reprogramming the body's own cells.
For decades, researchers have been using engineered viruses to bestow human cells with new genetic characteristics. These so-called viral vectors "infect" human cells, transferring whatever new genetic material scientists put into them. The idea is that this new DNA could give T cells a boost to better fight diseases like cancer and HIV.
Several successful clinical trials have used virally-modified human T cells, and in fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year approved two such groundbreaking cancer gene therapies, Kymriah and Yescarta. But the process of genetically manipulating cells with viruses is expensive and time-consuming. In addition, viruses tend to randomly insert DNA with little predictability.
"What Theo wanted to do was to paste in big sequences of DNA at a targeted site without viruses," says Marson, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology. "That would have the benefit of being able to rewrite a specific site in the genome and do it flexibly and quickly without having to make a new virus for every site you want to manipulate."
Scientists have for a while been interested in non-viral engineering methods, but T cells are fragile and notoriously difficult to work with.
Previously, Marson's lab had collaborated with CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna and her team at the University of California, Berkeley to use an electrical pulse together with CRISPR components to knock out certain genes. They also found some success with inserting very small pieces of DNA into a targeted site.
But Roth, a 27-year-old graduate student at UCSF pursuing MD and PhD degrees, was determined to figure out how to paste in much bigger sequences of genetic information. Marson says it was an "ambitious" goal. Scientists had tried before, but found that stuffing large chunks of DNA into T cells would quickly kill them.
"If we can go into the cell and add in new code and instructions, now we can give it whatever new functions we want," Roth says. "If you can add in new DNA sequences at the site that you want, then you have a much greater capacity to generate a cell that's going to be therapeutic or curative for a disease."
"He has already made his mark on the field."
So Roth began experimenting with hundreds of different variables a week, trying to find the right conditions to allow him to engineer T cells without the need for viruses. To know if the technique was working, Roth and his colleagues used a green fluorescent protein that would be expressed in cells that had successfully been modified.
"We went from having a lot of dead cells that didn't have any green to having maybe 1 percent of them being green," Roth says. "At that stage we got really excited."
After nearly a year of testing, he and collaborators found a combination of T cell ratios and DNA quantity mixed with CRISPR and zaps of electricity that seemed to work. These electrical pulses, called electroporation, deliver a jolt to cells that makes their membranes temporarily more permeable, allowing the CRISPR system to slip through. Once inside cells, CRISPR seeks out a specific place in the genome and makes a programmed, precise edit.
Roth and his colleagues used the approach to repair a genetic defect in T cells taken from children with a rare autoimmune disease and also to supercharge T cells so that they'd seek out and selectively kill human cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact. In mice transplanted with human melanoma tissue, the edited T cells went to straight to the cancerous cells and attacked them. The findings were published in Nature in July.
Marson and Roth think even a relatively small number of modified T cells could be effective at treating some cancers, infections, and autoimmune diseases.
Roth is now working with the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in San Francisco to engineer cells to treat a variety of cancers and hopefully commercialize his technique. Fred Ramsdell, vice president at the Parker Institute, says he's impressed by Roth's work. "He has already made his mark on the field."
Right now, there's a huge manufacturing backlog for viruses. If researchers want to start a clinical trial to test a new gene or cell therapy, they often have to wait a year to get the viruses they need.
"I think the biggest immediate impact is that it will lower the cost of a starting an early phase clinical trial."
Ramsdell says what Roth's findings allow researchers to do is engineer T cells quickly and more efficiently, cutting the time it takes to make them from several months to just a few weeks. That will allow researchers to develop and test several potential therapies in the lab at once.
"I think the biggest immediate impact is that it will lower the cost of a starting an early phase clinical trial," Roth says.
This isn't the first time Roth's work has been in the spotlight. As an undergraduate at Stanford University, he made significant contributions to traumatic brain injury research by developing a mouse model for observing the brain's cellular response to a concussion. He started the research, which was also published in Nature, the summer before entering college while he was an intern in Dorian McGavern's lab at the National Institutes of Health.
When Roth entered UCSF as a graduate student, his scientific interests shifted.
"It's definitely a big leap" from concussion research, says McGavern, who still keeps in touch with Roth. But he says he's not surprised about Roth's path. "He's absolutely tireless when it comes to the pursuit of science."
Roth says he's optimistic about the potential for gene and cell therapies to cure patients. "I want to try to figure out what one of the next therapies we should put into patients should be."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”