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."
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.