How exactly does your DNA make you who you are?
It's because of epigenetics that identical twins can actually look different and develop different diseases.
Just as software developers don't write apps out of ones and zeros, the interesting parts of the human genome aren't written merely in As, Ts, Cs and Gs. Yes, these are the fundamental letters that make up our DNA and encode the proteins that make our cells function, but the story doesn't end there.
Our cells possess amazing abilities, like eating invading bacteria or patching over a wound, and these abilities require the coordinated action of hundreds, if not thousands, of proteins. Epigenetics, the study of gene expression, examines how multiple genes work at once to make these biological processes happen.
It's because of epigenetics that identical twins – who possess identical DNA -- can actually look different and develop different diseases. Their environments may influence the expression of their genes in unique ways. For example, a research study in mice found that maternal exposure to a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA) resulted in drastic differences between genetically identical offspring. BPA exposure increased the likelihood that a certain gene was turned on, which led to the birth of yellow mice who were prone to obesity. Their genetically identical siblings who were not exposed to BPA were thinner and born with brown fur.
These three mice are genetically identical. Epigenetic differences, however, result in vastly different phenotypes.
(© 1994 Nature Publishing Group, Duhl, D.)
This famous mouse experiment is just one example of how epigenetics may transform medicine in the coming years. By studying the way genes are turned on and off, and maybe even making those changes ourselves, scientists are beginning to approach diseases like cancer in a completely new way.
With few exceptions, most of the 1 trillion cells that make up your body contain the same DNA instructions as all the others. How does each cell in your body know what it is and what it has to do? One of the answers appears to lie in epigenetic regulation. Just as everyone at a company may have access to all the same files on the office Dropbox, the accountants will put different files on their desktop than the lawyers do.
Our cells prioritize DNA sequences in the same way, even storing entire chromosomes that aren't needed along the wall of the nucleus, while keeping important pieces of DNA in the center, where it is most accessible to be read and used. One of the ways our cells prioritize certain DNA sequences is through methylation, a process that inactivates large regions of genes without editing the underlying "file" itself.
As we learn more about epigenetics, we gain more opportunities to develop therapeutics for a broad range of human conditions, from cancer to metabolic disorders. Though there have not been any clinical applications of epigenetics to immune or metabolic diseases yet, cancer is one of the leading areas, with promising initial successes.
One of the challenges of cancer treatments is that different patients may respond positively or negatively to the same treatment. With knowledge of epigenetics, however, doctors could conduct diagnostic tests to identify a patient's specific epigenetic profile and determine the best treatment for him or her. Already, commercial kits are available that help doctors screen glioma patients for an epigenetic biomarker called MGMT, because patients with this biomarker have shown high rates of success with certain kinds of treatments.
Other epigenetic advances go beyond personalized screening to treatments targeting the mechanism of disease. Some epigenetic drugs turn on genes that help suppress tumors, while others turn on genes that reveal the identity of tumor cells to the immune system, allowing it to attack cancerous cells.
Direct, targeted control of your epigenome could allow doctors to reprogram cancerous or aging cells.
The study of epigenetics has also been fundamental to the field of aging research. The older you get, the more methylation marks your DNA carries, and this has led to the distinction between biological aging, or the state of your cells, and chronological aging, or how old you actually are.
Just as our DNA can get miscopied and accumulate mutations, errors in DNA methylation can lead to so-called "epimutations". One of the big hypotheses in aging research today is that the accumulation of these random epimutations over time is responsible for what we perceive as aging.
Studies thus far have been correlative - looking at several hundred sites of epigenetic modifications in a person's cell, scientists can now roughly discern the age of that person. The next set of advances in the field will come from learning what these epigenetic changes individually do by themselves, and if certain methylations are correlated with cellular aging. General diagnostic terms like "aging" could be replaced with "abnormal methylation at these specific locations," which would also open the door to new therapeutic targets.
Direct, targeted control of your epigenome could allow doctors to reprogram cancerous or aging cells. While this type of genetic surgery is not feasible just yet, current research is bringing that possibility closer. The Cas9 protein of genome-editing CRISPR/Cas9 fame has been fused with epigenome modifying enzymes to target epigenetic modifications to specific DNA sequences.
A therapeutic of this type could theoretically undo a harmful DNA methylation, but would also be competing with the cell's native machinery responsible for controlling this process. One potential approach around this problem involves making beneficial synthetic changes to the epigenome that our cells do not have the capacity to undo.
Also fueling this frontier is a new approach to understanding disease itself. Scientists and doctors are now moving beyond the "one defective gene = one disease" paradigm. Because lots of diseases are caused by multiple genes going haywire, epigenetic therapies could hold the key to new types of treatments by targeting multiple defective genes at once.
Scientists are still discovering which epigenetic modifications are responsible for particular diseases, and engineers are building new tools for epigenome editing. Given the proliferation of work in these fields within the last 10 years, we may see epigenetic therapeutics emerging within the next couple of decades.
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.