1. Happening Now: Body-on-a-Chip Technology Is Enabling Safer Drug Trials and Better Cancer Research
Researchers have increasingly used the technology known as "lab-on-a-chip" or "organ-on-a-chip" to test the effects of pharmaceuticals, toxins, and chemicals on humans. Rather than testing on animals, which raises ethical concerns and can sometimes be inaccurate, and human-based clinical trials, which can be expensive and difficult to iterate, scientists turn to tiny, micro-engineered chips—about the size of a thumb drive.
It's possible that doctors could one day take individual cell samples and create personalized treatments, testing out any medications on the chip.
The chips are lined with living samples of human cells, which mimic the physiology and mechanical forces experienced by cells inside the human body, down to blood flow and breathing motions; the functions of organs ranging from kidneys and lungs to skin, eyes, and the blood-brain barrier.
A more recent—and potentially even more useful—development takes organ-on-a-chip technology to the next level by integrating several chips into a "body-on-a-chip." Since human organs don't work in isolation, seeing how they all react—and interact—once a foreign element has been introduced can be crucial to understanding how a certain treatment will or won't perform. Dr. Shyni Varghese, a MEDx investigator at the Duke University School of Medicine, is one of the researchers working with these systems in order to gain a more nuanced understanding of how multiple different organs react to the same stimuli.
Her lab is working on "tumor-on-a-chip" models, which can not only show the progression and treatment of cancer, but also model how other organs would react to immunotherapy and other drugs. "The effect of drugs on different organs can be tested to identify potential side effects," Varghese says. In addition, these models can help the researchers figure out how cancers grow and spread, as well as how to effectively encourage immune cells to move in and attack a tumor.
One body-on-a-chip used by Dr. Varghese's lab tracks the interactions of five organs—brain, heart, liver, muscle, and bone.
As their research progresses, Varghese and her team are looking for ways to maintain the long-term function of the engineered organs. In addition, she notes that this kind of research is not just useful for generalized testing; "organ-on-chip technologies allow patient-specific analyses, which can be used towards a fundamental understanding of disease progression," Varghese says. It's possible that doctors could one day take individual cell samples and create personalized treatments, testing out any medications on the chip for safety, efficacy, and potential side effects before writing a prescription.
2. Happening Soon: Prime Editing Will Have the Power to "Find and Replace" Disease-Causing Genes
Biochemist David Liu made industry-wide news last fall when he and his lab at MIT's Broad Institute, led by Andrew Anzalone, published a paper on prime editing: a new, more focused technology for editing genes. Prime editing is a descendant of the CRISPR-Cas9 system that researchers have been working with for years, and a cousin to Liu's previous innovation—base editing, which can make a limited number of changes to a single DNA letter at a time.
By contrast, prime editing has the potential to make much larger insertions and deletions; it also doesn't require the tweaked cells to divide in order to write the changes into the DNA, which could make it especially suitable for central nervous system diseases, like Parkinson's.
Crucially, the prime editing technique has a much higher efficiency rate than the older CRISPR system, and a much lower incidence of accidental insertions or deletions, which can make dangerous changes for a patient.
It also has a very broad potential range: according to Liu, 89% of the pathogenic mutations that have been collected in ClinVar (a public archive of human variations) could, in principle, be treated with prime editing—although he is careful to note that correcting a single genetic mutation may not be sufficient to fully treat a genetic disease.
Figuring out just how prime editing can be used most effectively and safely will be a long process, but it's already underway. The same day that Liu and his team posted their paper, they also made the basic prime editing constructs available for researchers around the world through Addgene, a plasmid repository, so that others in the scientific community can test out the technique for themselves. It might be years before human patients will see the results, and in the meantime, significant bioethical questions remain about the limits and sociological effects of such a powerful gene-editing tool. But in the long fight against genetic diseases, it's a huge step forward.
3. Happening When We Fund It: Focusing on Microbiome Health Could Help Us Tackle Social Inequality—And Vice Versa
The past decade has seen a growing awareness of the major role that the microbiome, the microbes present in our digestive tract, play in human health. Having a less-healthy microbiome is correlated with health risks like diabetes and depression, and interventions that target gut health, ranging from kombucha to fecal transplants, have cropped up with increasing frequency.
New research from the University of Maine's Dr. Suzanne Ishaq takes an even broader view, arguing that low-income and disadvantaged populations are less likely to have healthy, diverse gut bacteria, and that increasing access to beneficial microorganisms is an important juncture of social justice and public health.
"Basically, allowing people to lead healthy lives allows them to access and recruit microbes."
"Typically, having a more diverse bacterial community is associated with health, and having fewer different species is associated with illness and may leave you open to infection from bacteria that are good at exploiting opportunities," Ishaq says.
Having a healthy biome doesn't mean meeting one fixed ratio of gut bacteria, since different combinations of microbes can generate roughly similar results when they work in concert. Generally, "good" microbes are the ones that break down fiber and create the byproducts that we use for energy, or ones like lactic acid bacteria that work to make microbials and keep other bacteria in check. The microbial universe in your gut is chaotic, Ishaq says. "Microbes in your gut interact with each other, with you, with your food, or maybe they don't interact at all and pass right through you." Overall, it's tricky to name specific microbial communities that will make or break someone's health.
There are important corollaries between environment and biome health, though, which Ishaq points out: Living in urban environments reduces microbial exposure, and losing the microorganisms that humans typically source from soil and plants can reduce our adaptive immunity and ability to fight off conditions like allergies and asthma. Access to green space within cities can counteract those effects, but in the U.S. that access varies along income, education, and racial lines. Likewise, lower-income communities are more likely to live in food deserts or areas where the cheapest, most convenient food options are monotonous and low in fiber, further reducing microbial diversity.
Ishaq also suggests other areas that would benefit from further study, like the correlation between paid family leave, breastfeeding, and gut microbiota. There are technical and ethical challenges to direct experimentation with human populations—but that's not what Ishaq sees as the main impediment to future research.
"The biggest roadblock is money, and the solution is also money," she says. "Basically, allowing people to lead healthy lives allows them to access and recruit microbes."
That means investment in things we already understand to improve public health, like better education and healthcare, green space, and nutritious food. It also means funding ambitious, interdisciplinary research that will investigate the connections between urban infrastructure, housing policy, social equity, and the millions of microbes keeping us company day in and day out.
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.