Lurking among the swaying palm trees, sugary sands and azure waters of the Florida Keys is the most dangerous animal on earth: the mosquito.
While there are thousands of varieties of mosquitoes, only a small percentage of them are responsible for causing disease. One of the leading culprits is Aedes aegypti, which thrives in the warm standing waters of South Florida, Central America and other tropical climes, and carries the viruses that cause yellow fever, dengue, chikungunya and Zika.
Dengue, a leading cause of death in many Asian and Latin American countries, causes bleeding and pain so severe that it's referred to as "breakbone fever." Chikungunya and yellow fever can both be fatal, and Zika, when contracted by a pregnant woman, can infect her fetus and cause devastating birth defects, including a condition called microcephaly. Babies born with this condition have abnormally small heads and lack proper brain development, which leads to profound, lifelong disabilities.
Decades of efforts to eradicate the disease-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito from the Keys and other tropical locales have had limited impact. Since the advent of pesticides, homes and neighborhoods have been drenched with them, but after each spraying, the mosquito population quickly bounces back, and the pesticides have to be sprayed over and over. But thanks to genetic engineering, new approaches are underway that could possibly prove safer, cheaper and more effective than any pesticide.
One of those approaches involves, ironically, releasing more mosquitoes in the Florida Keys.
The kill-switch will ensure that the female offspring die before they reach maturity and thus, be unable to reproduce.
British biotech company Oxitec has engineered male mosquitoes to have a genetic "kill-switch" that could potentially crash the local population of Aedes aegypti, at least in the short-term. The modified males that are being released are intended to mate with wild females.
Males don't bite; it's the female that's deadly, always seeking out blood to gorge on to help mature her eggs. After settling her filament-thin legs on her prey, she sinks a needlelike proboscis into the skin and sucks the blood until her translucent belly is bloated and glowing red.
The kill-switch will ensure that the female offspring die before they reach maturity and thus, be unable to reproduce. In some experiments using genetically modified mosquitoes, the small number of females that survived were rendered unable to bite. The modification prevented the proboscis, the sickle-like needle that pierces the skin, from forming properly. But this isn't the case with Oxitec's mosquitoes; in the Oxitec release, the females simply die off before they can mate.
The modified mosquitoes are the second genetically engineered insect to be released in the U.S. by Oxitec. The first was a modified diamondback moth, an agricultural pest that doesn't bite humans. But with the mosquitoes, there are many questions about the long-term effects on wild ecosystems, other species in the food chain, and human health. With the Keys initiative, there has been vociferous opposition from environmental groups and some local residents, but some scientists and public health experts say that genetically modified insects pose less of a risk than the diseases they carry and the powerful, indiscriminant pesticides used to combat them.
Oxitec spent a decade developing the technology and engaging in a massive public education campaign before beginning the field test in April. Eventually, the company will release 750,000 of the insects from six locations on three islands of the Florida Keys. Although the release has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, the company was never able to obtain unanimous approval among local residents, some of whom worry that the experiment could cause irreversible damage to the ecosystem.
The company has already begun distributing multiple blue and white boxes containing the eggs of thousands of the mosquitoes which, when water is added, will hatch legions of modified males.
There are a number of techniques available to genetically engineer animals and plants to minimize disease and maximize crop yields. According to Kevin Gorman, chief development officer for Oxitec, the company's mosquitoes were altered by injecting genetic material into the eggs, testing them, then re-injecting them if not enough of the new genes were incorporated into the developing embryos. "We insert genes, but take nothing away," he says.
Gorman points out that the Oxitec mosquitoes will only pass the kill-switch genes on to some of their offspring, and that they will die out fairly quickly. They should temporarily lessen diseases by reducing the local population of Aedes aegypti, but to have a long-term effect, repeated introductions of the altered mosquitoes would have to take place.
Critics say the Oxitec experiment is a precursor to a far more consequential, and more troubling development: the introduction of gene drives in modified species that aggressively tilt inheritance factors in a decided direction.
Gene drives coupled with the recent development of the gene-editing technique, CRISPR-Cas9, promise to be far more targeted and powerful than previous gene altering efforts. Gene drives override the normal laws of inheritance by harnessing natural processes involved in reproduction. The technique targets small sections of the animal's DNA and replaces it with an altered allele, or trait-determining snippet. Normally, when two members of a species mate, the offspring have a 50 percent chance of receiving an allele because they will receive one from each parent. But in a gene drive, each offspring ends up getting two copies of a desired allele from a single parent—the modified parent. The method "drives" the modified DNA into up to 100 percent of the animals' offspring.
In the case of gene drive mosquitoes, the modified males will mate with wild females. Upon fertilization of the egg, the offspring will start off with one copy of the targeted allele from each parent. But an enzyme, called Cas9, is introduced and acts as a kind of molecular scissors to cut, or damage, the "wild" allele. Then the developing embryo's genetic repair mechanisms kick in and, to repair the damage, copy the undamaged allele from the modified parent. In this way, the offspring ends up with two copies of the modified allele, and it will pass the modification on to virtually all of its progeny.
There is some debate among researchers and others about what constitutes a gene drive, but leaders in the nascent field, such as Andrea Crisanti, generally agree that the defining factor is the heritability of a change introduced into a species. A gene drive is not a particular gene or suite of genes, but a program that proliferates in a species because it is inherited by virtually all offspring.
An illustration of how gene drives spread an altered gene through a population.
Mariuswalter, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Of the experts who spoke with Leaps.org for this article, there was disagreement on whether the Oxitec mosquitoes carry a gene drive, but Gorman says they don't because they carry no inheritance advantage. The mosquitoes have baked-in limitations on their potential impact on the tropical ecosystem because the kill-switch should only temporarily affect the local population of Aedes aegypti. The modified mosquitoes will die pretty quickly. But modified organisms that do carry gene drives have the potential to spread widely and persist for an unknown period of time.
Since it has such a reproductive advantage, animals modified by CRISPR and carrying gene drives can quickly replace wild species that compete with them. On the other hand, if the gene drive carries a kill-switch, it can theoretically cause a whole species to collapse.
This makes many people uneasy in an age of mass extinctions, when animals and ecosystems are already under extreme stress due to climate change and the ceaseless destruction of their habitats. Ecosystems are intricate, delicately balanced mosaics where one animal's competitor is another animal's food. The interconnectedness of nature is only partially understood and still contains many mysteries as to what effects human intervention could eventually cause.
But there's a compelling case to be made for the use of gene drives in general. Economies throughout the world are often based on the ecosystem and its animals, which rely on a natural food chain that was evolved over billions of years. But diseases carried by mosquitoes and other animals cause massive damage, both economically and in terms of human suffering.
Malaria alone is a case in point. In 2019, the World Health Organization reported 229 million cases of malaria, which led to 449,000 deaths worldwide. Over 70 percent of those deaths were in children under the age of 12. Efforts to combat malaria-carrying mosquitoes rely on fogging the home with chemical pesticides and sleeping under pesticide-soaked nets, and while this has reduced the occurrence of malaria in recent years, the result is nowhere near as effective as eradicating the Anopheles gambiae mosquito that carries the disease.
Pesticides, a known carcinogen for animals and humans, are a blunt instrument, says Anthony Shelton, a biologist and entomologist at Cornell University. "There are no pesticides so specific that they just get the animal you want to target. They get pollinators. They get predators and parasites. They negatively affect the ecosystem, and they get into our bodies." And it's not uncommon for insects to develop resistance to pesticides, necessitating the continuous development of new, more powerful chemicals to control them.
"The harm of insecticides is not debatable," says Shelton. With gene drives, the potential harm is less clear.
Shelton also points out that although genetic modification sounds radical, people have been altering the genes of animals since before recorded history, through the selective breeding of farm and domesticated animals. While critics of genetic modification decry the possibility of changing the trajectory of evolution in animals, "We've been doing it for centuries," says Shelton. "Gene drives are just a much faster way to do what we've been doing all along."
Still, one might argue that farms are closed experiments, because animals enclosed within farms don't mate with wild animals. This limits the impact of human changes on the larger ecosystem. And getting new genes to work their way through multiple generations in longer-lived animals through breeding can take centuries, which imposes the element of time to ascertain the relative benefits of any introduced change. Gene drives fast-forward change in ways that have never been harnessed before.
The unique thing about gene drives, Shelton says, is that they only affect the targeted species, because those animals will only breed with their own species. Although the Oxitec mosquitoes are modified but not imbued with a gene drive, they illustrate the point. Aedes aegypti will only mate with its own species, and not with any of the other 3,000 varieties of mosquito. According to Shelton, "If they were to disappear, it would have no effect on the fish, bats and birds that feed on them." But should gene drives become widely used, this won't always be true of animals that play a larger part in the food chain. This will be especially true if gene drives are used in mammals.
One factor, cited by both proponents of gene drives and those who want a complete moratorium on them, is that once a gene drive is released into the wild, animals tend to evolve strategies to resist them. In a 2017 article in Nature, Philip Messer, a population geneticist at Cornell, says that gene drives create "the ideal conditions for resistant organisms to flourish."
Sometimes, when CRISPR is used and the Cas9 enzyme cuts an allele soon after egg fertilization, the animal's repair mechanism, rather than creating a straight copy of the desired allele, inserts random DNA letters. The gene drive won't recognize the new sequence, and the change will slip through. In this way, nature has a way of overriding gene drives.
In caged experiments using CRISPR-modified mosquitoes, while the gene drive initially worked, resistance has developed fairly rapidly. Scientists working for Target Malaria, the massive anti-malaria enterprise funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are now working on developing a new version of a gene drive that is not so vulnerable to genetic resistance. But cage conditions are not representative of complex natural ecosystems, and to figure out how a modified species is going to affect the big picture, ultimately they will have to be tested in the wild.
Because there are so many unknowns, such testing is just too dangerous to undertake, according to environmentalists such as Dana Perls of the Friends of the Earth, an international consortium of environmental organizations headquartered in Amsterdam. "There's no safe way to experiment in the wild," she says. "Extinction is permanent, and to drive any species to extinction could have major environmental problems. At a time when we're seeing species disappearing at a high rate, we need to focus on safe processes and a slow approach rather than assume there's a silver bullet."
She cites a number of possible harmful outcomes from genetic modification, including the possible creation of dangerous hybrids that could be more effective at spreading disease and more resistant to pesticides. She points to a 2019 paper in Scientific Reports in which Yale researchers suggested there's evidence that genetically modified species can interbreed with organisms outside their own species. The researchers claimed that when Oxitec tested its modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Brazil, the release resulted in a dangerous hybrid due to the altered animals breeding with two other varieties of mosquito. They suggested that the hybrid mosquito was more robust than the original gene drive mosquitoes.
The paper contributed to breathless headlines in the media and made a big splash with the anti-GMO community. However, it turned out that when other scientists reviewed the data, they found it didn't support the authors' claims. In a short time, the editors of Nature ran an Editorial Expression of Concern for the article, noting that of the insects examined by the researchers, none of them contained the transgenes of the released mosquitoes. Among multiple concerns, Nature found that the researchers didn't follow the released population for more than a short time, and that previous work from the same authors had shown that after a short time, transgenes would have faded from the population.
Of course, unintended consequences are always a concern any time we interfere with nature, says Michael Montague, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Health Security. "Unpredictability is part of living in the world," he says. Still, he's relatively comfortable with the limited Florida Keys release.
"Even if one type of mosquito was eliminated in the Keys, the ecosystem wouldn't notice," he says. This is because of the thousands of other species of mosquito. He says that while the Keys initiative is ultimately a test, "Oxitec has done their due diligence."
Montague addressed another concern voiced by Perls. The Oxitec mosquitoes were developed so that the female larvae will only hatch in water containing the antibiotic tetracycline. Perls and others caution that, because of the widespread use of antibiotics, the drug inevitably makes its way into the water system, and could be present in the standing pools of water that mosquitoes mate and lay their eggs in.
It's highly unlikely that tetracycline would exist in concentrations high enough to make any difference, says Montague. "But even if it did happen, and the modified females hatched out and mated with wild males, many of their offspring would inherit the modification and only be able to hatch in tetracycline-laced water. The worst-case scenario would be that the pest control didn't work. Net effect: Zero," he says.
As for comparing GMO mosquitoes with insecticides, Montague says, "We 100 percent know insecticides have a harmful effect on human health, whereas modified [male] mosquitoes don't bite humans. They're essentially a chemical-free insecticide, and if there were to be some harmful effect on human health, it would have to be some complicated, convoluted effect" that no one has predicted.
It's not clear, though, given the transitory nature of self-limiting genetically modified insects, whether any effects on the ecosystem would be long-lasting. Certainly in the case of the Oxitec mosquitoes, any effect on the environment would likely be subtle. However, there are other species that are far more important to the food chain, and humans have been greatly impacting them for centuries, sometimes with disastrous effects.
The world's oceans are particularly vulnerable to the effects of human actions. "Codfish used to dominate the North Atlantic ecosystem," says Montague, but due to overfishing, there were huge changes to that ecosystem, including the expansion of their prey—lobsters, crabs and shrimp. The whole system got out of balance." The fish illustrate the international nature of the issues related to gene drives, because wild species have few boundaries and a change in one region can easily spread far and wide.
On the other hand, gene drives can be used for beneficial purposes beyond eliminating disease-carrying species. They could also be used to combat invasive species, fight crop-destroying insects, promote biodiversity, and give a leg up to endangered species that would otherwise die out.
Today nearly 90 percent of the world's islands have been invaded by disease-carrying rodents that have over-multiplied and are driving other island species to extinction. Common rodents such as rats and mice normally encounter a large number of predators in mainland territories, and this controls their numbers. Once they are introduced into island ecosystems, however, they have few predators and often become invasive. Because of this, they are a prevalent cause of the extinction of both animals and plants globally. The primary way to combat them has been to spread powerful toxicants that, when ingested, cause death. Not only has this inhumane practice had limited impact, the toxicants can be eaten by untargeted species and are toxic to humans.
The Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents program (GBIRd), an international consortium of scientists, ethicists, regulatory experts, sociologists, conservationists and others, is exploring the possible development of a genetically modified mouse that could be introduced to islands where rodents are invasive. Similar to the Oxitec mosquitoes, the mice would carry a modification that results in the appearance of only one sex, and they would also carry a gene drive. Theoretically, once they mate with the wild mice, all of the surviving offspring would be either male or female, and the species would disappear from the islands, giving other, threatened species an opportunity to revive.
GBIRd is moving slowly by design and is currently focused on asking if a genetically engineered mouse should be developed. The program is a potential model for how gene drives can be ethically developed with maximum foresight and the least impact on complex ecosystems. By first releasing a genetically engineered mouse on an island — likely years from now — the impact would naturally be contained within a limited locale.
Regulating GM Insects
While multiple agencies in the U.S. were involved in approving the release of the Oxitec mosquitoes, most experts agree that there is not a straightforward path to regulating genetically modified organisms released into the environment. Clearly, international regulation is needed as genetically modified organisms are released into open environments like the air and the ocean.
The United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity, which oversees environmental issues at an international level, recently met to continue a process of hammering out voluntary protocols concerning gene drives. Multiple nations have already signed on to already-established protocols, but the United States has not and, according to Montague, is not expected to. "The U.S. will never be signatory to CBD agreements because agricultural companies are huge businesses" that may not see them as in their best interests, he says. Bans or limitations on the release of genetically modified organisms could limit crop yields, for example, thereby limiting profits.
Even if every nation signed on to international regulations of gene drives, cooperation is voluntary. The regulations wouldn't prevent bad actors from using the technology in nefarious ways, such as developing gene drives that can be used as weapons, according to Perls. An example would be unleashing a genetically modified invasive insect to destroy the crops of enemy nations. Or the releasing of a swarm of disease-carrying insects. But in this scenario, it would be very hard to limit the genetically modified species to a specific environment, and the bad actors could be unleashing disaster on themselves.
Because of the risks of misuse, scientists disagree on whether to openly share their gene drive research with others. But Montague believes that there should be a universal registry of gene drives, because "one gene drive can mess up another one. Two groups using the same species should know about each other," he says.
Ultimately, the decision of whether and when to release gene drives into nature rests with not one group, but with society as a whole. This includes not only diverse experts and regulatory bodies, but the general public, a group Oxitec spent considerable time and resources interacting with for their Florida Keys project. In the end, they gained approval for the initiative by a majority of Keys residents, but never gained a total consensus.
There's no escaping the fact that the use of gene drives is a nascent field, and even geneticists and regulators are still grapping with the best ways to develop, oversee, regulate, and control them. Much more data is needed to fully ascertain its risks and benefits.
Experts agree that the Oxitec venture isn't likely to have a noticeable effect on the larger ecosystem unless something truly catastrophic goes wrong. But following the GMO mosquitoes over time will give scientists more real-world data about the long-term effects of genetically altered species. If the release doesn't work, nothing about the ecosystem will change and Aedes aegypti will continue to be a menace to human health. But if something goes horribly wrong, it could hinder the field for years, if not forever.
On the other hand, if the Oxitec mosquitoes and other early initiatives achieve their goals of reducing disease, increasing crop yields, and protecting biodiversity, in the words of Anthony Shelton, "Maybe, 25 to 50 years from now, people will wonder what all the fuss was about."
Correction: The original version of this article mistakenly stated that the modified Oxitec mosquitoes would not be able to form a proper proboscis to bite humans. That is true for some modified mosquitoes but not the Oxitec ones, whose female offspring die off before they reach maturity. Additionally, the Oxitec release was not approved by the FDA and CDC, as originally stated. The FDA and CDC withdrew their role and passed the oversight to other regulatory entities.
Rochelle "Shelley" Buffenstein has one of the world's largest, if not the largest, lab-dwelling colonies of the naked mole rat. (No one has done a worldwide tabulation, but she has 4,500 of them.) Buffenstein has spent decades studying the little subterranean-dwelling rodents. Over the years, she and her colleagues have uncovered one surprising discovery after another, which has led them to re-orient the whole field of anti-aging research.
Naked mole rats defy everything we thought we knew about aging. These strange little rodents from arid regions of Africa, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, live up to ten times longer than their size would suggest. And unlike virtually every other animal, they don't lose physical or cognitive abilities with age, and even retain their fertility up until the end of life. They appear to have active defenses against the ravages of time, suggesting that aging may not be inevitable. Could these unusual creatures teach humans how to extend life and ameliorate aging?
Buffenstein, who is senior principle investigator at Calico Life Sciences, has dedicated her life to finding out. Her early interest in the animals of what is now Zimbabwe led to her current position as a cutting-edge anti-aging researcher at Calico, the Google-funded health venture launched in 2013. The notoriously secretive company is focused on untangling the mysteries of why animals and people age, and whether there are ways to slow or temporarily arrest the process.
The small, wrinkly animal, which lives in underground burrows in the hot, arid regions of Africa, is hardly the beauty queen of the mammalian kingdom. Furless, buck-toothed and tiny-eyed, the creatures look like they could use a good orthodontist, a protective suit of clothes and possibly, some spectacles to enhance their eyesight. But these rats more than make up for their unimpressive looks with their superlative ability to adapt to some of the most inhospitable conditions on earth.
Based on the usual rule that body size predicts lifespan, naked mole rats shouldn't live that long. After all, similarly-sized rodents like mice have a life expectancy of two years or less. But Buffenstein was one of the first scientists to recognize that naked mole rats live an extraordinarily long time, with her oldest animal approaching 39 years of age. In addition, they never become geriatric in the human sense, defying the common signs of aging — age-related diseases, cognitive decline and even menopause. In fact, the queens, or females that do all the breeding in a bee-like underground colony, remain fertile and give birth to healthy pups up until what would be considered very old age in humans. And the naked mole rat has other curious abilities, such as the ability to endure extreme low-oxygen, or hypoxic, conditions like those they encounter in their underground nests.
"One thing we've learned from these animals is that they stay healthy until the very end."
It's not that the naked mole rat isn't subject to the vicissitudes of life, or the normal wear and tear of biological processes. Over the years, Buffenstein and her colleagues have discovered that, while the process of oxidative stress — thought for 50 years to be the main cause of aging — occurs in the naked mole rat just as in any other animal, its damage does not accumulate with age. Oxidative stress occurs during normal cell metabolism when oxygen "free radicals" with one or more unpaired electrons wreak havoc on large cellular molecules, leaving microscopic debris in their wake that clogs up the gears of healthy cell function. Somehow, naked mole rats have an enhanced ability to clear out the damaged cells and molecules before they can set off the usual chain reaction of cell dysfunction and death, according to a 2013 paper in which Buffenstein is the lead author.
Oxidative stress is not the only factor known to be problematic in aging. Slowly accumulating damage to DNA typically leads to protein malfunction and improper folding. In humans and most other animals, these protein fragments can accumulate in cells and gum up the works. Only not so much in naked mole rats, which are able to maintain normal protein folding throughout their long life. After years of discoveries like these, Buffenstein has gradually reframed her focus from "what goes wrong to produce aging?" to "what goes right in the naked mole rat to help it defy the normal wear and tear of life?" Buffenstein's research suggests that the tiny mammals have a unique ability to somehow clear out damaged protein fragments and other toxic debris before they can cause disease and aging.
How She Got Here
Buffenstein ascribes her initial acquaintance with the naked mole rat to serendipity. Back in 1979, her postgraduate mentor Jenny Jarvis at the University of Cape Town in South Africa kept a small colony of rats in her office while studying the mechanisms that lead to the animals' unusual adaptive capabilities. It was Buffenstein's job to take care of them. Working with Jarvis, Buffenstein focused on understanding their unique adaptations to the extreme conditions of their natural habitat.
They studied the unusual behaviors regulating the rat colonies. For instance, they observed that designated "workers" dig the entire colony's underground tunnels and a single reproducing female breeds with only a small number of males. Buffenstein also examined how these animals are able to survive without the "sunshine hormone" — vitamin D — and their unusual modes of regulating their internal temperatures and converting food into energy. Though classified as mammals, the rodents simply don't conform to the mammalian handbook, having found ingenuous ways to alter their bodies and behavior that is fine-tuned to the scorching heat and aridity of their environment.
To escape the heat, they simply burrow underground and live in elaborate tunnels. To cope with the low-oxygen conditions underground, they slowed their metabolism and learned to live for extended periods of time in such hypoxic conditions that an ordinary animal would quickly suffocate. But it was slowly dawning on Buffenstein that the small creatures were exceptional in additional ways.
When Buffenstein got her first academic position at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Jarvis said she could take some of the naked mole rats with her. When she did, Buffenstein noticed that the animals were living far longer than similarly sized rodents. "At that stage, they were about ten years old. Little did I know how long they would eventually show us they could live," she says.
In 1997, after accepting a position at the City College of New York, Buffenstein moved to the U.S. and took her rat colony with her. There she was able to pursue an evolving narrative about the humble naked mole rat that continued to defy expectations. As the years passed, it was becoming more and more evident that her observations could have major implications for aging research. Eventually, she took a position at the Barshop Institute for Aging and Longevity Studies in San Antonio, Texas.
One early observation of Buffenstein's suggested that the species most often used in aging research—mice, roundworms, fruit flies and yeast—have short lifespans and poor defenses against aging. These animals provide important insights into how aging works, and have revealed possible targets for intervention. But they don't show what goes right in apparently non-aging animals like the naked mole rat.
Buffenstein's years of studying the rats has laid the foundation for a whole new perspective in aging research.
"My hypothesis," she says, "is that naked mole rats are very good at removing damaged macromolecules and cells, thereby maintaining homeostasis and cell and tissue function. All the repair pathways examined by us and others in the field point to more efficient repair and more rapid responses to damaging agents." These include things like free radicals and radiation.
Some researchers today are building on Buffenstein's foundational discoveries to home in on possible anti-aging mechanisms that lead to the extraordinary resilience of naked mole rats. University of Cambridge researcher and co-founder of the institution's Naked Mole-Rat Initiative, Ewan St. John Smith, is studying the animal's resistance to cancer.
In a 2020 paper published in Nature, Smith and his colleagues established that naked mole rats harbor cancer-causing genes, and these genes occasionally create cancer cells. But something in the rats shuts the multiplication process down before the cells can grow out of control and form tumors. Now, scientists want to know what mechanisms, exactly, are at play in preventing the cells from invading healthy tissues. Smith has hypothesized that the answer is somehow embedded in interactions in the cells' microenvironment.
He also thinks the animal's immune system could just be very effective at seeking out and destroying cancer cells. Several current cancer therapies work by boosting the body's immune system so it can attack and eliminate the toxic cells. It's possible that the naked mole rat's immune system naturally goes into hyper-drive when cancer cells appear, enabling it to nip the disease in the bud before tumors can form. A pharmacologist by training, Smith thinks that if there is some chemical mediator in the naked mole rat that supercharges its immune cells, perhaps that mediator can be synthesized in a drug to treat humans for cancer.
The naked mole rat's extreme tolerance to hypoxia could also play a role. "Interestingly," he says, "when cells become cancerous, they also become hypoxic, and naked mole rats are known to be very resistant to hypoxia.
He notes that a form of low-level hypoxia is also present in the bodies and brains of both aged mice and older humans. It's commonly seen in the brains of humans with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of age-related dementia. This suggests that hypoxia in humans — and in other mammals — may have a role to play in Alzheimer's and the aging process itself. Resistance to hypoxia could be why the naked mole rat, in Smith's words, "chugs along quite happily" in conditions that in humans are associated with disease and decline.
Smith cheerfully acknowledges his debt to Buffenstein for laying so much of the groundwork in a field rife with possible implications for anti-aging. "Shelley is amazing," he says. "Naked mole rats have a queen and I always refer to her as the queen of the naked mole rat world." In fact, Buffenstein gave Smith his first colony of rats, which he's since grown to about 150. "Some of them will still be around when I retire," he jokes.
Vera Gorbunova, a professor of biology and oncology at the University of Rochester who studies both longevity and cancer in naked mole rats, credits Buffenstein with getting others to study the animals for anti-aging purposes. Gorbunova believes that "cancer and aging go hand-in-hand" and that longer-lived animals have better, more accurate DNA repair.
Gorbunova is especially interested in the naked mole rat's ability to secrete a superabundance of a "super-sugar" molecule called hyaluronan, a ubiquitous additive to skin creams for its moisturizing effect. Gorbunova and others have observed that the presence of high concentrations of hyaluronan in the naked mole rat's extracellular matrix — the chemical-rich solution between cells — prevents the overcrowding of cells. This, perhaps, could be the key to the animal's ability to stop tumors from forming.
Hyaluronan is also present in the extracellular matrix of humans, but the naked mole rat molecule is more than five times larger than the versions found in humans or mice, and is thought to play a significant part in the animal's DNA repair. But just rubbing a cream containing hyaluronan over your skin won't stop cancer or aging. High concentrations of the substance in the extracellular matrix throughout your body would likely be needed.
Gorbunova notes that the naked mole rat offers a multitude of possibilities that could eventually lead to drugs to slow human aging. "I'm optimistic that there are many different strategies, because the naked mole rat likely has many processes going on that fight aging," she says. "I think that in a relatively short time, there will be bonafide treatments to test in animals. One thing we've learned from these animals is that they stay healthy until the very end."
So if naked mole rats don't become frail with age or develop age-related diseases, what does kill them? The answer, unfortunately, is usually other naked mole rats. Buffenstein has long noted that even though they live in highly cooperative colonies, they can be quite cantankerous when there's a disruption in the hierarchy, a sentiment echoed by Gorbunova. "Sometimes there are periods of peace and quiet, but if something happens to the queen, all hell breaks loose," she says. "If the queen is strong, everybody knows their place," but if the queen dies, the new queen is inevitably decided by violent competition.
To the casual observer, a strange, wrinkly rodent like the naked mole rat might seem to have little to teach us about ourselves, but Buffenstein is confident that her discoveries could have major implications for human longevity research. Today, at Calico's labs in San Francisco, she's focused entirely on the determining how anti-aging defense mechanisms in the rats could lead to similar defenses being stimulated or introduced in humans.
"The million-dollar question is, what are the mechanisms protecting against aging, and can these be translated into therapies to delay or abrogate human aging, too?"
Buffenstein fired up a new generation of scientists with multiple discoveries, especially the fundamental one that naked mole rats are subject to the same wear and tear over time as the rest of us, but somehow manage to reverse it. These days, the trailblazer is at work on untangling the molecular mechanisms involved in the animal's resistance to cardiac aging. On top of everything else, the small creature has a unique ability to fight off the scourge of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the industrialized world.
After all, the point is not to extend old age, but to slow down aging itself so that frailty and disability are compressed into a brief period after a long-extended period of vitality. By switching the focus from what goes wrong to mechanisms that defend against aging in the first place, the discoveries of Buffenstein and a new generation of researchers who are building on her groundbreaking research promise to be a driving force in the quest to extend not only life, but healthy, vigorous life in humans.
Mental illness is a dark undercurrent in the lives of tens of millions of Americans. According to the World Health Organization, about 450 million people worldwide have a mental health disorder, which cut across all demographics, cultures, and socioeconomic classes.
One area of research seems to herald the first major breakthrough in decades — hallucinogen-assisted psychotherapy.
The U.S. National Institute on Mental Health estimates that severely debilitating mental health disorders cost the U.S. more than $300 billion per year, and that's not even counting the human toll of broken lives, devastated families, and a health care system stretched to the limit.
However, one area of research seems to herald the first major breakthrough in decades — hallucinogen-assisted psychotherapy. Drugs like psilocybin (obtained from "magic mushrooms"), LSD, and MDMA (known as the club drug, ecstasy) are being tested in combination with talk therapy for a variety of mental illnesses. These drugs, administered by a psychotherapist in a safe and controlled environment, are showing extraordinary results that other conventional treatments would take years to accomplish.
But the therapy will likely continue to face an uphill legal battle before it achieves FDA approval. It is up against not only current drug laws (all psychedelics remain illegal on the federal level) and strict FDA regulations, but a powerful status quo that has institutionalized fear of any drug used for recreational purposes.
How We Got Here
According to researchers Sean Belouin and Jack Henningfield, the use of psychedelic drugs has a long and winding history. It's believed that hallucinogenic substances have been used in healing ceremonies and religious rituals for thousands of years. Indigenous people in the U.S., Mexico, and Central and South America still use distillations from the peyote cactus and other hallucinogens in their religious ceremonies. And psilocybin mushrooms, also capable of causing hallucinations, grow throughout the world and are thought to have been used for millennia.
But psychedelic drugs didn't receive much research until 1943, when LSD's psychoactive effects were discovered by chemist Albert Hoffman. Hoffman tested the compound he had discovered years earlier on himself and found that the drug had profound mind-altering effects. He made the drug available to psychiatrists who were interested in testing it out as an adjunct to talk therapy. There were no truly effective drugs at the time for mental illnesses, and psychiatrists early on saw the possibility of psychedelics providing a kind of emotional catharsis that might represent therapeutic breakthroughs for many mental conditions.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, psychedelic drugs saw an increase in use within psychology, according to a 2018 article in Neuropharmacology. During this time, research on LSD and other hallucinogens was the subject of over 1,000 scientific papers, six international conferences, and several dozen books. LSD was widely prescribed to psychiatric patients, and by 1958, Hoffman had identified psilocybin as the hallucinogenic in "magic mushrooms," which was also administered. By 1965 some type of hallucinogenic had been given to more than 40,000 patients.
Then came a sea change. Psychedelic drugs caught the public's attention and there was widespread experimentation. The association with Hippie counterculture alarmed many and led to a legal and cultural backlash that stigmatized psychedelics for decades to come. In the mid-1960s, psychedelics were designated Schedule 1 drugs in the U.S., meaning they were seen as having "no accepted medical use and a high potential of abuse." Schedule 1 also implied that the drugs were more dangerous than cocaine, methamphetamine, Vicodin, and oxycodone, a perception that was far from proven but became an institutionalized part of drug enforcement. Medical use ceased and research dwindled down to close to zero.
For years, research into hallucinogenic-assisted therapy was basically dormant, until the 1990s when interest started to revive. In the 2000s, the first modern clinical trials of psilocybin were done by Francisco Moreno at the University of Arizona and Matthew Johnson at Johns Hopkins. Scientists in the 2010s, including Robin Carhart-Harris, started studying the use of psychedelics in the treatment of major depressive disorder (MDD).
In small trials with these patients, results showed significant and long-term improvement (for at least six months) after only two episodes of psilocybin-assisted therapy. In several studies, the guided experience of administering one of the psychedelic drugs along with psychotherapy seemed to result in marked improvement in a variety of disorders, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction.
The drugs allowed patients to experience a radical reframing of reality, helping them to become "unstuck" from the anxious and negative tape loops that played in their heads. According to Michael Pollan, an American author and professor of journalism who wrote the book, "How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence," psychedelics allow patients to see their lives through a kind of wide angle, where boundaries vanish and they're able to experience "consciousness without self." This perspective is usually accompanied by profound feelings of oneness with the universe.
Pollan likens the effect to a fresh blanketing of snow over the deep ruts of unproductive thinking, which characterize depression and other mental disorders. Once the new snow has fallen, the ruts disappear and a new path can be chosen. Relief from symptoms comes immediately, and in numerous studies, is sustained for months.
In spite of growing evidence for the safety and efficacy of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, the practice has major hurdles to cross on its quest for FDA approval.
Some of the most influential studies have focused on testing the use of psilocybin to treat end-of-life anxiety in patients diagnosed with a terminal illness. In 2016, Stephen Ross and colleagues tested a single dose of psilocybin on 29 subjects with end-of-life anxiety due to a terminal cancer diagnosis. A control group received a niacin pill. The researchers reported that of the 29 receiving psilocybin, all of the patients had "immediate, substantial, and sustained clinical benefits," even after six months.
In spite of growing evidence for the safety and efficacy of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, the practice has major hurdles to cross on its quest for FDA approval. The National Institutes of Health is not currently supporting any clinical trials and the research relies on private sources of funding, often with small research organizations that cannot afford the high cost of clinical trials.
Given the controversial nature of the drugs, researchers in psychedelic-assisted therapies may be cautious about publicity. Leapsmag reached out to several leaders in the field but none agreed to an interview.
Still, interest is building in the combination of psychedelic drugs and psychotherapy for treatment-resistant mental illnesses. Two months ago, Johns Hopkins University launched a new psychedelic research center with an infusion of $17 million from private investors. The center will focus on psychedelic-assisted therapies for opioid addiction, Alzheimer's disease, PTSD and major depression, to name just a few. Currently, of 51 cancer patients enrolled in a Hopkins study, more than half reported a decrease in depression and anxiety after receiving therapy with psilocybin. Two thirds even claimed that the experience was one of the most meaningful of their lives.
It is not unheard of for Schedule 1 drugs to make their way into medical use if they're shown to provide a bonafide improvement in a medical condition through well-designed clinical trials. MDMA, for example, has been designated a Breakthrough Therapy by the FDA as part of an Investigational New Drug Application. The FDA has agreed to a special protocol assessment that could speed up phase three clinical trials. The next step is for the data to be submitted to the FDA for an in-depth regulatory review. If the FDA agrees, MDMA-assisted therapy could be legalized.
Will the positive buzz around psychedelics persuade the NIH to provide the millions of dollars needed to push the field forward?
Robin Carhart-Harris believes the first drug that will receive FDA clearance is psilocybin, which he speculates could become legal in the next five to ten years. However, the field of psychedelic-assisted therapy needs more and larger clinical trials, preferably with the support of the NIH.
As Rucker and colleagues noted, the scientific literature bends toward the theme that the drugs are not necessarily therapeutic in and of themselves. It's the use of hallucinogens within a "psychologically supportive context" with a trained expert that's helpful. It's currently unknown how many users of recreational drugs are self-medicating for depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses. But without the guidance of a knowledgeable psychotherapist, those who are self-medicating may not be helping themselves at all.
Will the positive buzz around psychedelics persuade the NIH to provide the millions of dollars needed to push the field forward? Given the changing climate in public opinion around these drugs and the need for breakthroughs in mental health therapies, it's possible that in the foreseeable future, this bold new therapy will become part of the mental health arsenal.