Sammy Basso has some profound ideas about fate. As long as he has been alive, he has known he has minimal control over his own. His parents, however, had to transition from a world of unlimited possibility to one in which their son might not live to his 20s.
"I remember very clearly that day because Sammy was three years old," his mother says of the day a genetic counselor diagnosed Sammy with progeria. "It was a devastating day for me."
But to Sammy, he has always been himself: a smart kid, interested in science, a little smaller than his classmates, with one notable kink in his DNA. In one copy of the gene that codes for the protein Lamin A, Sammy has a T where there should be a C. The incorrect code creates a toxic protein called progerin, which destabilizes Sammy's cells and makes him age much faster than a person who doesn't have the mutation. The older he gets, the more he is in danger of strokes, heart failure, or a heart attack. "I am okay with my situation," he says from his home in Tezze sul Brenta, Italy. "But I think, yes, fate has a great role in my life."
Just 400 or so people in the world live with progeria: The mutation that causes it usually arises de novo, or "of new," meaning that it is not inherited but happens spontaneously during gestation. The challenge, as with all rare diseases, is that few cases means few treatments.
"When we first started, there was absolutely nothing out there," says Leslie Gordon, a physician-researcher who co-founded the Progeria Research Foundation in 1999 after her own son, also named Sam, was diagnosed with the disease. "We knew we had to jumpstart the entire field, so we collected money through road races and special events and writing grants and all sorts of donors… I think the first year we raised $75,000, most of it from one donor."
"We have not only the possibility but the responsibility to make the world a better world, and also to make a body a better body."
By 2003, the foundation had collaborated with Francis Collins, a geneticist who is now director of the National Institutes of Health, to work out the genetic basis for progeria—that single mutation Sammy has. The discovery led to interest in lonafarnib, a drug that was already being used in cancer patients but could potentially operate downstream of the mutation, preventing the buildup of the defective progerin in the body. "We funded cellular studies to look at a lonafarnib in cells, mouse studies to look at lonafarnib in mouse models of progeria… and then we initiated the clinical trials," Gordon says.
Sammy Basso's family had gotten involved with the Progeria Research Foundation through their international patient registry, which maintains relationships with families in 49 countries. "We started to hear about lonafarnib in 2006 from Leslie Gordon," says Sammy's father, Amerigo Basso, with his son translating. "She told us about the lonafarnib. And we were very happy because for the first time we understood that there was something that could help our son and our lives." Amerigo used the Italian word speranza, which means hope.
Still, Sammy wasn't sure if lonafarnib was right for him. "Since when I was very young I thought that everything happens for a reason. So, in my mind, if God made me with progeria, there was a reason, and to try to heal from progeria was something wrong," he says. Gradually, his parents and doctors, and Leslie Gordon, convinced him otherwise. Sammy began to believe that God was also the force behind doctors, science, and research. "And so we have not only the possibility but the responsibility to make the world a better world, and also to make a body a better body," he says.
Sammy Basso and his parents.
Courtesy of Basso
Sammy began taking lonafarnib, with the Progeria Research Foundation intermittently flying him, and other international trial participants, to Boston for tests. He was immediately beset by some of the drug's more unpleasant side effects: Stomach problems, nausea, and vomiting. "The first period was absolutely the worst period of my life," he says.
At first, doctors prescribed other medicines for the side effects, but to Sammy it had as much effect as drinking water. He visited doctor after doctor, with some calling him weekly or even daily to ask how he was doing. Eventually the specialists decided that he should lower his dose, balancing his pain with the benefit of the drug. Sammy can't actually feel any positive effect of the lonafarnib, but his health measurements have improved relative to people with progeria who don't take it.
While they never completely disappeared, Sammy's side effects decreased to the point that he could live. Inspired by the research that led to lonafarnib, he went to university to study molecular biology. For his thesis work, he travelled to Spain to perform experiments on cells and on mice with progeria, learning how to use the gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 to cut out the mutated bit of DNA. "I was so excited to participate in this study," Sammy says. He felt like his work could make a difference.
In 2018, the Progeria Research Foundation was hosting one of their biennial workshops when Francis Collins, the researcher who had located the mutation behind progeria 15 years earlier, got in touch with Leslie Gordon. "Francis called me and said, Hey, I just saw a talk by David Liu from the Broad [Institute]. And it was pretty amazing. He has been looking at progeria and has very early, but very exciting data… Do you have any spaces, any slots you could make in your program for late breaking news?"
Gordon found a spot, and David Liu came to talk about what was going on in his lab, which was an even more advanced treatment that led to mice with the progeria mutation living into their senior mouse years—substantially closer to a normal lifespan. Liu's lab had built on the idea of CRISPR-Cas9 to create a more elegant genetic process called base editing: Instead of chopping out mutated DNA, a scientist could chemically convert an incorrect DNA letter to the correct one, like the search and replace function in word processing software. Mice who had their Lamin-A mutations corrected this way lived more than twice as long as untreated animals.
Sammy was in the audience at Dr. Liu's talk. "When I heard about this base editing as a younger scientist, I thought that I was living in the future," he says. "When my parents had my diagnosis of progeria, the science knew very little information about DNA. And now we are talking about healing the DNA… It is incredible."
Lonafarnib (also called Zokinvy) was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration this past November. Sammy, now 25, still takes it, and still manages his side effects. With luck, the gift of a few extra years will act as a bridge until he can try Liu's revolutionary new gene treatment, which has not yet begun testing in humans. While Leslie Gordon warns that she's always wrong about things like this, she hopes to see the new base editing techniques in clinical trials in the next year or two. Sammy won't need to be convinced to try it this time; his thinking on fate has evolved since his first encounter with lonafarnib.
"I would be very happy to try it," he says. "I know that for a non-scientist it can be difficult to understand. Some people think that we are the DNA. We are not. The DNA is a part of us, and to correct it is to do what we are already doing—just better." In short, a gene therapy, while it may seem like science fiction, is no different from a pill. For Sammy, both are a new way to think about fate: No longer something that simply happens to him.
Herman Taylor, director of the cardiovascular research institute at Morehouse college, got in touch with UnitedHealth Group early in the pandemic.
The very people who most require solutions to COVID are those who are least likely to be involved in the search to find them.
A colleague he worked with at Grady Hospital in Atlanta was the guy when it came to studying sickle cell disease, a recessive genetic disorder that causes red blood cells to harden into half-moon shapes, causing cardiovascular problems. Sickle cell disease is more common in African Americans than it is in Caucasians, in part because having just one gene for the disease, called sickle cell trait, is protective against malaria, which is endemic to much of Africa. Roughly one in 12 African Americans carry sickle cell trait, and Taylor's colleague wondered if this could be one factor affecting differential outcomes for COVID-19.
UnitedHealth Group granted Taylor and his colleague the money to study sickle cell trait in COVID, and then, as they continued working together, they began to ask Taylor his opinion on other topics. As an insurance company, United had realized early in the pandemic that it was sitting on a goldmine of patient data—some 120 million patients' worth—that it could sift through to look for potential COVID treatments.
Their researchers thought they had found one: In a small subset of 14,000 people who'd contracted COVID, there was a group whose bills were paid by Medicare (which the researchers took as a proxy for older age). The people in this group who were taking ACE inhibitors, blood vessel dilators often used to treat high blood pressure, were 40 percent less likely to be hospitalized than those who were not taking the drug.
The connection between ACE inhibitors and COVID hospitalizations was a correlation, a statistical association. To determine whether the drugs had any real effect on COVID outcomes, United would have to perform another, more rigorous study. They would have to assign some people to receive small doses of ACE inhibitors, and others to receive placebos, and measure the outcomes under each condition. They planned to do this virtually, allowing study participants to sign up and be screened online, and sending drugs, thermometers, and tests through the mail. There were two reasons to do it this way: First, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had been advising medical researchers to embrace new strategies in clinical trials as a way to protect participants during the pandemic.
The second reason was why they asked Herman Taylor to co-supervise it: Clinical trials have long had a diversity problem. And going virtual is a potential solution.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, COVID-19 has infected people of color at a rate of three times that of Caucasians (killing Black people at a rate 2.5 times as high, and Hispanic and American Indian or Alaska Native people at a rate 1.3 times as high). A number of explanations have been put forth to explain this disproportionate toll. Among them: higher levels of poverty, essential jobs that increase exposure, and lower quality or inadequate access to medical care.
Unfortunately, these same factors also affect who participates in research. People of color may be less likely to have doctors recommend studies to them. They may not have the time or the resources to hang out in a waiting room for hours. They may not live near large research institutions that conduct trials. The result is that new treatments, even for diseases that affect Latin, Native American, or African American populations in greater proportions, are studied mostly in white volunteers. The very people who most require solutions to COVID are those who are least likely to be involved in the search to find them.
Virtual trials can alleviate a number of these problems. Not only can people find and request to participate in these types of trials through their phones or computers, virtual trials also cover more costs, include a larger geographical range, and have inherently flexible hours.
"[In a traditional study] you have to go to a doctor's office to enroll and drive a couple of hours and pay $20 for parking and pay $15 for a sandwich in the hospital cafeteria and arrange for daycare for your kids and take time off of work," says Dr. Jonathan Cotliar, chief medical officer of Science37, a platform that investigators can hire to host and organize their trials virtually. "That's a lot just for one visit, much less over the course of a six to 12-month study."
Cotliar's data suggests that virtual trials' enhanced access seriously affects the racial makeup of a given study's participant pool. Sixty percent of patients enrolled in Science37 trials are non-Caucasian, which is, Cotliar says, "staggering compared to what you find in traditional site-based research."
But access is not the only barrier to including more people of color in clinical trials. There is also trust. When agreeing to sign up for research, undocumented immigrants may worry about finding themselves in legal trouble or without any medical support should something go wrong. In a country with a history of experimenting on African Americans without their consent, black people may not trust institutions not to use them as guinea pigs.
"A lot of people report being somewhat disregarded or disrespected once entering the healthcare system," Taylor says. "You take it all together, then people wonder, well, okay, this is how the system tends to regard me, yet now here come these people doing research, and they're all about getting me into their studies." Not so surprising that a lot of people may respond with a resounding "No thanks."
United's ACE inhibitor trial was notable for addressing both of these challenges. In addition to covering costs and allowing study subjects to participate from their own homes, it was being co-sponsored by a professor at Morehouse, one of the country's historic black colleges and universities (often abbreviated HBCUs). United was recruiting heavily in Atlanta, whose population is 52 percent African American. The study promised a thoughtful introduction to a more egalitarian future of medical research.
There's just one problem: It isn't going to happen.
This month, in preparation for the study, United reanalyzed their ACE inhibitor data with all the new patients who'd contracted COVID in the months since their first analysis. Their original data set had been concentrated in the Northeast, mostly New York City, where the earliest outbreak took place. In the 12 weeks it had taken them to set up the virtual followup study, epicenters had shifted. United's second, more geographically comprehensive sample had ten times the number of people in it. And in that sample, the signal simply disappeared.
"I was shocked, but that's the reality," says Deneen Vojta, executive vice president of enterprise research and development for UnitedHealth Group. "You make decisions based on the data, but when you get more data, more information, you might make a different decision. The answer is the answer."
There was no point in running a virtual ACE inhibitor study if a larger, more representative sample of people indicated the drug was unlikely to help anyone. Still, the model United had established to run the trial remains viable. Even as she scrapped the ACE inhibitor study, Vojta hoped not just to continue United's relationship with Dr. Taylor and Morehouse, but to formalize it. Virtual platforms are still an important part of their forthcoming trials.
If people don't believe a vaccine has been created with them in mind, then they won't take it, and it won't matter whether it exists or not.
United is not alone in this approach. As phase three trials for vaccines against SARS CoV-2 get underway, big pharma companies have been publicly articulating their own strategies for including more people of color in clinical trials, and many of these include virtual elements. Janelle Sabo, global head of clinical innovation, systems and clinical supply chain at Eli Lilly, told me that the company is employing home health and telemedicine, direct-to-patient shipping and delivery, and recruitment using social media and geolocation to expand access to more diverse populations.
Dr. Macaya Douoguih, Head of Clinical Development and Medical Affairs for Janssen Vaccines under Johnson & Johnson, spoke to Congress about this issue during a July hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. She said that the company planned to institute a "focused digital and community outreach plan to provide resources and opportunities to encourage participation in our clinical trials," and had partnered with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health "to understand how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting different communities in the United States."
But while some of these plans are well thought-out, others are concerningly nebulous, featuring big pronouncements but fewer tangible strategies. In that same July hearing, Massachusetts representative Joe Kennedy III (D) sounded like a frustrated teacher when admonishing four of the five leads of the present pharma companies (AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Moderna, and Pfizer) for not explaining exactly how they'd ensure diversity both in the study of their vaccines, and in their eventual distribution.
This matters: The uptake of the flu vaccine is 10 percentage points lower in both the African American and Hispanic communities than it is in Caucasians. A Pew research study conducted early in the pandemic found that just 54 percent of Black adults said they "would definitely or probably get a coronavirus vaccine," compared to 74 percent of Whites and Hispanics.
"As a good friend of mine, Dr. [James] Hildreth, president at Meharry, another HBC medical school, likes to say: 'A vaccine is great, but it is the vaccination that saves people,'" Taylor says. If people don't believe a vaccine has been created with them in mind, then they won't take it, and it won't matter whether it exists or not.
In this respect, virtual platforms remain an important first step, at least in expanding admittance. In June, United Health opened up a trial to their entire workforce for a computer game that could treat ADHD. In less than two months, 1,743 people had signed up for it, from all different socioeconomic groups, from all over the country. It was inching closer to the kind of number you need for a phase three vaccine trial, which can require tens of thousands of people. Back when they'd been planning the ACE inhibitor study, United had wanted 9,600 people to agree to participate.
Now, with the help of virtual enrollment, they hope they can pull off similarly high numbers for the COVID vaccine trial they will be running for an as-yet-unnamed pharmaceutical partner. It stands to open in September.
What if people could just survive on sunlight like plants?
The admittedly outlandish question occurred to me after reading about how climate change will exacerbate drought, flooding, and worldwide food shortages. Many of these problems could be eliminated if human photosynthesis were possible. Had anyone ever tried it?
Extreme space travel exists at an ethically unique spot that makes human experimentation much more palatable.
I emailed Sidney Pierce, professor emeritus in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of South Florida, who studies a type of sea slug, Elysia chlorotica, that eats photosynthetic algae, incorporating the algae's key cell structure into itself. It's still a mystery how exactly a slug can operate the part of the cell that converts sunlight into energy, which requires proteins made by genes to function, but the upshot is that the slugs can (and do) live on sunlight in-between feedings.
Pierce says he gets questions about human photosynthesis a couple of times a year, but it almost certainly wouldn't be worth it to try to develop the process in a human. "A high-metabolic rate, large animal like a human could probably not survive on photosynthesis," he wrote to me in an email. "The main reason is a lack of surface area. They would either have to grow leaves or pull a trailer covered with them."
In short: Plants have already exploited the best tricks for subsisting on photosynthesis, and unless we want to look and act like plants, we won't have much success ourselves. Not that it stopped Pierce from trying to develop human photosynthesis technology anyway: "I even tried to sell it to the Navy back in the day," he told me. "Imagine photosynthetic SEALS."
It turns out, however, that while no one is actively trying to create photosynthetic humans, scientists are considering the ways humans might need to change to adapt to future environments, either here on the rapidly changing Earth or on another planet. Rice University biologist Scott Solomon has written an entire book, Future Humans, in which he explores the environmental pressures that are likely to influence human evolution from this point forward. On Earth, Solomon says, infectious disease will remain a major driver of change. As for Mars, the big two are lower gravity and radiation, the latter of which bombards the Martian surface constantly because the planet has no magnetosphere.
Although he considers this example "pretty out there," Solomon says one possible solution to Mars' magnetic assault could leave humans not photosynthetic green, but orange, thanks to pigments called carotenoids that are responsible for the bright hues of pumpkins and carrots.
"Carotenoids protect against radiation," he says. "Usually only plants and microbes can produce carotenoids, but there's at least one kind of insect, a particular type of aphid, that somehow acquired the gene for making carotenoids from a fungus. We don't exactly know how that happened, but now they're orange... I view that as an example of, hey, maybe humans on Mars will evolve new kinds of pigmentation that will protect us from the radiation there."
We could wait for an orange human-producing genetic variation to occur naturally, or with new gene editing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9, we could just directly give astronauts genetic advantages such as carotenoid-producing skin. This may not be as far-off as it sounds: Extreme space travel exists at an ethically unique spot that makes human experimentation much more palatable. If an astronaut already plans to subject herself to the enormous experiment of traveling to, and maybe living out her days on, a dangerous and faraway planet, do we have any obligation to provide all the protection we can?
Probably the most vocal person trying to figure out what genetic protections might help astronauts is Cornell geneticist Chris Mason. His lab has outlined a 10-phase, 500-year plan for human survival, starting with the comparatively modest goal of establishing which human genes are not amenable to change and should be marked with a "Do not disturb" sign.
To be clear, Mason is not actually modifying human beings. Instead, his lab has studied genes in radiation-resistant bacteria, such as the Deinococcus genus. They've expressed proteins called DSUP from tardigrades, tiny water bears that can survive in space, in human cells. They've looked into p53, a gene that is overexpressed in elephants and seems to protect them from cancer. They also developed a protocol to work on the NASA twin study comparing astronauts Scott Kelly, who spent a year aboard the International Space Station, and his brother Mark, who did not, to find out what effects space tends to have on genes in the first place.
In a talk he gave in December, Mason reported that 8.7 percent of Scott Kelly's genes—mostly those associated with immune function, DNA repair, and bone formation—did not return to normal after the astronaut had been home for six months. "Some of these space genes, we could engineer them, activate them, have them be hyperactive when you go to space," he said in that same talk. "When we think about having the hubris to go to a faraway planet...it seems like an almost impossible idea….but I really like people and I want us to survive for a long time, and this is the first step on the stairwell to survive out of the solar system."
What is the most important ability we could give our future selves through science?
There are others performing studies to figure out what capabilities we might bestow on the future-proof superhuman, but none of them are quite as extreme as photosynthesis (although all of them are useful). At Harvard, geneticist George Church wants to engineer cells to be resistant to viruses, such as the common cold and HIV. At Columbia, synthetic biologist Harris Wang is addressing self-sufficient humans more directly—trying to spur kidney cells to produce amino acids that are normally only available from diet.
But perhaps Future Humans author Scott Solomon has the most radical idea. I asked him a version of the classic What would be your superhero power? question: What does he see as the most important ability we could give our future selves through science?
"The empathy gene," he said. "The ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and see the world as they see it. I think it would solve a lot of our problems."