In the late 1650's the French polymath and renowned scientist Blaise Pascal, having undergone a religious experience that transformed him into something of a zealot, suggested the following logical strategy regarding belief in God: If there is a God, then believing in him will ensure you an eternity of bliss, while not believing in him could earn you an eternal sentence to misery.
On the other hand, if there is no God, believing in him anyway will cost you very little, and not believing in him will mean nothing in the non-existent after life. Therefore, the only sensible bet is to believe in God. This has come to be known as Pascal's wager.
It has a surprising number of applications beyond concerns for a comfortable afterlife. There are many things for which the value of believing something or not can be seen as a cost vs. likely benefit wager, often without regard to the actual truth of the matter. Since science does not profess to have a final truth, and in many areas freely admits its incomplete knowledge, Pascal's wager can provide a useful method of deciding between two alternatives.
For example, it seems that a significant percentage of the population is suspicious of science, or so we are told. We often hear that some large number, approaching or exceeding half of Americans, do not believe in evolution. This seems remarkable on the face of it because there is no viable scientific opposition to evolution and it is widely accepted by biologists and other life-scientists as being fundamental to understanding biology – from genetics to medicine.
What we are not often told is that most of those who answer negatively about believing in evolution nonetheless understand evolution – or at least the basics of it. They are not stupid, ignorant or uninformed. They have simply made a Pascalian wager. What benefit we might ask is derived from believing in evolution rather than a divine creation? Unless you are a professional biologist it is hard to see how this would affect your everyday life. On the other hand professing a belief in Darwinian evolution over the biblical narrative will likely ostracize you from family, friends, co-workers, your church community - in short most of your social infrastructure. Place your bets.
Can we apply any of this to decisions over the current controversy surrounding vaccination – and in particular the newly arrived Covid-19 vaccine?
While it is true that for entirely economic reasons, this is the first vaccine to be produced in this way, the method is not really new and the science that makes it possible has been developing over the last 40 years.
There are certainly reasons to be concerned about being vaccinated and it would be a gross over-simplification to consider anyone who expresses reticence about taking a vaccine, this new vaccine in particular, as being just plain dumb or scientifically illiterate or gullible. They need be none of these things and still may be suspicious of the vaccine.
One issue is safety. The vaccine, any vaccine, is designed to mobilize your immune system, essentially to fool it into believing that there is an invading virus present and to mount an immune response. That way it will be ready when the real invasion comes, if it comes. This seems pretty sensible and preferable to going to war with an opponent you know nothing about. But still, it is fooling around with Mother Nature and some people are uneasy about that. Although it must be pointed out that the virus is not at all shy about fooling around with your immune system and many other parts of you, so letting it have its way is not good policy either.
What about a vaccine made of genes? This vaccine is being produced by what is being touted as a new method using RNA – genes. While it is true that for entirely economic reasons, this is the first vaccine to be produced in this way, the method is not really new and the science that makes it possible has been developing over the last 40 years. So it's not so radical as the press makes it seem.
But it is true that this method uses RNA, genetic material, to make the vaccine. We hear a lot about gene modification and the potential dangers associated with it. Why then am I going to allow RNA, genes, to be injected into me? The first thing to realize is that this is exactly what the virus does – so whether you get a vaccine or an infection, you are getting genes injected into you. The virus RNA encodes around 12 functional genes (by comparison humans and other mammals have around 25,000 genes). The virus only contains the genes to make a new virus – it does not have any of the capabilities of a normal cell to actually turn those genes into the proteins that make up the complete virus. It hijacks your cells to do this – and that's how it sickens you, by forcing your cells to make new viruses instead of what they should be doing.
Now the new vaccines have taken just one of those genes – the one that directs the production of the now infamous spike protein that appears on the surface of a normal virus – and injects just that one gene into your muscle cells, which then make that one single protein. Your immune system comes along and sees that weird protein and makes antibodies to it. These same antibodies will now recognize the spike protein on the surface of any viral particles that invade your body. We have effectively turned the virus into its own enemy.
The viral RNA that you are getting will decompose over a few days because RNA is not a stable molecule (that, by the way, is why the vaccine needs to be kept frozen) and it will no longer exist in your body. It could only become a permanent part of your genome if it were a DNA molecule instead of an RNA molecule – and even the chances of that happening would be chemically remote. So regardless of how it sounds, this may actually be the safest sort of vaccine to use. In the future it is likely that all vaccines will be made this way.
Then, of course, there is the issue of who is running this whole vaccine program – the government and the pharmaceutical industry. These are the guys who brought you opioid addiction, death by Vioxx, soaring drug prices, the worst health care system in the developed world, regulations where you don't need them and none where you do – am I really going to trust this cast of so-called "inept villains," as some believe, to dictate my personal health choices? Do we know for sure that the claims of efficacy are real or just made up to sell some worthless procedure? It would not be the first time. (I would not, on the other hand, worry about Bill Gates having a chip inserted into you along with the vaccine – if you use any social media, navigational tools, or purchase anything online, then Bill Gates already knows more about you than he will get from any injectable chip. So that train has left the station.)
The main upside to vaccines is that because they use your already existing defense system, they are surprisingly safe.
The Vaccine Wager
All this and a few lesser issues are worth a pause for sure. But we must also look on the positive side of the ledger. Why trust science? Modern medicine and the science behind it has eliminated or dramatically lessened such scourges as smallpox, polio, cholera, chicken pox, measles, rabies and dozens of other killer pathogens that had previously wiped out enormous numbers of people, in some cases significant parts of entire generations. Don't we depend on science for much of the comfort and safety of our everyday lives? Isn't science the way we heat our homes, drive to work, fly around the world, have dependable food? Yes, there is the bomb – but there is also anesthesia.
When it comes to viruses, the only tool we have to fight them is vaccination. The only tool. Antibiotics are for bacteria, a completely different sort of creature. Sanitation beyond personal hand washing is ineffective. Vaccines trick the immune system into recognizing the virus earlier than it would otherwise and protect normal cells from invasion by the virus. Tricking the immune system is understandably problematic for people who believe that their body knows best if it's just kept healthy. This virus, as we have seen from the array of infected people that includes apparently healthy folks, unfortunately does not subscribe to that belief.
By a similar sort of reasoning, some people make the plausible error of calculating that the vaccine is 95% effective but the survival rate is 99%, so why not just let my natural resistance take care of this? Indeed, that might not be unreasonable thinking if we were talking about the common cold, but this virus has shown itself to be a tricky character and we are not yet able to predict who gets a serious case and who a mild one. With those sorts of stakes, you shouldn't wager on either of those numbers because they have nothing to do with you as an individual. Like flipping a coin, there is only a 1% chance of it coming up heads 6 times in a row. But if it has come up heads 5 times in a row the probability of it coming up heads on the next flip is … still 50/50.
An even larger unknown is whether there may be long-term effects associated with SARS-Cov-2, as is the case for many viruses. The 1918 influenza virus has been linked to a subsequent 2-3 fold increase in Parkinson's disease by a mechanism we still don't understand. The virus that gives children chicken pox will hide out in a person's body for 40 years or more and then emerge as a painful, sometimes debilitating, case of shingles. The 99% survivability rate of this virus is meaningless if 20 years from now it causes some devastating pulmonary or brain disease.
The main upside to vaccines is that because they use your already existing defense system, they are surprisingly safe. Safer than antibiotics which have numerous side effects because they are not part of our normal make up and are cell killers – mostly bacterial cells, but they are not so perfectly targeted that they don't leave some collateral damage in their wake. All drugs and treatments have side effects, but vaccines in general have the fewest. This vaccine in particular has undergone many more than the usual safety measures - multiple independent review boards, massive press and public attention, governmental and non-governmental oversight, the most diverse trial cohorts ever assembled. Nothing here was rushed, no shortcuts were taken.
So here's the vaccine wager. Vaccines are the safest medical procedure we have. They are also among the most effective, but that's curiously not important for the bet. My claim about their safety is because vaccines are in a special class of medical tools. They are the only medical procedure or drug that is given to healthy people. Every other treatment we use medically is aimed at some existing pathology - from a cold to cancer.
Vaccines therefore have to reach a higher standard of safety than any other medical treatment. You can't take healthy people and make them sick. Vaccines have fewer side effects than virtually any other drug you wouldn't even think twice about taking – aspirin, for instance, which can cause internal bleeding, gastric ulcers, stroke. But since you are sick when you take those drugs you are willing to make the bet that the benefits will outweigh the possible side effects.
With vaccines the wager is much simpler – it is indeed more like Pascal's original wager. It may or may not be highly effective (some vaccines are only 60% effective) but they are so safe that taking them poses little risk, whereas not taking them subjects you (and others) to considerable risk, i.e., getting the virus. Like believing or not in an afterlife, the smart money is with Pascal, who I think would have reasoned himself right to the head of the vaccination line.
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."