Editor's Note: A team of researchers in Italy recently used artificial intelligence and machine learning to diagnose Alzheimer's disease on a brain scan an entire decade before symptoms show up in the patient. While some people argue that early detection is critical, others believe the knowledge would do more harm than good. LeapsMag invited contributors with opposite opinions to share their perspectives.
I first realized something was wrong with my dad when I came home for Thanksgiving 20 years ago.
I hadn't seen my family for more than a year after moving from New York to California. My father was meticulous, a multi-shower a day man, a regular Beau Brummell. He was never officially diagnosed with dementia, but it was easy to figure out after he stopped leaving the house, stopped reading, stopped being himself. My mother knew, but she never sought help. After his illness showed itself, I asked her if she considered a nursing home. "Never," she told me. "I can take care of him." And she did.
She gave herself a break once to visit me, and it was the first time she traveled separately from him since they eloped at seventeen. My brother watched my father, and it was not smooth. Dad was angry, hallucinating, and demanding his gun, which had been disposed of long ago. While Mom was visiting me in California, we played some board games. One demanded honest answers. The card read, What are you most afraid of? "Dementia," she said.
My father never saw this coming, none of us did.
Dementia ran on my mother's side. Her mother, my Nana, was senile, the popular diagnosis for older folks back then. My grandfather tried his hardest to take care of her, but she kept escaping their tidy 6th floor apartment to run away. My mother would go over every day to take care of them, but once my grandfather became ill, she took her mother into our apartment. She had two small children, Nana, and her husband in a two-bedroom flat. Nana talked to people under plates, wore tissues on her head, and tried to escape. We were on the first floor, so she could run into traffic if all eyes weren't on her. Soon, it was too much, even for my Wonder Woman mom. Nana was placed in a nursing home and died soon after.
My mother dropped dead on a NYC sidewalk two years after my father started to deteriorate. She was probably going to the store to buy milk and cigarettes. A kind stranger called 911, and a cop came to my parent's door soon after to tell my dad the news. My father cried for death, raged and ranted, then calmed down enough to come back as the dad we remembered for the week of mourning. He even ordered a Manhattan at dinner. His death came exactly a week and an hour after my mother's. He died of a broken heart. My husband cried with all his body after we left the cemetery, weeping, "Poor Buck. Poor Buck." I never saw him cry before.
Now, 18 years later, I sit here with my husband, 59 years old, as he suffers from the same hideous disease.
He is talking to someone I can't see, even laughing with him. He holds a Ph.D. in literature, taught college, had a single handicap golf game, and ate well. We never saw this coming. One day he went to type and jumbled letters came on the screen. He would show up late or early for his classes, wondering what was wrong with the students. He started running red lights. He was graciously counseled to retire, and he did, at 55. His doctor told him it was depression. The second opinion agreed. He was told to do nothing for a year, and he did. He played golf a bit, then one day he couldn't speak or think clearly. I came home from work to find him roaming the neighborhood, eyes ablaze, muttering to himself. I went on family leave. Many tests later we got the working diagnosis, but it meant nothing to him. He never reacted to the words Primary Progressive Aphasia or dementia. I was glad. If he was lucid, I knew what he would talk about doing. He told me after my dad's death that he did not want that life for himself.
I worry I may get it, too. It almost seems inescapable. Dementia has no cure, and the treatments for the symptoms are hit and miss. I thought about getting the full flight of predictive tests, but I know myself, and I scare myself into bracing for the worst. Others scare me, too, when I read their online statements about ending their lives if they learn they have it: I told my children to take me to a state where assisted suicide is legal; it's easy to overdose; I don't want to be a burden on my children. These are caregivers on social media forums. They live with the terror, eyes wide open. We have no children, but who would I burden? My sisters? My brother? Do I stay or do I go? This disease invites pandemonium. Assisted murder-suicides with caregiver spouses of those with dementia don't merit headlines, but their stories are on the sidebars. No thanks. I work on God's timeline.
There are no survivors – yet.
A diagnosis today would paralyze me and create melancholy for all who know me. I would second guess everything, I would read everything, I would cry, I would hardly live. I would be tempted to pick up that first drink after 20 plus years sober. I would even think about ending my life. It would be difficult not to consider. As a high school English teacher, I talk about suicide when I teach Hamlet. I tell the students suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Dementia isn't temporary. There are no survivors – yet.
I often think what my relatives would have done with an advance diagnosis. My grandmother was a classic worrier. She would have been beyond distraught. My father might have found that gun. My husband would have taken the right number of pills.
An advance diagnosis would paralyze me.
I appreciate the arguments for early diagnosis. Some people are made of sterner stuff. They have the mindset I lack. I admire so many who are contributing to the current conversation about dementia and are active advocates for a cure. They have found a purpose in their fate.
I don't need a test to get my ducks in a row. Loving those with dementia has prompted me to be prepared. I have a different type of bucket list: reset my priorities, slow down, be present, educate others, and make my legal plans. If and when it happens, there will be time for toast and tea and a walk along the shore. There will be time to plan for the inevitable and unenviable end. I am morbid enough to know I will recognize the purple elephant in the room. I don't want the shock and awe now. I can wait. My sisters agree. We will keep our elbows out.
Editor's Note: Consider the other side of the argument here.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.