You know you’re living in surreal times when your 10-year-old nephew uses the word “comorbidity” as easily as he discusses his favorite cartoon character. While the coronavirus pandemic has claimed more than 1.3 million lives and infected more than 55 million people worldwide, it has also forced a world otherwise entranced by 15-second dances and lip-syncs to recognize the unparalleled power of patient, rigorous medical science as the only way out of such crises. Over the past week, we’ve seen major advances toward a potential COVID-19 vaccine. Away from the limelight, scientists have also been developing pathbreaking treatments for lower-priority, but still life-threatening diseases and other medical challenges — therapies that might well seem inspired by science fiction. Today’s Daily Dose vaults you ahead to the next transformational leaps in medicine, and introduces you to the people driving them.
Charu Kasturi, Senior Editor
1. Timely Delivery
It’s far more efficient than the U.S. Postal Service — and it could save millions of lives. Researchers at leading pharma giants are using messenger RNA — or mRNA — technology as the delivery mechanism for their front-runner COVID-19 vaccines. On Monday, Moderna announced that initial results from phase 3 trials suggest that its vaccine has shown 94.5 percent efficacy. Pfizer last week released similar data that showed its vaccine had worked in 90 percent of cases. Both vaccines still need to undergo additional testing before they can seek emergency authorization to mass-produce the shots. But mRNA technology is the basis for a successful rabies vaccine, and it could fundamentally transform our fight against viruses. The mRNA mechanism does not need to be tweaked for each new virus, so success now could make it easier to battle the next coronavirus.
Same-sex couples are increasingly finding acceptance, both legally and societally, in different parts of the world. But there’s one thing they can’t do: become biological parents to the same child. That could change thanks to revolutionary advances in stem cell research. Scientists led by Dr. Wei Li of the Chinese Academy of Sciences are using gene-editing tool CRISPR to modify DNA in a way that allows two moms — or two dads — to produce children that share their genes. The scientists have had success with mice, but they caution it’ll be some time before it can be tested on humans. Meanwhile, Japanese researchers have shown they can artificially build eggs and sperm from other parts of the body. This approach, called in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), resulted in the birth of healthy and fertile mouse offspring from same-sex parents.
3. An End to Peanut Allergies?
For decades, millions of people — children in particular — have struggled with peanut allergies. More than 1.8 million American children and teens suffer from the allergy, and incidences went up 21 percent between 2010 and 2017. Traditionally, avoiding peanuts was the only option. But now at least four independent drugs for peanut allergies appear poised to hit the market in 2020 or 2021. The first among them, Palforzia, received FDA approval in January. Others in testing include a peanut patch and oral therapies. They expose users to low, controlled doses of peanut allergens, helping build tolerance. The drugs won’t cure peanut allergies, but they could eliminate the worst symptoms and prove the difference between life and death if someone with an allergy accidentally consumes something with peanuts.
Can you train the body to do something it’s never done? That’s what cancer vaccines hope to do. Unlike other infections, the body does not treat cancer cells as alien creatures, which is why the immune system doesn’t kick in to try to drive them out. In June, scientists in Australia unveiled a candidate vaccine that fuses human antibodies with a protein specific to individual tumors and could help tackle myeloma, leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple other malignancies like pancreatic cancer. Rather than prevent cancer, this immunization works after the patient is already ill, helping the immune system recognize diseased cells. Will it help jog the body’s memory when attacked by actual cancer cells? It’s a memory game unlike any other — with millions of lives at stake.
5. Hearts Will Beat On
… and without infections. Globally, more than 1.5 million people get cardiac implants each year. These foreign devices increase the risk of infection, and studies show that up to 4 percent of implant patients — 60,000 people each year — develop an infection that can lead to lengthy and expensive hospital stays. Up to 17 percent of infected patients, or 10,000 a year, can die. Innovators are creating a novel way to reduce infection risk: antibiotic envelopes that, when wrapped around electronic cardiac implants, ensure patients won’t become infected. At least two such envelopes — the TYRX and the CanGaroo — have received FDA approval.
Dengue kills up to 25,000 people and infects 390 million across 141 countries every year. Scientists have discovered a novel way to fight the disease: infecting mosquitoes with another bacteria, which competes with dengue reproduction and prevents the insects from passing the virus to people they bite. A landmark study in Indonesia showed that infecting mosquitoes with this bacteria reduced instances of dengue by 77 percent, which could translate into 19,000 lives being saved every year.
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If you don’t find this cancer-hunting geneticist in her Singapore lab, you’ll find the diving enthusiast seeking inspiration underwater. She’s leading a rare approach to predicting breast cancer by combining genetic markers, lifestyle factors such as obesity, and mammogram scans. In a way, Li is triangulating these three data sources to calculate the risk of cancer — much like GPS systems use telecom towers to pinpoint your location. But she must also battle social prejudices: Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women in Singapore, but because it’s considered a taboo topic, many women are reluctant to talk about it. Li wants to help them get ahead of the cancer — and take steps to best defend themselves when the disease comes calling.
2. Abasi Ene-Obong
The heavyset Nigerian knows he could get diabetes — it’s in his genes. What Ene-Obong doesn’t know, like millions of other Africans, is what specific factors make people from the continent more likely to develop diabetes or other diseases. Africa is home to more than 15 percent of the world’s population, yet only 2 percent of the genetic material used by pharma firms to design drugs comes from the continent — a shortcoming that means cutting-edge therapies often end up ignoring the specific needs of African patients. Ene-Obong, 35, is trying to fix that. His startup 54gene — named after Africa’s 54 countries — is building the world’s first bank of African DNA to support research that the West has long ignored. Founded last year, the company drew $15 million in series A funding in April and is poised to lead personalized medical treatment on the continent.
3. Isabel Van de Keere
When a steel light fixture fell on the Belgian biomedical engineer in 2010, it resulted in a cervical spine injury that required three years of intensive neurological rehabilitation. Today, Van de Keere is CEO of London-based Immersive Rehab, leading pathbreaking efforts to devise a virtual reality rehab experience. Now in clinical trials, the system is less monotonous and more engaging than traditional exercises aimed at rebuilding neural pathways, and collects data that helps doctors better track a patient’s improvement.