future frontiers

Promising developments underway include advancements in gene and cell therapy, better testing for COVID, and a renewed focus on climate change.

Antonio diCaterina/Unsplash

The world as we know it has forever changed. With a greater focus on science and technology than before, experts in the biotech and life sciences spaces are grappling with what comes next as SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness, has spread and mutated across the world.

Even with vaccines being distributed, so much still remains unknown.

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Dawn Reiss
Dawn Reiss is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for more than 40 outlets including TIME, The New York Times, Civil Eats, The Atlantic, Chicago Tribune, Fortune.com, USA Today and Reuters. You can find her at DawnReiss.com or @DawnReiss on Instagram and Twitter.

Scientists are experimenting with turning certain genes on and off to make cells better fight viral infection.

By srady/Adobe

Under the electronic microscope, the Ebola particles looked like tiny round bubbles floating inside human cells. Except these Ebola particles couldn't get free from their confinement.

They were trapped inside their bubbles, unable to release their RNA into the human cells to start replicating. These cells stopped the Ebola infection. And they did it on their own, without any medications, albeit in a petri dish of immunologist Adam Lacy-Hulbert. He studies how cells fight infections at the Benaroya Research Institute in Seattle, Washington.

These weren't just any ordinary human cells. They had a specific gene turned on—namely CD74, which typically wouldn't be on. Lacy-Hulbert's team was experimenting with turning various genes on and off to see what made cells fight viral infections better. One particular form of the CD74 gene did the trick. Normally, the Ebola particles would use the cells' own proteases—enzymes that are often called "molecular scissors" because they slice proteins—to cut the bubbles open. But CD74 produced a protein that blocked the scissors from cutting the bubbles, leaving Ebola trapped.

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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.
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Current research pipelines in biotech could take over a decade unless the heightened attention garners more resources, experts say.

Since March, 35 patients in the care of Dr. Gregory Jicha, a neurologist at the University of Kentucky, have died of Alzheimer's disease or related dementia.

Meanwhile, with 233 active clinical trials underway to find treatments, Jicha wonders why mainstream media outlets don't do more to highlight potential solutions to the physical, emotional and economic devastation of these diseases. "Unfortunately, it's not until we're right at the cusp of a major discovery that anybody pays attention to these very promising agents," he says.

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Matt Fuchs

Matt Fuchs is a health and science writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He has written on a variety of health topics, including profiles of older athletes defying their ages, for publications such as The Washington Post, The Washington Post Magazine, and Medium's The Startup. He is also a science fiction author. Follow him on Twitter, @fuchswriter.

Dr. Deborah Fuller, a professor of microbiology at the Washington University School of Medicine, in her lab.

© University of Washington. Used with Permission.

With several companies progressing through Phase III clinical trials, the much-awaited coronavirus vaccines may finally become reality within a few months.

But some scientists question whether these vaccines will produce a strong and long-lasting immunity, especially if they aren't efficient at mobilizing T-cells, the body's defense soldiers.

"When I look at those vaccines there are pitfalls in every one of them," says Deborah Fuller, professor of microbiology at the Washington University School of Medicine. "Some may induce only transient antibodies, some may not be very good at inducing T-cell responses, and others may not immunize the elderly very well."

Generally, vaccines work by introducing an antigen into the body—either a dead or attenuated pathogen that can't replicate, or parts of the pathogen or its proteins, which the body will recognize as foreign. The pathogens or its parts are usually discovered by cells that chew up the intruders and present them to the immune system fighters, B- and T-cells—like a trespasser's mug shot to the police. In response, B-cells make antibodies to neutralize the virus, and a specialized "crew" called memory B-cells will remember the antigen. Meanwhile, an army of various T-cells attacks the pathogens as well as the cells these pathogens already infected. Special helper T-cells help stimulate B-cells to secrete antibodies and activate cytotoxic T-cells that release chemicals called inflammatory cytokines that kill pathogens and cells they infected.

"Each of these components of the immune system are important and orchestrated to talk to each other," says professor Larry Corey, who studies vaccines and infectious disease at Fred Hutch, a non-profit scientific research organization. "They optimize the assault of the human immune system on the complexity of the viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections that live on our planet, to which we get exposed."

Despite their variety, coronaviruses share certain common proteins and other structural elements, Fuller explains, which the immune system can be trained to identify.

The current frontrunner vaccines aim to train our body to generate a sufficient amount of antibodies to neutralize the virus by shutting off its spike proteins before it enters our cells and begins to replicate. But a truly robust vaccine should also engender a strong response from T-cells, Fuller believes.

"Everyone focuses on the antibodies which block the virus, but it's not always 100 percent effective," she explains. "For example, if there are not enough titers or the antibody starts to wane, and the virus does get into the cells, the cells will become infected. At that point, the body needs to mount a robust T-cytotoxic response. The T-cells should find and recognize cells infected with the virus and eliminate these cells, and the virus with them."

Some of the frontrunner vaccine makers including Moderna, AstraZeneca and CanSino reported that they observed T-cell responses in their trials. Another company, BioNTech, based in Germany, also reported that their vaccine produced T-cell responses.

Fuller and her team are working on their own version of a coronavirus vaccine. In their recent study, the team managed to trigger a strong antibody and T-cell response in mice and primates. Moreover, the aging animals also produced a robust response, which would be important for the human elderly population.

But Fuller's team wants to engage T-cells further. She wants to try training T-cells to recognize not only SARV-CoV-2, but a range of different coronaviruses. Wild hosts, such as bats, carry many different types of coronaviruses, which may spill over onto humans, just like SARS, MERS and SARV-CoV-2 have. There are also four coronaviruses already endemic to humans. Cryptically named 229E, NL63, OC43, and HKU1, they were identified in the 1960s. And while they cause common colds and aren't considered particularly dangerous, the next coronavirus that jumps species may prove deadlier than the previous ones.

Despite their variety, coronaviruses share certain common proteins and other structural elements, Fuller explains, which the immune system can be trained to identify. "T-cells can recognize these shared sequences across multiple different types of coronaviruses," she explains, "so we have this vision for a universal coronavirus vaccine."

Paul Offit at Children's Hospitals in Philadelphia, who specializes in infectious diseases and vaccines, thinks it's a far shot at the moment. "I don't see that as something that is likely to happen, certainly not very soon," he says, adding that a universal flu vaccine has been tried for decades but is not available yet. We still don't know how the current frontrunner vaccines will perform. And until we know how efficient they are, wearing masks and keeping social distance are still important, he notes.

Corey says that while the universal coronavirus vaccine is not impossible, it is certainly not an easy feat. "It is a reasonably scientific hypothesis," he says, but one big challenge is that there are still many unknown coronaviruses so anticipating their structural elements is difficult. The structure of new viruses, particularly the recombinant ones that leap from wild hosts and carry bits and pieces of animal and human genetic material, can be hard to predict. "So whether you can make a vaccine that has universal T-cells to every coronavirus is also difficult to predict," Corey says. But, he adds, "I'm not being negative. I'm just saying that it's a formidable task."

Fuller is certainly up to the task and thinks it's worth the effort. "T-cells can cross-recognize different viruses within the same family," she says, so increasing their abilities to home in on a broader range of coronaviruses would help prevent future pandemics. "If that works, you're just going to take one [vaccine] and you'll have lifetime immunity," she says. "Not just against this coronavirus, but any future pandemic by a coronavirus."

Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault preserves more than one million of the world's seeds deep inside Platäfjellet Mountain.

(Photo credit: Svalbard Global Seed Vault/Riccardo Gangale)

The impressive structure protrudes from the side of a snowy mountain on the Svalbard Archipelago, a cluster of islands about halfway between Norway and the North Pole.

"Before, we trusted the permafrost. We do not trust the permafrost anymore."

Art installations on the building's rooftop and front façade glimmer like diamonds in the polar night, but it is what lies buried deep inside the frozen rock, 475 feet from the building's entrance, that is most precious. Here, in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, are backup copies of more than a million of the world's agricultural seeds.

Inside the vault, seed boxes from many gene banks and many countries. "The seeds don't know national boundaries," says Kent Nnadozie, the UN's Secretary of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

(Photo credit: Svalbard Global Seed Vault/Riccardo Gangale)

The Svalbard vault -- which has been called the Doomsday Vault, or a Noah's Ark for seeds -- preserves the genetic materials of more than 6000 crop species and their wild relatives, including many of the varieties within those species. Svalbard's collection represents all the traits that will enable the plants that feed the world to adapt – with the help of farmers and plant breeders – to rapidly changing climactic conditions, including rising temperatures, more intense drought, and increasing soil salinity. "We save these seeds because we want to ensure food security for future generations," says Grethe Helene Evjen, Senior Advisor at the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food .

A recent study in the journal Nature predicted that global warming could cause catastrophic losses of biodiversity in regions across the globe throughout this century. Yet global warming also threatens the permafrost that surrounds the seed vault, the very thing that was once considered a failsafe means of keeping these seeds frozen and safeguarding the diversity of our crops. In fact, record temperatures in Svalbard a few years ago – and a significant breach of water into the access tunnel to the vault -- prompted the Norwegian government to invest $20 million euros on improvements at the facility to further secure the genetic resources locked inside. The hope: that technology can work in concert with nature's freezer to keep the world's seeds viable.

"Before, we trusted the permafrost," says Hege Njaa Aschim, a spokesperson for Statsbygg, the government agency that recently completed the upgrades at the seed vault. "We do not trust the permafrost anymore."

The Apex of the Global Conservation System

More than 1700 genebanks around the globe preserve the diverse seed varieties from their regions. They range from small community seed banks in developing countries, where small farmers save and trade their seeds with growers in nearby villages, to specialized university collections, to national and international genetic resource repositories. But many of these facilities are vulnerable to war, natural disasters, or even lack of funding.

"If anything should happen to the resources in a regular genebank, Svalbard is the backup – it's essentially the apex of the global conservation system," says Kent Nnadozie, Secretary of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture at the United Nations, who likens the Global Vault to the Central Reserve Bank. "You have regular banks that do active trading, but the Central Bank is the final reserve where the banks store their gold deposits."

Similarly, farmers deposit their seeds in regional genebanks, and also look to these banks for new varieties to help their crops adapt to, say, increasing temperatures, or resist intrusive pests. Regional banks, in turn, store duplicates from their collections at Svalbard. These seeds remain the sovereign property of the country or institution depositing them; only they can "make a withdrawal."

The Global Vault has already proven invaluable: The International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), formerly located outside of Aleppo, Syria, held more than 140,000 seed samples, including plants that were extinct in their natural habitats, before the Syrian Crisis in 2012. Fortunately, they had managed to back up most of their seed samples at Svalbard before they were forced to relocate to Lebanon and Morocco. In 2017, ICARDA became the first – and only – organization to withdraw their stored seeds. They have now regenerated almost all of the samples at their new locations and recently redeposited new seeds for safekeeping at Svalbard.

Rapid Global Warming Threatens Permafrost

The Global Vault, a joint venture between the Norwegian government, the Crop Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen) that started operating in 2008, was sited in Svalbard in part because of its remote yet accessible location: Svalbard is the northernmost inhabited spot on Earth with an airport. But experts also thought it a failsafe choice for long-term seed storage because its permafrost would offer natural freezing – even if cooling systems were to fail. No one imagined that the permafrost could fail.

"We've had record temperatures in the region recently, and there are a lot of signs that global warming is happening faster at the extreme latitudes," says Geoff Hawtin, a world-renowned authority in plant conservation, who is the founding director of -- and now advisor to -- the Crop Trust. "Svalbard is still arguably one of the safest places for the seeds from a temperature point of view, but it's actually not going to be as cold as we thought 20 years ago."

A recent report by the Norwegian Centre for Climate Services predicted that Svalbard could become 50 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by the year 2100. And data from the Norwegian government's environmental monitoring system in Svalbard shows that the permafrost is already thawing: The "active layer," that is, the layer of surface soil that seasonally thaws, has become 25-30 cm thicker since 1998.

Among the 35 depositors were several bringing their seeds to Svalbard for the first time, including the Cherokee Nation, which deposited nine heirloom seed varieties that predate European colonization.

Though the permafrost surrounding the seed vault chambers, which are situated well below the active layer, is still intact, the permafrost around the access tunnel never re-established as expected after construction of the Global Vault twelve years ago. As a result, when Svalbard saw record high temperatures and unprecedented rainfall in 2016, about 164 feet of rainwater and snowmelt leaked into the tunnel, turning it into a skating rink and spurring authorities to take what they called a "better safe than sorry approach." They invested in major upgrades to the facility. "The seeds in the vault were never threatened," says Aschim, "but technology has become more important at Svalbard."

Technology Gives Nature a Boost

For now, the permafrost deep inside the mountain still keeps the temperature in the vault down to about -25°F. The cooling systems then give nature a mechanical boost to keep the seed vault chilled even further, to about -64°F, the optimal temperature for conserving seeds. In addition to upgrading to a more effective and sustainable cooling system that runs on CO2, the Norwegian government added backup generators, removed heat-generating electrical equipment from inside the facility to an outside building, installed a thick, watertight door to the vault, and replaced the corrugated steel access tunnel with a cement tunnel that uses the same waterproofing technology as the North Sea oil platforms.

To re-establish the permafrost around the tunnel, they layered cooling pipes with frozen soil around the concrete tunnel, covered the frozen soil with a cooling mat, and topped the cooling mat with the original permafrost soil. They also added drainage ditches on the mountainside to divert meltwater away from the tunnel as the climate gets warmer and wetter.

New Deposits to the Global Vault

The day before COVID-19 arrived in Norway, on February 25th, Prime Minister Erna Solberg hosted the biggest seed-depositing event in the vault's history in honor of the new and improved vault. As snow fell on Svalbard, depositors from almost every continent traveled the windy road from Longyearbyen up Platåfjellet Mountain and braved frigid -8°F weather to celebrate the massive technical upgrades to the facility – and to hand over their seeds.

Among the 35 depositors were several bringing their seeds to Svalbard for the first time, including the Cherokee Nation, which deposited nine heirloom seed varieties that predate European colonization, and Israel's University of Haifa, whose deposit included multiple genotypes of wild emmer wheat, an ancient relative of the modern domesticated crop. The storage boxes carried ceremoniously over the threshold that day contained more than 65,000 new seed samples, bringing the total to more than a million, and almost filling the first of three seed chambers in the vault. (The Global Vault can store up to 4.5 million seed samples.)

"Svalbard's samples contain all the possibilities, all the options for the future of our agricultural crops – it's how crops are going to adapt," says Cary Fowler, former executive director of the Crop Trust, who was instrumental in establishing the Global Vault. "If our crops don't adapt to climate change, then neither will we." Dr. Fowler says he is confident that with the recent improvements in the vault, the seeds are going to remain viable for a very long time.

"It's sometimes tempting to get distracted by the romanticism of a seed vault inside a mountain near the North Pole – it's a little bit James Bondish," muses Dr. Fowler. "But the reality is we've essentially put an end to the extinction of more than a million samples of biodiversity forever."

Lori Miller Kase
Lori Miller Kase, an award-winning journalist based in Connecticut, writes frequently about health, the environment, food and the arts. She is Health Editor at Large for CoveyClub, and her work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including Discover, Aeon, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe Magazine. She also teaches creative writing for kids, and is currently working on a young adult novel.