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."