After the Madness—Pandemic Silver Linings in Bioscience

Will the frenzied rush to understand and treat SARS-CoV-2 bring longer lasting benefit to the world of scientific research and medicine?

On March 16, a single tweet mobilized an army of over 700 geneticists from 36 countries to battle a tiny virus by trying to understand the role human genetics plays in why some people have no reaction to COVID-19, and others get very sick and die. “Goal: aggregate genetic and clinical information on individuals affected by COVID-19,” tweeted Andrea Ganna, a geneticist at the Institute for Molecular Medicine in Helsinki, Finland. Just a few weeks later the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative was up and running and is now identifying human genes associated with COVID and its symptoms—nothing definitive yet, although the possibility of breakthroughs has been substantially improved by the combined DNA-discovery firepower of over 150 labs and biobanks that store and analyze millions of human genomes.

Nor is this pandemic display of raw scientific muscle and intensity of focus unique right now. Pandemic-bound researchers around the world are combining forces for possibly the largest scientific hive-mind effort in history that’s converging on a single conundrum. It also arrives as a slew of technologies developed over the past generation are coming online and being applied to the COVID puzzle—everything from CRISPR gene editing and faster and cheaper genetic sequencing to social media and the integration of artificial intelligence and machine learning in bioresearch and health IT.    

COVID-19 has ravaged bioscience just like it has cut a destructive and sometimes deadly swath through much of what we used to call “normal.” Yet even as labs have shuttered, experiments have halted, and droves of scientists and technicians have been laid off—and research and clinical attention has been diverted from any disease that’s non-COVID—is it possible that some scientific silver linings may emerge out of this tragic Year of the Pandemic?

Carlos Bustamante

Could we see a near-future surge of scientific advancement, what Stanford bio-informaticist Carlos Bustamante likened to what happened when we went to the moon? “You had all this spillover technology that gave us, say, the Internet,” he said. Or is it possible that somewhere, somehow, a new respect for science and evidence will emerge out of COVID-19? “There’s kind of a reward system now for people to pay attention to facts,” said George Church, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, “rather than just making stuff up. And that reward is in terms of fewer relatives and friends and colleagues dying.”

George Church

As the world is teetering and we struggle to absorb a daily barrage of less than sanguine news—not only about COVID but also in politics, racial relations, and the economy— asked prominent bioscientists and big thinkers if there might be glimmers of hope that will emerge when the “all clear” is finally declared.

“I’m seeing an intensity of purpose like I’ve never seen before,” said Eric Topol, director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. “Putting this great big brain trust in science on such a seemingly insurmountable problem will change how we do things going forward.”

Eric Topol

“We are seeing biologists working with statisticians, public health experts collaborating with logistics experts,” added Katharina Volz, founder and CEO of OccamzRazor. “With the coronavirus, you need the experts on SARS, on spike proteins, on pulmonary diseases, to all come together and collaborate on a shared canvas.”

“We’re asking questions we never asked about, say, the flu,” added Carlos Bustamante, attributing this to the rise of the hive mind. “For instance, we’re learning about COVID at a molecular phenotyping detail like we’ve not done for any other infectious disease.” (“Molecular” refers mostly to genetics, and “phenotype” to observable traits in a human or other organism.) “It’s been amazing for this disease how we’ve accepted that different people respond differently to this infection. That is not true of almost any other large-scale infection we talk about.”

Katharina Volz

We can take heart that for the first time in history we have the computing power to actually make sense of all of this complexity as artificial intelligence and machine learning in biology is moving from hype to reality. “One of the trends that we’re seeing now is the application of machine learning to dissect and extract patterns from a deluge of genomic, proteomic, metabolic data,” said Katharina Volz. “We can perform many experiments in silico—on the computer—and only run the most important crucial parts of the experimental method in the lab, as a confirmation of our theoretical models.”

“Machine learning is going to transform how we think in biology,” agreed Wayne Koff, CEO, Human Vaccines Project. “It’s going to generate hypotheses. We will be able to better focus on smaller groups of people—the vulnerable groups, the diseased, the elderly, the poor, the newborns, those living in the developing world.”

Wayne Koff

Computers and the Internet are also lifelines for all of us personally needing to stay connected, and as biomedicine tries to navigate a world of shelter-in-place and social distancing. We’ve just dragged the country through half a decade of telemedicine in three months,” said Carlos Bustamante. “Are we going to now give that all up and go back to having to wait in the doctor’s office with everybody else coughing to see a doctor?”

“I think this pandemic will be a big moment for biology,” said synthetic biologist Pamela Silver, professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. “Biology’s going to fix the COVID problem, but it can also fix a ton of other problems, too—problems like the environment, food, and other diseases. And the only way we’re going to get there is with engineering biology—manipulating and improving the biological mechanisms.”

Pamela Silver

One way to accomplish this is what Silver and other synthetic biologists call “plug and play”—the creation of basic biological components for research and for developing treatments and preventatives like vaccines that have been synthesized in a lab, ready to be deployed, say, when the next virus arrives. “I’m thinking that as we learn how to manipulate viruses and create methods for booting up responses faster it becomes a kind of plug-and-play system that is nimble,” said Silver, “and this goes not just for vaccines. It goes for everything, anything. You have a new disease, or any kind of therapeutic, and you’re better prepared.”

Eric Topol, however, frets about “the neglect or lack of emphasis on non COVID-19 diseases. This is a concern and will continue to be for the near future.” Katharina Volz added that once this crisis is over, we need to hyper-focus on other diseases, too. You really have to put this same urgency that we have for COVID now and apply it to other diseases that may have a potentially bigger economic and personal impact than COVID,” she said, “Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and many others.”

“We’ve just dragged the country through half a decade of telemedicine in three months.”

Carlos Bustamante

Scientists also worry about the leadership vacuum they see in the world. “I hope, as we go forward, we will get better leadership,” said Eric Topol. “We’ve seen how science can contribute where it was given true authority, so I think that’s going to be another path forward—I hope—although in the U.S. we have horrible tensions between politics and science that shouldn’t exist.”

No one really knows what biomedicine will look like when this is over. But it is comforting to know that something positive may come out of COVID. As Carlos Bustamante said: I want everything I do to be drafted behind COVID. I’m thinking of the mother of all cycling teams. [Cycling teams assign one cyclist to ride first in line so the others can draft behind them, which makes it easier for them to pedal]. And you’re drafting behind COVID, and then once you’ve reached the finish line, you can take that energy and hopefully channel it into other disease areas that can be cured.”

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