The next act for messenger RNA could be bigger than covid vaccines
There is one application in addition to vaccines, however, where brief exposure to messenger RNA could have effects lasting years, or even a lifetime.
In late 2019, before covid-19, the US National Institutes of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced they would spend $200 million developing affordable gene therapies for use in sub-Saharan Africa. The top targets: HIV and sickle-cell disease, which are widespread there.
Gates and the NIH didn’t say how they would make such cutting-edge treatments cheap and easy to use, but Weissman told me that the plan may depend on using messenger RNA to add instructions for gene-editing tools like CRISPR to a person’s body, making permanent changes to the genome. Think of mass vaccination campaigns, says Weissman, except with gene editing to correct inherited disease.
Right now, gene therapy is complex and expensive. Since 2017, several types have been approved in the US and Europe. One, a treatment for blindness, in which viruses carry a new gene to the retina, costs $425,000 per eye.
A startup called Intellia Therapeutics is testing a treatment that packages CRISPR into RNA and then into a nanoparticle, with which it hopes to cure a painful inherited liver disease. The aim is to make the gene scissors appear in a person’s cells, cut out the problem gene, and then fade away. The company tested the drug on a patient for the first time in 2020.
It’s not a coincidence that Intellia is treating a liver disease. When dripped into the bloodstream through an IV, lipid nanoparticles tend to all end up in the liver—the body’s house-cleaning organ. “If you want to treat a liver disease, great—anything else, you have a problem,” says Weissman.
But Weissman says he’s figured out how to target the nanoparticles so that they wind up inside bone marrow, which constantly manufactures all red blood cells and immune cells. That would be a hugely valuable trick—so valuable that Weissman wouldn’t tell me how he does it. It’s a secret, he says, “until we get the patents filed.”
He intends to use this technique to try to cure sickle-cell disease by sending new instructions into the cells of the body’s blood factory. He’s also working with researchers who are ready to test on monkeys whether immune cells called T cells can be engineered to go on a seek-and-destroy mission after HIV and cure that infection, once and for all.
What all this means is that the fatty particles of messenger RNA may become a way to edit genomes at massive scales, and on the cheap. A drip drug that allows engineering of the blood system could become a public health boon as significant as vaccines. The burden of sickle-cell, an inherited disease that shortens lives by decades (or, in poor regions, kills during childhood), falls most heavily on Black people in equatorial Africa, Brazil, and the US. HIV has also become a lingering scourge: about two-thirds of people living with the virus, or dying from it, are in Africa.
Moderna and BioNTech have been selling their covid-19 vaccine shots for $20 to $40 a dose. What if that were the cost of genetic modification, too? “We could correct sickle-cell with a single shot,” Weissman says. “We think that is groundbreaking new therapy.”
There are fantastic fortunes to be made in mRNA technology. At least five people connected to Moderna and BioNTech are now billionaires, including Bancel. Weissman is not one of them, though he stands to get patent royalties. He says he prefers academia, where people are less likely to tell him what to research—or, just as important, what not to. He’s always looking for the next great scientific challenge: “It’s not that the vaccine is old news, but it was obvious they were going to work.” Messenger RNA, he says, “has an incredible future.”
Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle
The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) funds high-risk, high-reward energy research projects, and each year the agency hosts a summit where funding recipients and other researchers and companies in energy can gather to talk about what’s new in the field.
As I listened to presentations, met with researchers, and—especially—wandered around the showcase, I often had a vague feeling of whiplash. Standing at one booth trying to wrap my head around how we might measure carbon stored by plants, I would look over and see another group focused on making nuclear fusion a more practical way to power the world.
There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting. But as we knock out the easy wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions. Here are a few intriguing projects from the ARPA-E showcase that caught my eye.
“I heard you have rocks here!” I exclaimed as I approached the Quaise Energy station.
Quaise’s booth featured a screen flashing through some fast facts and demonstration videos. And sure enough, laid out on the table were two slabs of rock. They looked a bit worse for wear, each sporting a hole about the size of a quarter in the middle, singed around the edges.
These rocks earned their scorch marks in service of a big goal: making geothermal power possible anywhere. Today, the high temperatures needed to generate electricity using heat from the Earth are only accessible close to the surface in certain places on the planet, like Iceland or the western US.
Geothermal power could in theory be deployed anywhere, if we could drill deep enough. Getting there won’t be easy, though, and could require drilling 20 kilometers (12 miles) beneath the surface. That’s deeper than any oil and gas drilling done today.
Rather than grinding through layers of granite with conventional drilling technology, Quaise plans to get through the more obstinate parts of the Earth’s crust by using high-powered millimeter waves to vaporize rock. (It’s sort of like lasers, but not quite.)
The emergent industrial metaverse
Annika Hauptvogel, head of technology and innovation management at Siemens, describes the industrial metaverse as “immersive, making users feel as if they’re in a real environment; collaborative in real time; open enough for different applications to seamlessly interact; and trusted by the individuals and businesses that participate”—far more than simply a digital world.
The industrial metaverse will revolutionize the way work is done, but it will also unlock significant new value for business and societies. By allowing businesses to model, prototype, and test dozens, hundreds, or millions of design iterations in real time and in an immersive, physics-based environment before committing physical and human resources to a project, industrial metaverse tools will usher in a new era of solving real-world problems digitally.
“The real world is very messy, noisy, and sometimes hard to really understand,” says Danny Lange, senior vice president of artificial intelligence at Unity Technologies, a leading platform for creating and growing real-time 3-D content. “The idea of the industrial metaverse is to create a cleaner connection between the real world and the virtual world, because the virtual world is so much easier and cheaper to work with.”
While real-life applications of the consumer metaverse are still developing, industrial metaverse use cases are purpose-driven, well aligned with real-world problems and business imperatives. The resource efficiencies enabled by industrial metaverse solutions may increase business competitiveness while also continually driving progress toward the sustainability, resilience, decarbonization, and dematerialization goals that are essential to human flourishing.
This report explores what it will take to create the industrial metaverse, its potential impacts on business and society, the challenges ahead, and innovative use cases that will shape the future. Its key findings are as follows:
• The industrial metaverse will bring together the digital and real worlds. It will enable a constant exchange of information, data, and decisions and empower industries to solve extraordinarily complex real-world problems digitally, changing how organizations operate and unlocking significant societal benefits.
• The digital twin is a core metaverse building block. These virtual models simulate real-world objects in detail. The next generation of digital twins will be photorealistic, physics-based, AI-enabled, and linked in metaverse ecosystems.
• The industrial metaverse will transform every industry. Currently existing digital twins illustrate the power and potential of the industrial metaverse to revolutionize design and engineering, testing, operations, and training.
The Download: China’s retro AI photos, and experts’ AI fears
Across social media, a number of creators are generating nostalgic photographs of China with the help of AI. Even though these images get some details wrong, they are realistic enough to trick and impress many of their followers.
The pictures look sophisticated in terms of definition, sharpness, saturation, and color tone. Their realism is partly down to a recent major update of image-making artificial-intelligence program Midjourney that was released in mid-March, which is better not only at generating human hands but also at simulating various photography styles.
It’s still relatively easy, even for untrained eyes, to tell that the photos are generated by an AI. But for some creators, their experiments are more about trying to recall a specific era in time than trying to trick their audience. Read the full story.
Zeyi’s story is from China Report, his weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on tech in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.
Read more of our reporting on AI-generated images:
+ These new tools let you see for yourself how biased AI image models are. Bias and stereotyping are still huge problems for systems like DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, despite companies’ attempts to fix it. Read the full story.