BioPharma Learns From Marvel, Begins Real Life Search For “X-Men”

4/30/14

Biopharma employees read, as you might expect, a wide spectrum of scientific journals and trade publications. What might be surprising is that their reading lists appear to have expanded recently to include classic Marvel comics. What’s led me to this conclusion? The Belgian pharmaceutical company UCB has sponsored an Innovation Challenge on the InnoCentive Website with a goal to “identify individuals, families, groups or communities who possess rare phenotypes – for example people who possess great self-healing abilities, incredible memory or who are protected from disease.”

This immediately brought to mind the Marvel series of X-Men comics (and the big screen movies based on them) that focused on people harboring mutations that conferred extraordinary abilities. The X in the X-Men name originally stood for the X-gene, which normal humans lack and which is responsible for their unusual powers. Most of the X-Men have just “regular” mutations that render them special, but a few have “Omega-level” mutations that generate the most powerful type of unique abilities. Some X-Men (the title actually includes X-Women as well) can control the weather, freeze objects, fly, breathe underwater, or have telepathic or telekinetic powers. The X-Men, as Lady Gaga would tell you, were “born this way.” This is in contrast to other heroes in the Marvel universe, like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, who acquired their powers (often through radiation exposure) as adults.

UCB is not the only organization seeking out individuals with unique abilities. Entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg and physicist Max Tegmark have launched “Project Einstein” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They intend to sequence the genomes from some 400 mathematicians and physicists in order to identify genes that are associated with exceptional mathematical abilities. Similarly, BGI (formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute), the Chinese DNA sequencing company, is in the process of mapping the genes of 1,600 people who have an average IQ of 150. They aim to identify common genetic variants that are associated with human intelligence. The likelihood of success in these projects has been widely debated in the science community. Many social critics are opposed to these types of studies due to fears about using the information for either selective breeding or labeling people based solely on their genetic profiles.

In a similar vein, the National Cancer Institute is combing through trials of failed cancer drugs looking for rare “exceptional responder” patients. Figuring out why these individuals were helped, but others weren’t, may further illuminate the underlying biology and point the way towards developing second-generation drugs that work better. Analysis of the genomes of these people is likely to play a large part in this analysis.

Thousands of mutations have been described that have deleterious effects on human development. How likely is it that the UCB effort to find enhancing mutations will bear fruit? I think it’s highly probable, based on the fact that there are already known examples of the kinds of people and genes that UCB is looking for:

People Who Possess “Great Self-Healing Abilities”

The individual who immediately comes to mind here is Wolverine, one of the most popular X-Men characters. Not only is he immune to most toxins and pathogens, but he can also regenerate seriously damaged tissue within hours as a result of his “healing factor.” The gene encoding this “healing factor” appears to be pretty widespread in the Marvel Universe, as some 77 other mutants share some form of this trait. In the real world, the Lin28a gene is one that appears to be associated with rapid healing. Experiments in mice have shown that activation of this gene leads to faster repair of injuries in adult mice. Similarly, in a 2003 study, researchers found that the Foxm1b gene played a role in the accelerated regrowth of liver tissue in aged mice. These studies represent only the first step down a long and tortuous path that hopefully leads towards eventual applicability in humans.

Wolverine cartoon Xconomy Op-EdPeople Who Possess “Incredible Memory”

In 2006, the first report appeared in the scientific literature of individuals who have highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM). These people can remember details of what happened on nearly every day of their lives starting at a fairly young age. Whether this ability results from genetic differences in brain structure or is a learned behavior is not clear, but one can easily envision a genome-sequencing project that will compare these folks to a control group. A story profiling a small group of these people on the news show “60 Minutes” led to the identification of even more folks who have this unique ability. This type of memory is distinct from the learnable skills acquired by people who can rapidly memorize large amounts of information, as described in Joshua Foer’s entertaining book, “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.”

People Who “Are Protected from Disease”

Scientists have been interested for years in understanding mechanistically why some people are resistant to diseases that are frequently lethal to others. Edward Jenner established that milkmaids infected with the cowpox virus became resistant to its deadly cousin smallpox; this observation provided the basis for vaccinations to prevent disease. Are there people who are genetically resistant to infectious diseases in the absence of vaccination? In the case of AIDS, several cases were identified in Australia of people who were naturally resistant to HIV infection. Research showed that they had two copies (one from each parent) of a specific mutation (delta 32) in the CCR5 gene that the virus uses to gain entry to cells. Researchers have also been searching out rare individuals who can effectively mount a superior antibody response against … Next Page »

Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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