Dr. Francis Collins
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Happy holidays to one and all! As you may have heard, this is my last holiday season as the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—a post that I’ve held for the past 12 years and four months under three U.S. Presidents. And, wow, it really does seem like only yesterday that I started this blog!
At the blog’s outset, I said my goal was to “highlight new discoveries in biology and medicine that I think are game changers, noteworthy, or just plain cool.” More than 1,100 posts, 10 million unique visitors, and 13.7 million views later, I hope you’ll agree that goal has been achieved. I’ve also found blogging to be a whole lot of fun, as well as a great way to expand my own horizons and share a little of what I’ve learned about biomedical advances with people all across the nation and around the world.
So, as I sign off as NIH Director and return to my lab at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), I want to thank everyone who’s ever visited this Blog—from high school students to people with health concerns, from biomedical researchers to policymakers. I hope that the evidence-based information that I’ve provided has helped and informed my readers in some small way.
In this my final post, I’m sharing a short video (see above) that highlights just a few of the blog’s many spectacular images, many of them produced by NIH-funded scientists during the course of their research. In the video, you’ll see a somewhat quirky collection of entries, but hopefully you will sense my enthusiasm for the potential of biomedical research to fight human disease and improve human health—from innovative immunotherapies for treating cancer to the gift of mRNA vaccines to combat a pandemic.
Over the years, I’ve blogged about many of the bold, new frontiers of biomedicine that are now being explored by research teams supported by NIH. Who would have imagined that, within the span of a dozen years, precision medicine would go from being an interesting idea to a driving force behind the largest-ever NIH cohort seeking to individualize the prevention and treatment of common disease? Or that today we’d be deep into investigations of precisely how the human brain works, as well as how human health may benefit from some of the trillions of microbes that call our bodies home?
My posts also delved into some of the amazing technological advances that are enabling breakthroughs across a wide range of scientific fields. These innovative technologies include powerful new ways of mapping the atomic structures of proteins, editing genetic material, and designing improved gene therapies.
So, what’s next for NIH? Let me assure you that NIH is in very steady hands as it heads into a bright horizon brimming with exceptional opportunities for biomedical research. Like you, I look forward to discoveries that will lead us even closer to the life-saving answers that we all want and need.
While we wait for the President to identify a new NIH director, Lawrence Tabak, who has been NIH’s Principal Deputy Director and my right arm for the last decade, will serve as Acting NIH Director. So, keep an eye out for his first post in early January!
As for me, I’ll probably take a little time to catch up on some much-needed sleep, do some reading and writing, and hopefully get out for a few more rides on my Harley with my wife Diane. But there’s plenty of work to do in my lab, where the focus is on type 2 diabetes and a rare disease of premature aging called Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome. I’m excited to pursue those research opportunities and see where they lead.
In closing, I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to each of you for your interest in hearing from the NIH Director—and supporting NIH research—over the past 12 years. It’s been an incredible honor to serve you at the helm of this great agency that’s often called the National Institutes of Hope. And now, for one last time, Diane and I take great pleasure in sending you and your loved ones our most heartfelt wishes for Happy Holidays and a Healthy New Year!
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
For experienced and aspiring shutterbugs alike, sometimes the best photo in the bunch turns out to be a practice shot. That’s also occasionally true in the lab when imaging cells and tissues, and it’s the story behind this spectacular image showing the interface of skin and muscle during mammalian development.
Here you see an area of the mouse forelimb located near a bone called the humerus. This particular sample was labeled for laminin, a protein found in the extracellular matrix (ECM) that undergirds cells and tissues to give them mechanical and biochemical support. Computer algorithms were used to convert the original 2D confocal scan into a 3D image, and colorization was added to bring the different layers of tissue into sharper relief.
Skin tissue (bright red and yellow) is located near the top of the image; blood vessels (paler red, orange, and yellow) are in the middle and branching downward; and muscle (green, blue, and purple) makes up the bottom layer.
The image was created by Sarah Lipp, a graduate student in the NIH-supported tissue engineering lab of Sarah Calve. The team focuses on tissue interfaces to better understand the ECM and help devise strategies to engineer musculoskeletal tissues, such as tendon and cartilage.
In February 2020, Lipp was playing around with some new software tools for tissue imaging. Before zeroing in on her main target—the mouse’s myotendinous junction, where muscle transfers its force to tendon, Lipp snapped this practice shot of skin meeting muscle. After processing the practice shot with a color-projecting macro in an image processing tool called Fiji, she immediately liked what she saw.
So, Lipp tweaked the color a bit more and entered the image in the 2020 BioArt Scientific Image & Video Competition, sponsored by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Bethesda, MD. Last December, the grad student received the good news that her practice shot had snagged one of the prestigious contest’s top awards.
But she’s not stopping there. Lipp is continuing to pursue her research interests at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where the Calve lab recently moved from Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN. Here’s wishing her a career filled with more great images—and great science!
Muscle and Bone Diseases (National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases/NIH)
Musculoskeletal Extracellular Matrix Laboratory (University of Colorado, Boulder)
BioArt Scientific Image & Video Competition (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Bethesda, MD)
NIH Support: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
There’s been great concern about the new Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. A major reason is Omicron has accumulated over 50 mutations, including about 30 in the spike protein, the part of the coronavirus that mRNA vaccines teach our immune systems to attack. All of these genetic changes raise the possibility that Omicron could cause breakthrough infections in people who’ve already received a Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccine.
So, what does the science show? The first data to emerge present somewhat encouraging results. While our existing mRNA vaccines still offer some protection against Omicron, there appears to be a significant decline in neutralizing antibodies against this variant in people who have received two shots of an mRNA vaccine.
However, initial results of studies conducted both in the lab and in the real world show that people who get a booster shot, or third dose of vaccine, may be better protected. Though these data are preliminary, they suggest that getting a booster will help protect people already vaccinated from breakthrough or possible severe infections with Omicron during the winter months.
Though Omicron was discovered in South Africa only last month, researchers have been working around the clock to learn more about this variant. Last week brought the first wave of scientific data on Omicron, including interesting work from a research team led by Alex Sigal, Africa Health Research Institute, Durban, South Africa .
In lab studies working with live Omicron virus, the researchers showed that this variant still relies on the ACE2 receptor to infect human lung cells. That’s really good news. It means that the therapeutic tools already developed, including vaccines, should generally remain useful for combatting this new variant.
Sigal and colleagues also tested the ability of antibodies in the plasma from 12 fully vaccinated individuals to neutralize Omicron. Six of the individuals had no history of COVID-19. The other six had been infected with the original variant in the first wave of infections in South Africa.
As expected, the samples showed very strong neutralization against the original SARS-CoV-2 variant. However, antibodies from people who’d been previously vaccinated with the two-dose Pfizer vaccine took a significant hit against Omicron, showing about a 40-fold decline in neutralizing ability.
This escape from immunity wasn’t complete. Indeed, blood samples from five individuals showed relatively good antibody levels against Omicron. All five had previously been infected with SARS-CoV-2 in addition to being vaccinated. These findings add to evidence on the value of full vaccination for protecting against reinfections in people who’ve had COVID-19 previously.
Also of great interest were the first results of the Pfizer study, which the company made available in a news release . Pfizer researchers also conducted laboratory studies to test the neutralizing ability of blood samples from 19 individuals one month after a second shot compared to 20 others one month after a booster shot.
These studies showed that the neutralizing ability of samples from those who’d received two shots had a more than 25-fold decline relative to the original virus. Together with the South Africa data, it suggests that the two-dose series may not be enough to protect against breakthrough infections with the Omicron variant.
In much more encouraging news, their studies went on to show that a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine raised antibody levels against Omicron to a level comparable to the two-dose regimen against the original variant (as shown in the figure above). While efforts already are underway to develop an Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine, these findings suggest that it’s already possible to get good protection against this new variant by getting a booster shot.
Very recently, real-world data from the United Kingdom, where Omicron cases are rising rapidly, are providing additional evidence for how boosters can help. In a preprint , Andrews et. al showed the effectiveness of two shots of Pfizer mRNA vaccine trended down after four months to about 40 percent. That’s not great, but note that 40 percent is far better than zero. So, clearly there is some protection provided.
Most impressively (as shown in the figure from Andrews N, et al.) a booster substantially raised that vaccine effectiveness to about 80 percent. That’s not quite as high as for Delta, but certainly an encouraging result. Once again, these data show that boosting the immune system after a pause produces enhanced immunity against new viral variants, even though the booster was designed from the original virus. Your immune system is awfully clever. You get both quantitative and qualitative benefits.
It’s also worth noting that the Omicron variant mostly doesn’t have mutations in portions of its genome that are the targets of other aspects of vaccine-induced immunity, including T cells. These cells are part of the body’s second line of defense and are generally harder for viruses to escape. While T cells can’t prevent infection, they help protect against more severe illness and death.
It’s important to note that scientists around the world are also closely monitoring Omicron’s severity While this variant appears to be highly transmissible, and it is still early for rigorous conclusions, the initial research indicates this variant may actually produce milder illness than Delta, which is currently the dominant strain in the United States.
But there’s still a tremendous amount of research to be done that could change how we view Omicron. This research will take time and patience.
What won’t change, though, is that vaccines are the best way to protect yourself and others against COVID-19. (And these recent data provide an even-stronger reason to get a booster now if you are eligible.) Wearing a mask, especially in public indoor settings, offers good protection against the spread of all SARS-CoV-2 variants. If you’ve got symptoms or think you may have been exposed, get tested and stay home if you get a positive result. As we await more answers, it’s as important as ever to use all the tools available to keep yourself, your loved ones, and your community happy and healthy this holiday season.
 SARS-CoV-2 Omicron has extensive but incomplete escape of Pfizer BNT162b2 elicited neutralization and requires ACE2 for infection. Sandile C, et al. Sandile C, et al. medRxiv preprint. December 9, 2021.
 Pfizer and BioNTech provide update on Omicron variant. Pfizer. December 8, 2021.
 Effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against the Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant of concern. Andrews N, et al. KHub.net preprint. December 10, 2021.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Sigal Lab (Africa Health Research Institute, Durban, South Africa)
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Biologists have long wondered how neurons from different regions of the brain actually interconnect into integrated neural networks, or circuits. A classic example is a complex master circuit projecting across several regions of the vertebrate brain called the basal ganglia. It’s involved in many fundamental brain processes, such as controlling movement, thought, and emotion.
In a paper published recently in the journal Nature, an NIH-supported team working in mice has created a wiring diagram, or connectivity map, of a key component of this master circuit that controls voluntary movement. This groundbreaking map will guide the way for future studies of the basal ganglia’s direct connections with the thalamus, which is a hub for information going to and from the spinal cord, as well as its links to the motor cortex in the front of the brain, which controls voluntary movements.
This 3D animation drawn from the paper’s findings captures the biological beauty of these intricate connections. It starts out zooming around four of the six horizontal layers of the motor cortex. At about 6 seconds in, the video focuses on nerve cell projections from the thalamus (blue) connecting to cortex nerve cells that provide input to the basal ganglia (green). It also shows connections to the cortex nerve cells that input to the thalamus (red).
At about 25 seconds, the video scans back to provide a quick close-up of the cell bodies (green and red bulges). It then zooms out to show the broader distribution of nerve cells within the cortex layers and the branched fringes of corticothalamic nerve cells (red) at the top edge of the cortex.
The video comes from scientific animator Jim Stanis, University of Southern California Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute, Los Angeles. He collaborated with Nick Foster, lead author on the Nature paper and a research scientist in the NIH-supported lab of Hong-Wei Dong at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The two worked together to bring to life hundreds of microscopic images of this circuit, known by the unusually long, hyphenated name: the cortico-basal ganglia-thalamic loop. It consists of a series of subcircuits that feed into a larger signaling loop.
The subcircuits in the loop make it possible to connect thinking with movement, helping the brain learn useful sequences of motor activity. The looped subcircuits also allow the brain to perform very complex tasks such as achieving goals (completing a marathon) and adapting to changing circumstances (running uphill or downhill).
Although scientists had long assumed the cortico-basal ganglia-thalamic loop existed and formed a tight, closed loop, they had no real proof. This new research, funded through NIH’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, provides that proof showing anatomically that the nerve cells physically connect, as highlighted in this video. The research also provides electrical proof through tests that show stimulating individual segments activate the others.
Detailed maps of neural circuits are in high demand. That’s what makes results like these so exciting to see. Researchers can now better navigate this key circuit not only in mice but other vertebrates, including humans. Indeed, the cortico-basal ganglia-thalamic loop may be involved in a number of neurological and neuropsychiatric conditions, including Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and addiction. In the meantime, Stanis, Foster, and colleagues have left us with a very cool video to watch.
 The mouse cortico-basal ganglia-thalamic network. Foster NN, Barry J, Korobkova L, Garcia L, Gao L, Becerra M, Sherafat Y, Peng B, Li X, Choi JH, Gou L, Zingg B, Azam S, Lo D, Khanjani N, Zhang B, Stanis J, Bowman I, Cotter K, Cao C, Yamashita S, Tugangui A, Li A, Jiang T, Jia X, Feng Z, Aquino S, Mun HS, Zhu M, Santarelli A, Benavidez NL, Song M, Dan G, Fayzullina M, Ustrell S, Boesen T, Johnson DL, Xu H, Bienkowski MS, Yang XW, Gong H, Levine MS, Wickersham I, Luo Q, Hahn JD, Lim BK, Zhang LI, Cepeda C, Hintiryan H, Dong HW. Nature. 2021;598(7879):188-194.
Brain Basics: Know Your Brain (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)
Dong Lab (University of California, Los Angeles)
Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute (University of Southern California, Los Angeles)
NIH Support: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders; National Institute of Mental Health
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
With Omicron now on so many people’s minds, public health officials and virologists around the world are laser focused on tracking the spread of this concerning SARS-CoV-2 variant and using every possible means to determine the effectiveness of our COVID-19 vaccines against it. Ultimately, the answer will depend on what happens in the real world. But it will also help to have a ready laboratory means for gauging how well a vaccine works, without having to wait many months for the results in the field.
With this latter idea in mind, I’m happy to share results of an NIH-funded effort to understand the immune responses associated with vaccine-acquired protection against SARS-CoV-2 . The findings, based on the analysis of blood samples from more than 1,000 people who received the Moderna mRNA vaccine, show that antibody levels do correlate, albeit somewhat imperfectly, with how well a vaccine works to prevent infection.
Such measures of immunity, known as “correlates of protection,” have potential to support the approval of new or updated vaccines more rapidly. They’re also useful to show how well a vaccine will work in groups that weren’t represented in a vaccine’s initial testing, such as children, pregnant women, and those with certain health conditions.
The latest study, published in the journal Science, comes from a team of researchers led by Peter Gilbert, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle; David Montefiori, Duke University, Durham, NC; and Adrian McDermott, NIH’s Vaccine Research Center, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The team started with existing data from the Coronavirus Efficacy (COVE) trial. This phase 3 study, conducted in 30,000 U.S. adults, found the Moderna vaccine was safe and about 94 percent effective in protecting people from symptomatic infection with SARS-CoV-2 .
The researchers wanted to understand the underlying immune responses that afforded that impressive level of COVID-19 protection. They also sought to develop a means to measure those responses in the lab and quickly show how well a vaccine works.
To learn more, Gilbert’s team conducted tests on blood samples from COVE participants at the time of their second vaccine dose and again four weeks later. Two of the tests measured concentrations of binding antibodies (bAbs) that latch onto spike proteins that adorn the coronavirus surface. Two others measured the concentration of more broadly protective neutralizing antibodies (nAbs), which block SARS-CoV-2 from infecting human cells via ACE2 receptors found on their surfaces.
Each of the four tests showed antibody levels that were consistently higher in vaccine recipients who did not develop COVID-19 than in those who did. That is consistent with expectations. But these data also allowed the researchers to identify the specific antibody levels associated with various levels of protection from disease.
For those with the highest antibody levels, the vaccine offered an estimated 98 percent protection. Those with levels about 1,000 times lower still were well protected, but their vaccine efficacy was reduced to about 78 percent.
Based on any of the antibodies tested, the estimated COVID-19 risk was about 10 times lower for vaccine recipients with antibodies in the top 10 percent of values compared to those with antibodies that weren’t detectable. Overall, the findings suggest that tests for antibody levels can be applied to make predictions about an mRNA vaccine’s efficacy and may be used to guide modifications to the current vaccine regimen.
To understand the significance of this finding, consider that for a two-dose vaccine like Moderna or Pfizer, a trial using such correlates of protection might generate sufficient data in as little as two months . As a result, such a trial might show whether a vaccine was meeting its benchmarks in 3 to 5 months. By comparison, even a rapid clinical trial done the standard way would take at least seven months to complete. Importantly also, trials relying on such correlates of protection require many fewer participants.
Since all four tests performed equally well, the researchers say it’s conceivable that a single antibody assay might be sufficient to predict how effective a vaccine will be in a clinical trial. Of course, such trials would require subsequent real-world studies to verify that the predicted vaccine efficacy matches actual immune protection.
It should be noted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would need to approve the use of such correlates of protection before their adoption in any vaccine trial. But, to date, the totality of evidence on neutralizing antibody responses as correlates of protection—for which this COVE trial data is a major contributor—is impressive.
Neutralizing antibody levels are also now being considered for use in future coronavirus vaccine trials. Indeed, for the EUA of Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine for 5-to-11-year-olds, the FDA accepted pre-specified success criteria based on neutralizing antibody responses in this age group being as good as those observed in 16- to 25-year-olds .
Antibody levels also have been taken into consideration for decisions about booster shots. However, it’s important to note that antibody levels are not precise enough to help in deciding whether or not any particular individual needs a COVID-19 booster. Those recommendations are based on how much time has passed since the original immunization.
Getting a booster is a really good idea heading into the holidays. The Delta variant remains very much the dominant strain in the U.S., and we need to slow its spread. Most experts think the vaccines and boosters will also provide some protection against the Omicron variant—though the evidence we need is still a week or two away. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a COVID-19 booster for everyone ages 18 and up at least six months after your second dose of mRNA vaccine or two months after receiving the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine . You may choose to get the same vaccine or a different one. And, there is a place near you that is offering the shot.
 Immune correlates analysis of the mRNA-1273 COVID-19 vaccine efficacy clinical trial.
Gilbert PB, Montefiori DC, McDermott AB, Fong Y, Benkeser D, Deng W, Zhou H, Houchens CR, Martins K, Jayashankar L, Castellino F, Flach B, Lin BC, O’Connell S, McDanal C, Eaton A, Sarzotti-Kelsoe M, Lu Y, Yu C, Borate B, van der Laan LWP, Hejazi NS, Huynh C, Miller J, El Sahly HM, Baden LR, Baron M, De La Cruz L, Gay C, Kalams S, Kelley CF, Andrasik MP, Kublin JG, Corey L, Neuzil KM, Carpp LN, Pajon R, Follmann D, Donis RO, Koup RA; Immune Assays Team§; Moderna, Inc. Team§; Coronavirus Vaccine Prevention Network (CoVPN)/Coronavirus Efficacy (COVE) Team§; United States Government (USG)/CoVPN Biostatistics Team§. Science. 2021 Nov 23:eab3435.
 Efficacy and safety of the mRNA-1273 SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. Baden LR, El Sahly HM, Essink B, Kotloff K, Frey S, Novak R, Diemert D, Spector SA, Rouphael N, Creech CB, McGettigan J, Khetan S, Segall N, Solis J, Brosz A, Fierro C, Schwartz H, Neuzil K, Corey L, Gilbert P, Janes H, Follmann D, Marovich M, Mascola J, Polakowski L, Ledgerwood J, Graham BS, Bennett H, Pajon R, Knightly C, Leav B, Deng W, Zhou H, Han S, Ivarsson M, Miller J, Zaks T; COVE Study Group. N Engl J Med. 2021 Feb 4;384(5):403-416.
 A government-led effort to identify correlates of protection for COVID-19 vaccines. Koup RA, Donis RO, Gilbert PB, Li AW, Shah NA, Houchens CR. Nat Med. 2021 Sep;27(9):1493-1494.
 Evaluation of the BNT162b2 Covid-19 vaccine in children 5 to 11 years of age. Walter EB, Talaat KR, Sabharwal C, Gurtman A, Lockhart S, Paulsen GC, Barnett ED, Muñoz FM, Maldonado Y, Pahud BA, Domachowske JB, Simões EAF, Sarwar UN, Kitchin N, Cunliffe L, Rojo P, Kuchar E, Rämet M, Munjal I, Perez JL, Frenck RW Jr, Lagkadinou E, Swanson KA, Ma H, Xu X, Koury K, Mather S, Belanger TJ, Cooper D, Türeci Ö, Dormitzer PR, Şahin U, Jansen KU, Gruber WC; C4591007 Clinical Trial Group. N Engl J Med. 2021 Nov 9:NEJMoa2116298.
 COVID-19 vaccine booster shots. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nov 29, 2021.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Combat COVID (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
Peter Gilbert (Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center)
David Montefiori (Duke University, Durham, NC)
Adrian McDermott (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)
NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases