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Celebrating the Fourth with Neuroscience Fireworks

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There’s so much to celebrate about our country this Fourth of July. That includes giving thanks to all those healthcare providers who have put themselves in harm’s way to staff the ERs, hospital wards, and ICUs to care for those afflicted with COVID-19, and also for everyone who worked so diligently to develop, test, and distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

These “shots of hope,” created with rigorous science and in record time, are making it possible for a great many Americans to gather safely once again with family and friends. So, if you’re vaccinated (and I really hope you are—because these vaccines have been proven safe and highly effective), fire up the grill, crank up the music, and get ready to show your true red, white, and blue colors. My wife and I—both fully vaccinated—intend to do just that!

To help get the celebration rolling, I’d like to share a couple minutes of some pretty amazing biological fireworks. While the track of a John Philip Sousa march is added just for fun, what you see in the video above is the result of some very serious neuroscience research that is scientifically, as well as visually, breath taking. Credit for this work goes to an NIH-supported team that includes Ricardo Azevedo and Sunil Gandhi, at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, University of California, Irvine, and their collaborator Damian Wheeler, Translucence Biosystems, Irvine, CA. Azevedo is also an NIH National Research Service Award fellow and a Medical Scientist Training Program trainee with Gandhi.

The team’s video starts off with 3D, colorized renderings of a mouse brain at cellular resolution. About 25 seconds in, the video flashes to a bundle of nerve fibers called the fornix. Thanks to the wonders of fluorescent labeling combined with “tissue-clearing” and other innovative technologies, you can clearly see the round cell bodies of individual neurons, along with the long, arm-like axons that they use to send out signals and connect with other neurons to form signaling circuits. The human brain has nearly 100 trillion of these circuits and, when activated, they process incoming sensory information and provide outputs that lead to our thoughts, words, feelings, and actions.

As shown in the video, the nerve fibers of the fornix provide a major output pathway from the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in memory. Next, we travel to the brain’s neocortex, the outermost part of the brain that’s responsible for complex behaviors, and then move on to explore an intricate structure called the corticospinal tract, which carries motor commands to the spinal cord. The final stop is the olfactory tubercle —towards the base of the frontal lobe—a key player in odor processing and motivated behaviors.

Azevedo and his colleagues imaged the brain in this video in about 40 minutes using their imaging platform called the Translucence Biosystems’ Mesoscale Imaging System™. This process starts with a tissue-clearing method that eliminates light-scattering lipids, leaving the mouse brain transparent. From there, advanced light-sheet microscopy makes thin optical sections of the tissue, and 3D data processing algorithms reconstruct the image to high resolution.

Using this platform, researchers can take brain-wide snapshots of neuronal activity linked to a specific behavior. They can also use it to trace neural circuits that span various regions of the brain, allowing them to form new hypotheses about the brain’s connectivity and how such connectivity contributes to memory and behavior.

The video that you see here is a special, extended version of the team’s first-place video from the NIH-supported BRAIN Initiative’s 2020 “Show Us Your BRAINS!” imaging contest. Because of the great potential of this next-generation technology, Translucence Biosystems has received Small Business Innovation Research grants from NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health to disseminate its “brain-clearing” imaging technology to the neuroscience community.

As more researchers try out this innovative approach, one can only imagine how much more data will be generated to enhance our understanding of how the brain functions in health and disease. That is what will be truly spectacular for everyone working on new and better ways to help people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, depression, and so many other neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Wishing all of you a happy and healthy July Fourth!

Links:

Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

NIH National Research Service Award

Medical Scientist Training Program (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)

Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (NIH)

Translucence Biosystems (Irvine, CA)

Sunil Gandhi (University of California, Irvine)

Ricardo Azevedo (University of California, Irvine)

Video: iDISCO-cleared whole brain from a Thy1-GFP mouse (Translucence Biosystems)

Show Us Your BRAINs! Photo & Video Contest (Brain Initiative/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Eye Institute


Meet an Inspiring Researcher Who Helped Create COVID-19 mRNA Vaccines

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More than 170 million Americans already have received COVID-19 vaccines. As this number continues to grow and expand to younger age groups, I’m filled with overwhelming gratitude for all of the researchers who worked so diligently, over the course of decades, to build the scientific foundation for these life-saving vaccines. One of them is Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who played a central role in the fact that, in the span of less than a year, we were able to develop safe and effective mRNA-based vaccines to protect against this devastating infectious disease.

As leader of the immunopathogenesis team at NIH’s Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center in Bethesda, MD, Dr. Corbett was ready, willing, and able when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged to take the critical first steps in developing what would become the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccines. Recently, she accepted a position at Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, where she will soon open her own viral immunology lab to help inform future vaccine development for coronaviruses and other respiratory viruses.

While she was preparing for her move to Harvard, I had a chance to speak with Dr. Corbett about her COVID-19 research experience and what it was like to get immunized with the vaccine that she helped to create. Our conversation was part of an NIH Facebook Live event in which we connected virtually from our homes in Maryland. Here is a condensed version of our chat.


Collins: You’ve studied SARS, MERS, and other coronaviruses for many years. Then, in early January 2020, like all of us, you heard that something was going on that sounded worrisome in Wuhan, China. What did you think?

Corbett: Well, the story actually began for me on December 31, 2019. My boss Dr. Barney Graham sent me an email at 6 a.m. that said: “Get ready for 2020.” There had been some news of a respiratory virus outbreak in the Wuhan district of China. I honestly wrote it off as probably a strain of the flu. Then, we got back to NIH after the holidays, and it was determined around January 6 that the virus was for certain a coronavirus. That meant our team would be responding to it.

We sat down and planned to monitor the situation very closely. We knew exactly what to do, based on our past work. We would go into full force to make a vaccine—the one now known as “the Moderna vaccine” —as quickly as possible for testing in a clinical trial. The goal was to make the vaccine in 100 days. And so when the genetic sequence of this new virus came out on January 10, I sprung out of bed and so did everyone on the team. It’s been kind of a whirlwind ever since.

Collins: Tell us a little bit more about that. The sequence got posted on the internet by a Chinese scientist. So you have this sequence, and everyone gathers in NIH’s Vaccine Research Center. Then what happens?

Corbett: The cool thing about this type of technology is you don’t even need the lab to design the vaccine. All you need are the letters, or sequence, that encodes the virus’ genetic material displayed on your computer screen. We could actually do the work from our homes, obviously in close conversation with each other.

This sequence is the virus’s genetic code. Just like humans have families—brothers, sisters, cousins—viruses also have families. So, we could see when looking at the sequence of letters, how similar this particular virus was to viruses that we’ve worked with before in the coronavirus family. It was almost like “A-ha! This is the part of the sequence that represents the protein on the surface of the virus.”

We knew that we could take the sequence of that surface protein and use all of the knowledge that we had from previous years to design a vaccine. And that’s what we did. We took that sequence on our computer screen and said we said this is exactly how we want this vaccine to look. The process was as straightforward as that.

Collins: In other words, you already knew that these coronaviruses have spike proteins on their surface and that’s the thing that’s going to be really useful for making an antibody. You’d already taken this approach in developing a vaccine for MERS, right?

Corbett: Exactly, we’d done that for MERS. Vaccines are basically a way to teach your body how to see a pathogen. Over the years, as vaccinology and technology have progressed, different scientists have figured out that you don’t really need the whole virus as a part of the vaccine. You can just take a small portion of that virus to alert your body.

In this case, taking the spike protein and teaching your immune system how to specifically spot and attack it, you can now protect yourself from COVID-19. So, we used the sequence of that spike protein, with some modifications to make it much better as a vaccine. We then deliver that to you as a message—messenger RNA (mRNA) —to get your muscle cells briefly to make the spike protein. Then, your body sees that spike protein hanging out on your cells and makes a really specific immune response to it. That way the next time your body sees the spike protein, if you ever come into contact with the virus, your immune system is armed and ready to attack.

Collins: Say more about this messenger RNA approach. It’s been so revolutionary and one of the reasons that we got vaccines into people’s arms in just 11 months. Had this approach ever been used before?

Corbett: Yes, messenger RNA technologies have been in development from a basic science perspective for over 15 years. A lot of that work was funded by NIH. Soon after I got to NIH, I attended a meeting in London called Transforming Vaccinology. At the time, Moderna was a smaller company that was working to make messenger RNA technologies, mostly centered around cancer therapies. But they had started to test some flu vaccines that used messenger RNA. My question to the presenter was: “Every single time I see you guys present, it looks like mRNA technology has always worked. Can you tell me a time that it hasn’t?” And he said, “I can’t.”

So, our understanding of how this technology works to make really good vaccines predates this pandemic. I think one of the worries that many people have is how fast and how new this technology is. But all science is compounded knowledge—everything builds on itself.

Collins: Right! We only learned about messenger RNA, because back in the 1950s and 1960s, some researchers decided to figure out how the information in our genetic instruction book, our DNA, can ultimately turn into proteins. It turned out that the message that carries that information is made of RNA.

So, you knew which kinds of letters to program into the messenger RNA vaccine. Would you explain how this vaccine, its messenger RNA, produces a spike protein. Where does that step happen?

Corbett: Your cells are machines built for this kind of thing. I like to remind people that, on a day-in, day-out basis, our cells make proteins—all of the hormones and other things our bodies needs to survive. So, we’re not teaching the cells to do anything different than they would normally do. That’s important to understand.

The way that cells do this is by reading the mRNA sequence. As they’re reading that sequence, they chew it up, like eating it, and say, “Okay, this sequence is for this very specific protein.” Then, they make that protein and push it to the surface of your cells. That’s how it happens.

Collins: And for mRNA vaccines, that’s the point when your immune system says “Wait a minute! I don’t recognize that as part of me, so I’ve got to make an antibody to it.” Then you’re off to the races and develop your immunity. Now that this mRNA vaccine strategy has succeeded for COVID-19, could it be applied to other infectious diseases or even non-infectious conditions?

Corbett: Yes, I heard that about 60 new companies have sprouted up in the last year around messenger RNA technology. They have ideas for different types of infectious disease vaccines and cancer therapies. I expect that this technology will be transformative to medicine in general.

Collins: Here’s a question from social media: “Why does it take two shots for the Pfizer and the Moderna mRNA vaccines? Why isn’t one good enough?”

Corbett: The way that these vaccines work is much like an alarm clock. Imagine your immune system is in bed and the first shot is the alarm clock going off to say, “Hey, wake up and get ready.” And just like I did this morning, the immune system pressed snooze and took a little nap. But when you hear the alarm clock the second time, it’s like someone rushing into your room and pouring a cold bucket of water on you. You have no choice but to get out of bed.

That’s what the second dose of the vaccine does. It pushes your immune response to the next level. That’s why you need two shots to get the type of efficacy that you want and be fully protected for the optimal immune response.

Collins: You were a co-leader of the team that created what became the Moderna vaccine—and you ended up getting immunized with the Moderna vaccine. What did that feel like?

Corbett: It was pretty surreal. I cried. At the end of it, I felt a lot of relief after getting my vaccine, particularly after getting the second dose. There was this breath of fresh air. It was also a birthday present. I got my second dose the day before my 35th birthday, as a birthday present to myself.

Collins: I have to admit, I cried a little bit too after my second dose. It’s just the sense of relief and incredible gratitude that we’ve reached this point. Here we are with vaccines that have 95 percent effectiveness and an incredibly good safety record, which is almost better than we could have hoped for. I’m a person of faith, so there were a lot of my prayers that went into this and it sure felt like they got answered.

Corbett: Yes, same.

Collins: You are out there a lot talking to people about the vaccines. There are still about 100 million Americans that have not yet received their first dose. Many of them still unsure about getting vaccinated. What do you say to those who are on the fence?

Corbett: In this past year, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the vaccine with people in the community. One thing that I realized, is that I don’t need to say anything unless I’m asked. I think it’s important that I listen first, instead of just speaking.

So I do that, and I try to answer people’s inquiries as specifically as possible. But people have some very broad questions. One thing that is happening is people are seeing vaccines being developed right before their eyes. That can be a little confusing. I try to explain the process, how we went from the preclinical stage all the way to the point of getting the vaccine to hundreds of millions of people. I explain how each step along the way is very highly vetted by regulatory agencies and data safety monitoring committees. I also tell them that the monitoring continues. People from the clinical trials are still being evaluated, and there’s monitoring in the real world as the vaccine is being rolled out. I think that all of those things are really important for people to know.

Collins: Another question from social media: “As a successful scientist, what advice would you give to people who are thinking about a career in science?”

Corbett: If you think you’re interested, you just have to start. There are internship programs, there are scholarship programs, there are shadowing programs all over this country and even globally that can help you get your feet wet. I think the first thing that you want to do with any career is to figure out whether or not you like it. The only way that you can do that is to just explore, explore, explore.

Collins: Didn’t you kind of roll up your sleeves and take the plunge at a young age?

Corbett: Yes, at age 16, I went off and did summer internships at the University of North Carolina. I was able to see first-hand the day-to-day life of science and what being a scientist would look like. That was really important for me. That’s what I mean by exploring.

Collins: And a follow-up question: “Is the biomedical research community welcoming to women of color?”

Corbett: Not always, frankly. I was very fortunate to have been under the wings of a lot of mentors and advocates, who have helped to advance my career to where it is now. I had great mentors at NIH. My graduate school mentor was amazing, and my main collaborator in the coronavirus field was on my dissertation committee. Even prior to this pandemic, when I was doing work that was very obscure, he checked on me very often and made sure that he had a sense of where I wanted to go and how he could help me get there, including collaborating with me.

That kind of thing is very important, particularly for women of color or anyone from a marginalized community. That’s because there will be a point where there might be a glass ceiling. Unfortunately, we don’t necessarily have the tools to break those just yet. So, someone else is going to have to break those down, and most often than not, that person is going to have to be a white man. Finding those people who are allies with you and joining in your fight for your career trajectory is very helpful.

I remember when I was choosing a college, it was a very difficult decision for me. I got accepted into Ivy League schools, and I’d gone to all of the scholarship weekends all over the country. When I was making the decision, my dad said, “Kizzy, just always go where there is love.”

That really sticks to me with every single choice that I make around my career. You want to be at a place that’s welcoming, a place that understands you, and a place that fosters the next version of who you are destined to be. You need to make sure to step back outside of the day-to-day stuff and say, “Okay, does this place love me and people like me?” It’s important to remember that’s how you thrive: when you are comfortable in and in love with your environment.

Collins: Yes, we have to move our scientific workforce into a place where it is not necessary for a white man to advocate for a talented Black woman. There’s something very wrong with that particular circumstance. As NIH Director, I want to assure you, we are motivated more than ever to change that, including through a new initiative called UNITE. We’re missing out on welcoming the talents of so many folks who currently don’t see our research agenda as theirs, and we need to change that.

Kizzmekia, this has been a lot of fun. Thank you for giving us a half-hour of your time when you’re in the midst of this crazy two-week period of moving from Bethesda to Boston. We wish you the very best for this next chapter, which I know is going to be just amazing.

Corbett: Thank you so much.

Links:

Video: COVID-19 mRNA Vaccine Q & A – Kizzmekia Corbett and Francis Collins (NIH)

Video: Lead COVID-19 scientist Kizzmekia Corbett to join Harvard Chan School faculty (Harvard University, Boston)

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

UNITE Initiative (NIH)


U.S. Surgeon General on Emotional Well-Being and Fighting the Opioid Epidemic

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From September 2019 to September 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported nearly 90,000 overdose deaths in the United States. These latest data on the nation’s opioid crisis offer another stark reminder that help is desperately needed in communities across the land. NIH’s research efforts to address the opioid crisis have been stressed during the pandemic, but creative investigators have come up with workarounds like wider use of telemedicine to fill the gap.

Much of NIH’s work on the opioid crisis is supported by the Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative. Recently, the more-than 500 investigators supported by HEAL came together virtually for their second annual meeting to discuss the initiative’s latest research progress and challenges.

As part of the meeting, I had a conversation with Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General. Dr. Murthy served as the 19th U.S. Surgeon General under the Obama Administration and was recently confirmed as the 21st Surgeon General under the Biden Administration. In his first term as America’s Doctor, in which I had the privilege of working with him, Dr. Murthy created initiatives to tackle our country’s most urgent public health issues, including addiction and the opioid crisis. He also issued the nation’s first Surgeon General’s Report on addiction, presenting the latest scientific data and issuing a call to action to recognize addiction as a chronic illness—and not a moral failing.

In 2016, Dr. Murthy sent a letter to 2.3 million healthcare professionals urging them to join a movement to tackle the opioid epidemic. This was the first time in the history of the office that a Surgeon General had issued a letter calling the medical profession to action on this issue. In 2017, Dr. Murthy focused his attention on chronic stress and isolation as prevalent problems with profound implications for health, productivity, and happiness.

Our conversation during the HEAL meeting took place via videoconference, with the Surgeon General connecting from Washington, D.C., and me linking in from my home in Maryland. Here’s a condensed transcript of our chat:


Collins: Welcome, Dr. Murthy. We’ve known each other for a few years, and I know that you’ve talked extensively about the national epidemic of loneliness. What have you learned about loneliness and how it affects our emotional wellbeing?

Murthy: Thanks, Francis. Loneliness and perceived social isolation are profound challenges for communities struggling with addiction, including opioid use disorders. I had no real background in these issues when I started as Surgeon General in 2014. I was educated by people I met all across the country, who in their own way would tell me their stories of isolation and loneliness. It’s a common stressor, especially for those who struggle with opioid use disorders. Stress can be a trigger for relapse. It’s also connected with overdose attempts and overdose deaths.

But loneliness is bigger than addiction. It is not just a bad feeling. Loneliness increases our risk of anxiety and depression, dementia, cardiac disease, and a host of other conditions. However you cut it, addressing social isolation and loneliness is an important public-health issue if we care about addiction, if we care about mental health—if we care about the physical wellbeing of people in our country.

Collins: Vivek, you made the diagnosis of an epidemic of American loneliness back before COVID-19 came along. With the emergence of COVID-19 a little more than a year ago, it caused us to isolate ourselves even more. Now that you’re back as Surgeon General and seeing the consequences of the worst pandemic in 103 years, is loneliness even worse now than before the pandemic?

Murthy: I think there are many people for whom that sense of isolation and loneliness has increased during the pandemic. But the pandemic has been a very heterogenous experience. There are some people who have found themselves more surrounded by their extended family or a close set of friends. That has been, in many ways, a luxury. For many people who are on the frontlines as essential workers, whose jobs don’t permit them to just pick up and leave and visit extended family, these have been very stressful and isolating times.

So, I am worried. And I’m particularly worried about young people—adolescents and young adults. They already had high rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide before the pandemic, and they’re now struggling with loneliness. I mention this because young people are so hyperconnected by technology, they seem to be on TikTok and Instagram all the time. They seem to be chatting with their friends constantly, texting all the time. How could they feel isolated or lonely?

But one of the things that has become increasingly clear is what matters when it comes to loneliness is the quality of your human connections, not the quantity. For many young people that I spoke to while traveling across the country, they would say that, yes, we’re connected to people all the time. But we don’t necessarily feel like we can always be ourselves in our social media environment. That’s where comparison culture is at its height. That’s where we feel like our lives are always falling short, whether it’s not having a fancy enough job, not having as many friends, or not having the right clothing or other accessories.

We talk a lot about resilience in our country. But how do we develop more resilient people? One of the keys is to recognize that social connections are an important source of resilience. They are our natural buffers for stress. When hard things happen in our lives, so many of us just instinctively will pick up the phone to call a friend. Or we’ll get into the car and go visit a member of our family or church. The truth is, if we want to build a society that’s healthier mentally and physically, that is more resilient, and that is also more happy and fulfilled, we have to think about how we build a society that is more centered around human connection and around relationships.

My hope is that one of the things we will reevaluate is building a people-centered society. That means designing workplaces that allow people to prioritize relationships. It means designing schools that equip our children with social and emotional learning tools to build healthy relationships from the earliest ages. It means thinking about public policy, not from just the standpoint of financial impact but in terms of how it impacts communities and how it can fracture communities.

We have an opportunity to do that now, but it won’t happen by default. We have to think through this very proactively, and it starts with our own lives. What does it mean for each of us to live a truly people-centered life? What decisions would we make differently about work, about how we spend time, about where we put our attention and energy?

Collins: Those are profound and very personal words that I think we can all relate to. Let me ask you about another vulnerable population that we care deeply about. There are 50 million Americans who are living with chronic pain, invisible to many, especially during the pandemic, for whom being even more isolated has been particularly rough—and who are perhaps in a circumstance where getting access to medical care has been challenging. As Surgeon General, are you also looking closely at the folks with chronic pain?

Murthy: You’re right, the populations that were more vulnerable pre-pandemic have really struggled during this pandemic—whether that’s getting medications for treatment, needed counseling services, or taking part in social support groups, which are an essential part of the overall treatment approach and staying in recovery. It’s a reminder of how urgent it is for us, number one, to improve access to healthcare in our country. We’ve made huge strides in this area, but millions are still out of reach of the healthcare system.

A potential silver lining of this pandemic is telemedicine, which has extraordinary potential to improve and extend access to services for people living with substance use disorders. In 2016, I remember visiting a small Alaskan fishing village that you can only get to by boat or plane. In that tiny village of 150 people, I walked into the small cabin where they had first-aid supplies and provided some basic medical care. There I saw a small monitor mounted on the wall and a chair. They told me that the monitor is where people, if they’re dealing with a substance use disorder, come and sit to get counseling services from people in the lower 48 states. I was so struck by that. To know that telemedicine could reach this remote Alaskan village was really extraordinary.

I think the pandemic has accelerated our adoption of telemedicine by perhaps five years or more. But we must sustain this momentum not only with investment in broadband infrastructure, but with other things that seem mundane, like the reimbursement structure around telemedicine. I talk to clinicians now who say they are seeing some private insurers go back on reimbursement for telemedicine because the pandemic is starting to get better. But the lesson learned is not that telemedicine should go away; it’s that we should be integrating it even more deeply into the practice of medicine.

The future of care, I believe, is bringing care closer to where people are, integrating it into their workflow, bringing it to their homes and their neighborhoods. I saw this so clearly for many of the patients I cared for who fell into that category of being in vulnerable populations. They were working two, three jobs, trying to take care of their children at the same time. Having a conversation with them about how they could find time to go to the gym was almost a laughable matter because they were literally dealing with issues of survival and putting food on the table for their kids. As a society we have to do more to understand the lives of people who fall into those categories and provide services that bring what they need to them, as opposed to expecting them to come to us.

If we continue in a purely fee-for-service-based environment where people must go multiple places to get their care, we will not ultimately get care to the vulnerable populations that have struggled the most and that are hoping that we will do better this time around. I think we can. I think we must. And I think COVID may just be, in part, the impetus to move forward in a different way that we need.

Collins: Let’s talk a minute about the specifics of the opioid crisis. If we’re going to move this crisis in the right direction, are there particular areas that you would say we really need more rigorous data in order to convince the medical care system—both the practitioners and the people deciding about reimbursement—that these are things we must do?

Murthy: There are a few areas that come to mind, and I’ve jotted them down. It is so important for us to do research with vulnerable populations, recognizing they often get left out. It’s essential that we conduct studies specifically for these populations so that we can better target interventions to them.

The second area is prevention programs. People want to prevent illnesses. I have not met anybody anywhere in the United States who has said, “I’d rather get diabetes first and treat it versus prevent it in the first place.” As silly as that might sound, it is the exact opposite of how we finance health interventions in our country. We put the lion’s share of our dollars in treatment. We do very little in prevention.

The third piece is the barriers faced by primary-care clinicians, who we want to be at the heart of providing a lot of these treatment services. I’ll tell you, just from my conversations with primary-care docs around the country, they worry about not having enough for their patients in the way of social work and social support services in their offices.
Finally, it has become extraordinarily clear to me that social support is one of the critical elements of treatment for substance use disorders. That it is what helps keep people in recovery. I think about the fact that many people I met who struggle with opioid use disorders had family members who were wondering how they could be helpful. They weren’t sure. They said, “Should I just keep badgering my relative to go to treatment? Should I take a tough love approach? What should I do to be helpful?”

This actually is one of the most pressing issues: social support is most often going to come from family, from friends, and from other community members. So, being able to guide them in an evidence-based way about what measures, what forms actually can be helpful to people struggling with opioid use disorders could also be immensely helpful to a group that is looking to provide assistance and support, but often is struggling to figure out how best to do that.

Collins: Vivek, you were focused as Surgeon General in the Obama Administration on the importance of changing how America thinks about addiction—that it is not a moral failing but a chronic illness that has to be treated with compassion, urgency, skill, and medical intervention. Are we getting anywhere with making that case?

Murthy: Sometimes people shy away from addressing the stigma around addiction because it feels too hard to address. But it is one of the most important issues to address. If people are still feeling judged for their disorders, they are not going to feel comfortable coming forward and getting treatment. And others will hesitate to step up and provide support.

I will always remember the young couple I met in Oklahoma who had lost their son to an opioid overdose. They told me that previously in their life whenever they had a struggle—a job loss or other health issue in the family—neighbors would come over, they would drop off food, they would visit and sit with them in their living room and hold their hands to see if they were okay. When their son died after opioid use disorder, it was silent. Nobody came over. It’s a very common story of how people feel ashamed, they feel uncomfortable, they don’t know quite what to say. So they stay away, which is the worst thing possible during these times of great pain and distress.

I do think we have made progress in the last few years. There are more people stepping forward to tell their stories. There are more people and practitioners who are embracing the importance of talking to their patients about substance use disorders and getting involved in treating them. But the truth is, we still have many people in the country who feel ashamed of what they’re dealing with. We still have many family members who feel that this is a source of shame to have a loved one struggling with a substance use disorder.

To me, this is much bigger than substance use disorders. This is a broader cultural issue of how we think about strength and vulnerability. We have defined strength in modern society as the loudest voice in the room or the person with the most physical prowess, the person who’s aggressive in negotiations, and the person who’s famous.
But I don’t think that’s what strength really is. Strength is so often displayed in moments of vulnerability when people have the courage to open up and be themselves. Strength is defined by the people who have the courage to display love, patience, and compassion, especially when it’s difficult. That’s what real strength is.

One of my hopes is that, as a society, we can ultimately redefine strength. As we think about our children and what we want them to be, we cannot aspire for them to be the loudest voice in the room. We can aspire for them to be the most-thoughtful, the most-welcoming, the most-inviting, the most-compassionate voice in the room.

If we truly want to be a society that’s grounded in love, compassion, and kindness, if we truly recognize those as the sources of strength and healing, we have to value those in our workplaces. They have to be reflected in our promotion systems. We have to value them in the classroom. Ultimately, we’ve got to build our lives around them.

That is a broader lesson that I took from all of the conversations I’ve had with people who struggle with opioid use disorders. What I took was, yes, we need medication and assisted treatment; yes, we need counseling services; yes, we need social services and wraparound services and recovery services. But the engine that will drive our healing is fundamentally the love and compassion that come from human relationships.

We all have the ability to heal because we all have the ability to be kind and to love one another. That’s the lesson that it took me more than two decades to learn in medicine. More important than any prescription that I could write is the compassion that I could extend to patients simply by listening, by showing up, by being present in their lives. We all have that ability, regardless of what degrees follow our name.

Collins: Vivek, this has been a wonderful conversation. We are fortunate to have you as our Surgeon General at this time, when we need lots of love and compassion.

Murthy: Thank you so much, Francis.


Links:

Opioids (National Institute on Drug Abuse/NIH)

Opioid Overdose Crisis (NIDA)

Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.)

Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative (NIH)

Video: Emotional Well Being and the Power of Connections to Fight the Opioid Epidemic (HEAL/NIH)


Lessons Learned About Substance Use Disorders During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Nora Volkow and Francis Collins in a teleconference from their recent conversation

Every spring, I and my colleague Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), join with leaders across the country in the Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit. Our role is to discuss NIH’s continued progress in tackling our nation’s opioid crisis. Because of the continued threat of COVID-19 pandemic, we joined in virtually for the second year in a row.

While the demands of the pandemic have been challenging for everyone, biomedical researchers have remained hard at work to address the opioid crisis. Among the many ways that NIH is supporting these efforts is through its Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative, which is directing more than $1.5 billion to researchers and communities across the country.

Here’s a condensed transcript of our April 6th video dialogue, which focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people struggling with substance use disorders and those who are trying to help them.

HEAL NIH Helping to End Addition Long-term

Collins: What have we learned so far through HEAL? Well, one thing HEAL is doing is tackling the need for pain treatments that help people avoid the risks of opioids. This research has uncovered new targets and therapeutics for different types of pain, including neuropathic, post-surgical, osteoarthritic, and chemotherapy induced. We’re testing implanted devices, such as electrodes and non-invasive nerve stimulation; and looking at complementary and integrative approaches, such as phone-based physical therapy for low back pain.

Through HEAL, we’ve launched a first-in-human test of a vaccine to protect against the harmful effects of opioids, including relapse and overdose. We’re also testing a tool that provides pharmacists with a validated opioid use disorder risk measure. The goal is to identify better who’s at high risk for opioid addiction and to determine what kind of early intervention could be put in place.

Despite COVID, many clinical studies are now recruiting participants. This includes family-based prevention programs, culturally tailored interventions for hard-hit American Indian populations, and interventions that address social inequities, such as lack of housing.

We are also making progress on the truly heart-breaking problem of babies born dependent on opioids. HEAL has launched a study to test the effectiveness of a new approach to care that measures the severity of a baby’s withdrawal, based on their ability to eat, sleep, and be consoled. This approach helps provide appropriate treatment for these infants, without the use of medication when possible. We’re also developing novel technologies to help treat neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome, including a gently vibrating hospital bassinet pad that’s received breakthrough device designation from the FDA.

2020 was an extraordinary year that was tragic in so many ways, including lives lost and economic disasters that have fallen upon families. The resilience and ingenuity of the scientific community has been impressive. Quick pivoting has resulted in some gains through research, maybe you could even call them silver linings in the midst of this terrible storm.

Nora, what’s been at the forefront of your mind as we’ve watched things unfold?

Volkow: When we did this one year ago, we didn’t know what to expect. Obviously, we were concerned that the stressors associated with a pandemic, with unknowns, are factors that have been recognized for many years to increase drug use. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is an increase in drug use of all types across the country.

We have seen an exacerbation of the opioid epidemic, as evidenced by the number of people who have died. Already, in the 12 months ending in July 2020, there was a 24 percent increase in mortality from overdoses. Within those numbers, there was close to a 50 percent increase in mortality associated with fentanyl. We’re also seeing an increase, not just in deaths from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, but in deaths from stimulant drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamine. And the largest increases have been very much driven by drug combinations.

So, we have the perfect storm. We have people stressed to their limits by decreases in the economy, the loss of jobs, the death of loved ones. On the other hand, we see dealers taking the opportunity to bring in drugs such as synthetic opioids and synthetic stimulants and distribute them to a much wider extent than previously seen.

Collins: On top of that, people are at risk of getting sick from COVID-19. What have we learned about the risks of coronavirus illness for people who use drugs?

Volkow: It is a double whammy. When you look at the electronic health records about the outcomes of people diagnosed with substance use disorders, you consistently see an increased risk for getting infected with COVID-19. And if you look at those who get infected, you observe a significantly increased risk of dying from COVID.

What’s driving this vulnerability? One factor is the pharmacological effects of these drugs. Basically, all of the drugs of abuse that result in addiction, notably opioids, damage the cardiopulmonary system. Some also damage the immune system. And we know that individuals who have any disruption of cardiovascular health, pulmonary health, immune function, or metabolism are at higher risk of getting infected with COVID-19 and having adverse outcomes.

But there’s another factor that’s as important—one that’s very tractable. It is the way in which our society has dealt with substance use disorders: not actually treating them as a disease that requires intervention and support for recovery. The stigmatization of individuals with addiction, the lack of access to treatment, the social isolation, have all created havoc by making these individuals so much more vulnerable to get infected with COVID-19.

They will not go to a doctor. They don’t want to be stigmatized. They need to go out into the streets to get access to the drugs. Many times, they don’t have a choice of what drugs to take because they cannot afford anything except what’s offered to them. So, many, especially those who are minorities, end up homeless or in jails or prison. Even before COVID, we knew that prisons and jails are places where infections can transmit extraordinary rapidly. You could see this was going to result in very negative outcomes for this group of individuals.

Collins: Nora, tell us more about the trends contributing to the current crisis. Maybe three or four years ago, what was going straight up was opioid use, especially heroin. Then, fentanyl started coming up very fast and that has continued. Now, we are seeing more stimulants and mixing of different types of drugs. What is the basis for this?

Volkow: At the beginning of the opiate pandemic, mortality was mainly associated with white Americans, many in rural or semi-suburban areas of the Appalachian states and in New Mexico and Arizona. That has shifted. The highest increase in mortality from opioids, predominantly driven by fentanyl, is now among Black Americans. They’ve had very, very high rates of mortality during the COVID pandemic. And when you look at mortality from methamphetamine, it’s chilling to realize that the risk of dying from methamphetamine overdose is 12-fold higher among American Indians and Alaskan Natives than other groups. This should make us pause to think about what’s driving these terrible racial disparities.

As for drug combinations, many deaths from methamphetamine or cocaine—an estimated 50 percent—are linked to these stimulant drugs being combined with fentanyl or heroin. Dealers are lacing these non-opioid drugs with cheaper, yet potent, opioids to make a larger profit. Someone who’s addicted to a stimulant drug like cocaine or methamphetamine is not tolerant to opioids, which means they are going to be at high risk of overdose if they get a stimulant drug that’s laced with an opioid like fentanyl. That’s been contributing to the sharp rise in mortality from non-opioid drugs.

Collins: I’m glad you raised the issue of health disparities. 2020 will go down as a year in which our nation had to focus on three public health crises at once. The first is the crisis of opioid use disorder and rising mortality from use of other drugs. The second is COVID-19. And the third is the realization, although the problem has been there all along, that health disparities continue to shorten the lives of far too many people.

The latter crisis has little to do with biology, but everything to do with the way in which our society still is afflicted by structural racism. We at NIH are looking at this circumstance, realizing that our own health disparities research agenda needs to be rethought. We have not fully incorporated all the factors that play out in health inequities and racial inequities in our country.

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You were also talking about how stimulants have become more widespread. What about treatments for people with stimulant use disorders?

Volkow: For opioid addiction, we’re lucky because we have very effective medications: methadone, buprenorphine, naltrexone. On top of that, we have naloxone, Narcan, that if administered on time, can save the life of a person who has overdosed.

We don’t have any FDA-approved medication for methamphetamine addiction, and we don’t have any overdose reversal for methamphetamine. At the beginning of this year, we funded a large clinical trial aimed at investigating the benefits of the combination of two medications that were already approved as anti-depressants and for the treatment of smoking cessation and alcoholism. It found this combination significantly inhibits the urge to take drugs and therefore helps people stay away from use of methamphetamine. Now, we want to replicate these findings, and to tie that replication study in with guidelines from the FDA on what is needed to approve our new indication for these medications. Why? Because then insurance can cover it, and that will increase the likelihood that people will get treated.

Another exciting possibility is a monoclonal antibody against methamphetamine that’s in Phase 2 clinical trials. If someone comes into the emergency room with an overdose of a combination of opioid and methamphetamine, naloxone often will not work. But this monoclonal antibody with naloxone may offer a greater likelihood of success.
Another thing that’s promising is that investigators have been able to modify monoclonal antibodies so they stay in the bloodstream for a longer time. That means we may someday be able to use this passive immunization approach as a treatment for methamphetamine addiction.

Collins: That’s good to hear. Speaking of progress, is there any you want to point to within HEAL?

Volkow: There’s a lot of excitement surrounding medication development. We’re interested in developing antidotes that will be more effective in reversing overdose deaths from fentanyl. We’re also interested in providing longer lasting medications for treatment of opioid use disorders, which would improve the likelihood of patients being protected from overdoses.

The Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network (JCOIN) is another HEAL landmark project. It involves a network of researchers that is working with judges and with the workers in jail and prison systems responsible for taking care of individuals with substance use disorders. Through this network, we’ve been able to start to harmonize practices. One thing that’s been transformative in the jail and prison system has been the embracing of telehealth. In the past, telehealth was not much of a reality in jails and prisons because of the fear of it could lead to communications that could perhaps be considered dangerous. That’s changed due to COVID-19. Now, telehealth is providing access to treatment for individuals in jail and prison, many of them with substance use disorders.

Also, because of COVID, many nonviolent individuals in jails and prisons were released. This gives us an opportunity to evaluate how best to help such individuals achieve recovery from substance use disorders. Hopefully we can generate data to show that there are much more effective strategies than incarceration for dealing with substance use disorders.

The HEALing Communities Study, involves Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Kentucky—four of the states with the highest rates of mortality from overdoses from the inception of the opioid epidemic. By implementing a battery of interventions for which there is evidence of benefit, this ambitious study set out to decrease overdose mortality by 40 percent in two years. Then, came COVID and turned everything upside down. Still, because we consolidated interactions between agencies, we’ve been able to apply support systems more efficiently in those communities in ways that have been very, very reinforcing. Obviously, there’ve been delays in implementation of interventions that require in-person interactions or that involve hospital emergency departments, which have been saturated with COVID patients.

We’ve learned a lot in the process. I may be too optimistic, but I do believe that we can stay on goal.

Collins: Now, I’d like to transition to a few questions from people who subscribe to the HEAL website. Announced at this meeting three years ago, the HEAL Initiative involves research participants and patients and stakeholders—especially people who have lived experience with pain, addiction, or both.

Let’s get to the first question: “What is NIH doing through HEAL to address the stigma that prevents people who need opioid medications for treatment from getting them?”

Volkow: A crucial question. As we look at the issue of stigma, we need to recognize that there are structural issues in how our society is prioritizing the importance of substance use disorders and the investments devoted to them. And we need to recognize that substance use disorder doesn’t exist in isolation; it is frequently comorbid with mental illness.

We need to listen. Some of the issues that we believe are most problematic are not. We need to empower these communities to speak up and help them do so. This is probably one of the most important things that we can do in terms of addressing stigma for addiction.

Collins: Absolutely. The HEAL Initiative has a number of projects that are focusing on stigma and coming up with tools to help reduce this. And here’s our second question: “In small communities, how can we provide more access to medications for opioid use disorder?”

Volkow: One project funded through HEAL was to evaluate the effectiveness of community pharmacies for delivering buprenorphine to individuals with opioid use disorder. The results show that patients receiving buprenorphine through community pharmacies in rural areas had as good outcomes as patients being treated by specialized clinicians on site.
Another change that’s made things easier is that in March 2020, the DEA relaxed its rules on how a physician can prescribe buprenorphine. In the past, you needed to go physically to see a doctor. Now, the DEA allows a patient to be initiated on buprenorphine through telehealth, and that’s opened the possibility of greater access to treatment in rural communities.

My perspective is let’s look at innovative ways of solving problems. Because the technology is changing in so many ways and so rapidly, let’s take advantage of it.

Collins: Totally with you on that. If there’s a silver lining to COVID-19, it’s that we’ve been forced to take stock of the ways we’ve been doing things. We will learn from this pandemic and change the way we approach so many things in health and medicine as a result. Certainly, opioid use disorder ought to be very high on that list. Let’s move on to another question: “What is the HEAL initiative doing to promote prevention of opioid use?”

Volkow: This is where the HEAL initiative is aiming to provide alternative treatments for the management of pain that reduce the risk of addiction.

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Then there’s the issue of prevention in people who start to take opioids because they either want to get high or escape. With the COVID pandemic, we’ve seen increases in anxiety and in depression. Those are factors that can put a teenager or young adult on a trajectory for higher risk of substance use disorders.

So, what is HEAL doing? There is prevention research specifically targeted, for example, at the transition from adolescence to young adulthood. That is the period of greatest vulnerability of uptake of opioids, or drugs of misuse. We’re also targeting minority groups that may be at very, very high risk. We want to be able to understand the factors that make them more vulnerable to tailor prevention interventions more effectively.

Collins: Today, we’ve shared some of the issues that NIH is wrestling with in its efforts to address the crisis of opioid misuse and overdose, as well as other drugs that are now very much part of the challenge. To learn more, go to the HEAL website. You can also send us your thoughts through the HEAL Idea Exchange.

These developments give me hope in the wake of a very difficult year. Clearly, we still have the capacity to work together, we are resilient, and we are determined to put an end to our nation’s opioid crisis.

Volkow: Francis, I want to thank you for your incredible leadership and your support. I hope the COVID pandemic will bring forth a more equitable system, in which all people are given the chance for resilience that maximizes their life, happiness, and productivity. I think science is an extraordinary tool to help us do that.

Links:

Video: The 2021 Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit: Francis Collins with Nora Volkow (NIH)

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative (NIH)

HEAL Idea Exchange (NIH)

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH)

Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit, A 2021 Virtual Experience


Following COVID-19 Vaccines Across the United States

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Vaccine Tracker

Recently, there is a new and very hopeful COVID-19 number for everyone to track: the total number of vaccine doses that have been administered in the United States. If 80 percent of Americans roll up their sleeves in the coming months and accept COVID-19 vaccinations, we can greatly slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in our communities and bring this horrible pandemic to an end in 2021.

So far, more than 20 million people in our country have received one or two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. While this number is lower than initially projected for a variety of logistical reasons, we’re already seeing improvements in the distribution system that has made it possible to get close to 1 million doses administered per day.

If you want to keep track of the vaccine progress in your state over the coming weeks, it’s now pretty easy to do online. A fine resource is the vaccine information on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID Data Tracker. It offers an interactive state-by-state map, as well as data on vaccinations in long-term care facilities. Keep in mind that there’s a delay of three to five days in reporting actual vaccinations from the states.

There’s also a lot of useful information on the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center’s Vaccine Tracker. Posting the daily updates is a team, led by William Moss, that draws on the expertise of data scientists, analysts, programmers, and researchers. The Hopkins team gathers its vaccination data from each state’s official dashboard, webpages, press releases, or wherever cumulative numbers are reported. Not all states publish the same vaccine information, and that’s what can make the Vaccine Tracker so challenging to compile.

The Hopkins team now presents on its homepage the top 10 U. S. states and territories to vaccinate fully the highest percentage of their residents. With another click, there’s also a full rundown of vaccine administration by state and territory, plus the District of Columbia. The site also links to lots of other information about COVID-19—including cases, testing, contact tracing, and an interactive tool about vaccine development.

In uncertain times, knowledge can be a source of comfort. That’s what makes these interactive COVID-19 resources so helpful and empowering. They show that, with time, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines will indeed coming to everyone. I hope that you will accept your vaccine, like I did when given the opportunity. However, until we get to the point where most Americans are immunized, we must stay vigilant and keep up our tried-and-true public health measures such as wearing masks, limiting physical interactions (especially indoors), and washing our hands.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

CDC COVID Data Tracker (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)

Coronavirus Resource Center (Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine)

William Moss (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore)

International Vaccine Access Center (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore)



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