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Bringing Needed Structure to COVID-19 Drug Development

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SARS-Cov-2 Molecular Map
Caption: Molecular map showing interaction between the spike protein (gold) of the novel coronavirus and the peptidase domain (blue) of human angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). Credit: Adapted from Yan R., Science, 2020.

With so much information swirling around these days about the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, it would be easy to miss one of the most interesting and significant basic science reports of the past few weeks. It’s a paper published in the journal Science [1] that presents an atomic-scale snapshot showing the 3D structure of the spike protein on the novel coronavirus attached to a human cell surface protein called ACE2, or angiotensin converting enzyme 2. ACE2 is the receptor that the virus uses to gain entry.

What makes this image such a big deal is that it shows—in exquisite detail—how the coronavirus attaches to human cells before infecting them and making people sick. The structural map of this interaction will help guide drug developers, atom by atom, in devising safe and effective ways to treat COVID-19.

This new work, conducted by a team led by Qiang Zhou, Westlake Institute for Advanced Study, Hangzhou, China, took advantage of a high-resolution imaging tool called cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). This approach involves flash-freezing molecules in liquid nitrogen and bombarding them with electrons to capture their images with a special camera. When all goes well, cryo-EM can solve the structure of intricate macromolecular complexes in a matter of days, including this one showing the interaction between a viral protein and human protein.

Zhou’s team began by mapping the structure of human ACE2 in a complex with B0AT1, which is a membrane protein that it helps to fold. In the context of this complex, ACE2 is a dimer—a scientific term for a compound composed of two very similar units. Additional mapping revealed how the surface protein of the novel coronavirus interacts with ACE2, indicating how the virus’s two trimeric (3-unit) spike proteins might bind to an ACE2 dimer. After confirmation by further research, these maps may well provide a basis for the design and development of therapeutics that specifically target this critical interaction.

The ACE2 protein resides on the surface of cells in many parts of the human body, including the heart and lungs. The protein is known to play a prominent role in the body’s complex system of regulating blood pressure. In fact, a class of drugs that inhibit ACE and related proteins are frequently prescribed to help control high blood pressure, or hypertension. These ACE inhibitors lower blood pressure by causing blood vessels to relax.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, many people have wondered whether taking ACE inhibitors would be helpful or detrimental against coronavirus infection. This is of particular concern to doctors whose patients are already taking the medications to control hypertension. Indeed, data from China and elsewhere indicate hypertension is one of several coexisting conditions that have consistently been reported to be more common among people with COVID-19 who develop life-threatening severe acute respiratory syndrome.

In a new report in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine, a team of U.K. and U.S. researchers, partly supported by NIH, examined the use of ACE inhibitors and other angiotensin-receptor blockers (ARBs) in people with COVID-19. The team, led by Scott D. Solomon of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, found that current evidence in humans is insufficient to support or refute claims that ACE inhibitors or ARBs may be helpful or harmful to individuals with COVID-19.

The researchers concluded that these anti-hypertensive drugs should be continued in people who have or at-risk for COVID-19, stating: “Although additional data may further inform the treatment of high-risk patients … clinicians need to be cognizant of the unintended consequences of prematurely discontinuing proven therapies in response to hypothetical concerns.” [2]

Research is underway to generate needed data on the use of ACE inhibitors and similar drugs in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to understand more about the basic mechanisms underlying this rapidly spreading viral disease. This kind of fundamental research isn’t necessarily the stuff that will make headlines, but it likely will prove vital to guiding the design of effective drugs that can help bring this serious global health crisis under control.

References:

[1] Structural basis for the recognition of the SARS-CoV-2 by full-length human ACE2. Yan R, Zhang Y, Li Y, Xia L, Guo Y, Zhou Q. Science. 27 March 2020. [Epub ahead of publication]

[2] Renin–Angiotensin–Aldosterone System Inhibitors in Patients with Covid-19. Vaduganathan M, Vardeny O, Michel T, McMurray J, Pfeffer MA, Solomon SD. 30 NEJM. March 2020 [Epub ahead of Publication]

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

COVID-19, MERS & SARS (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Transformative High Resolution Cryo-Electron Microscopy (Common Fund/NIH)

Qiang Zhou (Westlake Institute for Advanced Study, Zhejiang Province)

Scott D. Solomon (Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston)

NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


Getting Closer to a Blood Test for Alzheimer’s Disease?

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Blood Test
iStock/ericsphotography

As research on Alzheimer’s disease (AD) advances, a desperate need remains for an easy blood test to help diagnose the condition as early as possible. Ideally, such a test could also distinguish AD from other forms of dementia that produce similar symptoms. As published recently in Nature Medicine, an NIH-funded research team has designed a simple blood test that is on course to meet these criteria [1].

The latest work builds on a large body of work showing that one secret to predicting a person’s cognitive decline and treatment response in AD lies in a protein called tau. Using the powerful, but expensive, approach of PET scan imaging, we know that tau builds up in the brain as Alzheimer’s disease progresses. We also know that some tau spills from the brain into the bloodstream.

The trouble is that the circulating tau protein breaks down far too quickly for a blood test to offer a reliable measure of what’s happening in a person’s brain. A few years ago, researchers discovered a possible solution: test for blood levels of a slightly different and more stable version of the protein called pTau181 [2]. (The “p” in its name comes from the addition of phosphorus in a particular part of the protein’s structure.)

In the latest study, researchers in the lab of Adam Boxer, University of California, San Francisco, followed up further on this compelling lead. Boxer’s team measured pTau181 levels in blood samples from 362 people between the ages of 58 and 70. Those samples included 56 people with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, along with 47 people with mild cognitive impairment and 69 healthy controls.

The researchers also included another 190 people diagnosed with frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD). It is a relatively rare form of dementia that leads to a gradual decline in behavior, language, and movement, often in connection with a buildup of tau in the brain.

The study found that levels of pTau181 were roughly 3.5-times higher in the blood of people with AD compared to people without AD. Those with mild cognitive impairment due to underlying AD also showed an intermediate increase in blood levels of pTau181.

Importantly, people with FLTD had normal blood levels of pTau181. As a result, the blood test could reliably distinguish between a person with AD and a person with FLTD. That’s important because, while FLTD is a relatively rare condition, its prevalence is similar to AD in people under the age of 65. But both conditions have similar symptoms, making it often challenging to distinguish them.

The findings add to evidence that the new blood test can help in diagnosing AD and in distinguishing it from other neurodegenerative conditions. In fact, it does so with an accuracy that often rivals more expensive PET scans and more invasive cerebrospinal fluid tests, which are now the only reliable ways to measure tau.

There’s still plenty of work to do before this blood test is ready for a doctor’s office. But these initial findings are very promising in helping to simplify the diagnosis of this devastating condition that now affects an estimated 5.5 million Americans [3].

References:

[1] Diagnostic value of plasma phosphorylated tau181 in Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal lobar degeneration. Thijssen EH, La Joie R, Wolf A, Strom A, Wang P, Iaccarino L, Bourakova V, Cobigo Y, Heuer H, Spina S, VandeVrede L, Chai X, Proctor NK, Airey DC, Shcherbinin S, Duggan Evans C, Sims JR, Zetterberg H, Blennow K, Karydas AM, Teunissen CE, Kramer JH, Grinberg LT, Seeley WW, Rosen H, Boeve BF, Miller BL, Rabinovici GD, Dage JL, Rojas JC, Boxer AL; Advancing Research and Treatment for Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration (ARTFL) investigators. Nat Med. 2020 Mar 2.

[2] Plasma phospho-tau181 increases with Alzheimer’s disease clinical severity and is associated with tau- and amyloid-positron emission tomography. Mielke MM, Hagen CE, Xu J, Chai X, Vemuri P, Lowe VJ, Airey DC, Knopman DS, Roberts RO, Machulda MM, Jack CR Jr, Petersen RC, Dage JL. Alzheimers Dement. 2018 Aug;14(8):989-997.

[3] Alzheimer’s Disease Fact Sheet. National Institute on Aging, May 22, 2019.

Links:

Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Dementias (National Institute on Aging/NIH)

What Are Frontotemporal Disorders? (NIA)

Accelerating Medicines Partnership: Alzheimer’s Disease (NIH)

Adam Boxer (University of California, San Francisco)

NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences


Genomic Study Points to Natural Origin of COVID-19

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COVID-19 Update

No matter where you go online these days, there’s bound to be discussion of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Some folks are even making outrageous claims that the new coronavirus causing the pandemic was engineered in a lab and deliberately released to make people sick. A new study debunks such claims by providing scientific evidence that this novel coronavirus arose naturally.

The reassuring findings are the result of genomic analyses conducted by an international research team, partly supported by NIH. In their study in the journal Nature Medicine, Kristian Andersen, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA; Robert Garry, Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans; and their colleagues used sophisticated bioinformatic tools to compare publicly available genomic data from several coronaviruses, including the new one that causes COVID-19.

The researchers began by homing in on the parts of the coronavirus genomes that encode the spike proteins that give this family of viruses their distinctive crown-like appearance. (By the way, “corona” is Latin for “crown.”) All coronaviruses rely on spike proteins to infect other cells. But, over time, each coronavirus has fashioned these proteins a little differently, and the evolutionary clues about these modifications are spelled out in their genomes.

The genomic data of the new coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 show that its spike protein contains some unique adaptations. One of these adaptations provides special ability of this coronavirus to bind to a specific protein on human cells called angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE2). A related coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in humans also seeks out ACE2.

Existing computer models predicted that the new coronavirus would not bind to ACE2 as well as the SARS virus. However, to their surprise, the researchers found that the spike protein of the new coronavirus actually bound far better than computer predictions, likely because of natural selection on ACE2 that enabled the virus to take advantage of a previously unidentified alternate binding site. Researchers said this provides strong evidence that that new virus was not the product of purposeful manipulation in a lab. In fact, any bioengineer trying to design a coronavirus that threatened human health probably would never have chosen this particular conformation for a spike protein.

The researchers went on to analyze genomic data related to the overall molecular structure, or backbone, of the new coronavirus. Their analysis showed that the backbone of the new coronavirus’s genome most closely resembles that of a bat coronavirus discovered after the COVID-19 pandemic began. However, the region that binds ACE2 resembles a novel virus found in pangolins, a strange-looking animal sometimes called a scaly anteater. This provides additional evidence that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 almost certainly originated in nature. If the new coronavirus had been manufactured in a lab, scientists most likely would have used the backbones of coronaviruses already known to cause serious diseases in humans.

So, what is the natural origin of the novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic? The researchers don’t yet have a precise answer. But they do offer two possible scenarios.

In the first scenario, as the new coronavirus evolved in its natural hosts, possibly bats or pangolins, its spike proteins mutated to bind to molecules similar in structure to the human ACE2 protein, thereby enabling it to infect human cells. This scenario seems to fit other recent outbreaks of coronavirus-caused disease in humans, such as SARS, which arose from cat-like civets; and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which arose from camels.

The second scenario is that the new coronavirus crossed from animals into humans before it became capable of causing human disease. Then, as a result of gradual evolutionary changes over years or perhaps decades, the virus eventually gained the ability to spread from human-to-human and cause serious, often life-threatening disease.

Either way, this study leaves little room to refute a natural origin for COVID-19. And that’s a good thing because it helps us keep focused on what really matters: observing good hygiene, practicing social distancing, and supporting the efforts of all the dedicated health-care professionals and researchers who are working so hard to address this major public health challenge.

Finally, next time you come across something about COVID-19 online that disturbs or puzzles you, I suggest going to FEMA’s new Coronavirus Rumor Control web site. It may not have all the answers to your questions, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction in helping to distinguish rumors from facts.

Reference:
[1] The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Andersen KG, Rambaut A, Lipkin WI, Holmes EC, Garry RF. Nat Med, 17 March 2020. [Epub ahead of publication]

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

COVID-19, MERS & SARS (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Andersen Lab (Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA)

Robert Garry (Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans)

Coronavirus Rumor Control (FEMA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Human Genome Research Institute


Encouraging News for Kids with Neurofibromatosis Type 1

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Dr. Collins with NF1 Patient
Caption: This photo goes back a few years. I’m talking to a child with neurofibromatosis type 1 during the search for the NF1 gene, which was discovered in 1990. Credit: University of Michigan Bio Med Photo Department, Ann Arbor

Amid all the headlines and uncertainty surrounding the current COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to overlook the important progress that biomedical research is making against other diseases. So, today, I’m pleased to share word of what promises to be the first effective treatment to help young people suffering from the consequences of a painful, often debilitating genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1).

This news is particularly meaningful to me because, 30 years ago, I led a team that discovered the gene that underlies NF1. About 1 in 3,000 babies are born with NF1. In about half of those affected, a type of tumor called a plexiform neurofibroma arises along nerves in the skin, face, and other parts of the body. While plexiform neurofibromas are not cancerous, they grow steadily and can lead to severe pain and a range of other health problems, including vision and hearing loss, hypertension, and mobility issues.

The good news is the results of a phase II clinical trial involving NF1, just published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The trial was led by Brigitte Widemann and Andrea Gross, researchers in the Center for Cancer Research at NIH’s National Cancer Institute.

The trial’s results confirm that a drug originally developed to treat cancer, called selumetinib, can shrink inoperable tumors in many children with NF1. They also establish that the drug can help affected kids make significant improvements in strength, range of motion, and quality of life. While selumetinib is not a cure, and further studies are still needed to see how well the treatment works in the long term, these results suggest that the first effective treatment for NF1 is at last within our reach.

Selumetinib blocks a protein in human cells called MEK. This protein is involved in a major cellular pathway known as RAS that can become dysregulated and give rise to various cancers. By blocking the MEK protein in animal studies and putting the brakes on the RAS pathway when it malfunctions, selumetinib showed great initial promise as a cancer drug.

Selumetinib was first tested several years ago in people with a variety of other cancers, including ovarian and non-small cell lung cancers. The clinical research looked good at first but eventually stalled, and so did much of the initial enthusiasm for selumetinib.

But the enthusiasm picked up when researchers considered repurposing the drug to treat NF1. The neurofibromas associated with the condition were known to arise from a RAS-activating loss of the NF1 gene. It made sense that blocking the MEK protein might blunt the overactive RAS signal and help to shrink these often-inoperable tumors.

An earlier phase 1 safety trial looked promising, showing for the first time that the drug could, in some cases, shrink large NF1 tumors [2]. This fueled further research, and the latest study now adds significantly to that evidence.

In the study, Widemann and colleagues enrolled 50 children with NF1, ranging in age from 3 to 17. Their tumor-related symptoms greatly affected their wellbeing and ability to thrive, including disfigurement, limited strength and motion, and pain. Children received selumetinib alone orally twice a day and went in for assessments at least every four months.

As of March 2019, 35 of the 50 children in the ongoing study had a confirmed partial response, meaning that their tumors had shrunk by more than 20 percent. Most had maintained that response for a year or more. More importantly, the kids also felt less pain and were more able to enjoy life.

It’s important to note that the treatment didn’t work for everyone. Five children stopped taking the drug due to side effects. Six others progressed while on the drug, though five of them had to reduce their dose because of side effects before progressing. Nevertheless, for kids with NF1 and their families, this is a big step forward.

Drug developer AstraZeneca, working together with the researchers, has submitted a New Drug Application to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While they’re eagerly awaiting the FDA’s decision, the work continues.

The researchers want to learn much more about how the drug affects the health and wellbeing of kids who take it over the long term. They’re also curious whether it could help to prevent the growth of large tumors in kids who begin taking it earlier in the course of the disease, and whether it might benefit other features of the disorder. They will continue to look ahead to other potentially promising treatments or treatment combinations that may further help, and perhaps one day even cure, kids with NF1. So, even while we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are reasons to feel encouraged and grateful for continued progress made throughout biomedical research.

References:

[1] Selumitinib in children with inoperable plexiform neurofibromas. New England Journal of Medicine. Gross AM, Wolters PL, Dombi E, Baldwin A, Whitcomb P, Fisher MJ, Weiss B, Kim A, Bornhorst M, Shah AC, Martin S, Roderick MC, Pichard DC, Carbonell A, Paul SM, Therrien J, Kapustina O, Heisey K, Clapp DW, Zhang C, Peer CJ, Figg WD, Smith M, Glod J, Blakeley JO, Steinberg SM, Venzon DJ, Doyle LA, Widemann BC. 18 March 2020. N Engl J Med. 2020 Mar 18. [Epub ahead of publication.]

[2] Activity of selumetinib in neurofibromatosis type 1-related plexiform neurofibromas. Dombi E, Baldwin A, Marcus LJ, Fisher MJ, Weiss B, Kim A, Whitcomb P, Martin S, Aschbacher-Smith LE, Rizvi TA, Wu J, Ershler R, Wolters P1, Therrien J, Glod J, Belasco JB, Schorry E, Brofferio A, Starosta AJ, Gillespie A, Doyle AL, Ratner N, Widemann BC. N Engl J Med. 2016 Dec 29;375(26):2550-2560.

Links:

Neurofibromatosis Fact Sheet (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Brigitte Widemann (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Andrea Gross (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute


To Beat COVID-19, Social Distancing is a Must

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Teleworking with family at home
gettyimages/SDI Productions

Even in less challenging times, many of us try to avoid close contact with someone who is sneezing, coughing, or running a fever to avoid getting sick ourselves. Our attention to such issues has now been dramatically heightened by the emergence of a novel coronavirus causing a pandemic of an illness known as COVID-19.

Many have wondered if we couldn’t simply protect ourselves by avoiding people with symptoms of respiratory illness. Unfortunately, the answer is no. A new study shows that simply avoiding symptomatic people will not go far enough to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s because researchers have discovered that many individuals can carry the novel coronavirus without showing any of the typical symptoms of COVID-19: fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath. But these asymptomatic or only mildly ill individuals can still shed virus and infect others.

This conclusion adds further weight to the recent guidance from U.S. public health experts: what we need most right now to slow the stealthy spread of this new coronavirus is a full implementation of social distancing. What exactly does social distancing mean? Well, for starters, it is recommended that people stay at home as much as possible, going out only for critical needs like groceries and medicines, or to exercise and enjoy the outdoors in wide open spaces. Other recommendations include avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people, no handshakes, regular handwashing, and, when encountering someone outside of your immediate household, trying to remain at least 6 feet apart.

These may sound like extreme measures. But the new study by NIH-funded researchers, published in the journal Science, documents why social distancing may be our best hope to slow the spread of COVID-19 [1]. Here are a few highlights of the paper, which looks back to January 2020 and mathematically models the spread of the coronavirus within China:

• For every confirmed case of COVID-19, there are likely another five to 10 people with undetected infections.
• Although they are thought to be only about half as infectious as individuals with confirmed COVID-19, individuals with undetected infections were so prevalent in China that they apparently were the infection source for 86 percent of confirmed cases.
• After China established travel restrictions and social distancing, the spread of COVID-19 slowed considerably.

The findings come from a small international research team that included NIH grantee Jeffrey Shaman, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, New York. The team developed a computer model that enabled researchers to simulate the time and place of infections in a grid of 375 Chinese cities. The researchers did so by combining existing data on the spread of COVID-19 in China with mobility information collected by a location-based service during the country’s popular 40-day Spring Festival, when travel is widespread.

As these new findings clearly demonstrate, each of us must take social distancing seriously in our daily lives. Social distancing helped blunt the pandemic in China, and it will work in other nations, including the United States. While many Americans will likely spend weeks working and studying from home and practicing other social distancing measures, the stakes remain high. If this pandemic isn’t contained, this novel coronavirus could well circulate around the globe for years to come, at great peril to us and our loved ones.

As we commit ourselves to spending more time at home, progress continues to be made in using the power of biomedical research to combat this novel coronavirus. A notable step this week was the launch of an early-stage human clinical trial of an investigational vaccine, called mRNA-1273, to protect against COVID-19 [2]. The vaccine candidate was developed by researchers at NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and their collaborators at the biotechnology company Moderna, Inc., Cambridge, MA.

This Phase 1 NIAID-supported trial will look at the safety of the vaccine—which cannot cause infection because it is made of RNA, not the whole coronavirus—in 45 healthy adults. The first volunteer was injected this past Monday at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, Seattle. If all goes well and larger follow-up clinical studies establish the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, it will then be necessary to scale up production to make millions of doses. While initiating this trial in record time is reason for hope, it is important to be realistic about all of the steps that still remain. If the vaccine candidate proves safe and effective, it will likely take at least 12–18 months before it would be widely available.

In the meantime, social distancing remains one of the best weapons we have to slow the silent spread of this virus and flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic. This will give our health-care professionals, hospitals, and other institutions more valuable time to prepare, protect themselves, and aid the many people whose lives may be on the line from this coronavirus.

Importantly, saving lives from COVID-19 requires all of us—young, old and in-between—to take part. Healthy young people, whose risk of dying from coronavirus is not zero but quite low, might argue that they shouldn’t be constrained by social distancing. However, the research highlighted here demonstrates that such individuals are often the unwitting vector for a dangerous virus that can do great harm—and even take the lives of older and more vulnerable people. Think about your grandparents. Then skip the big gathering. We are all in this together

References:

[1] Substantial undocumented infection facilitates the rapid dissemination of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV2). Li R, Pei S, Chen B, Song Y, Zhang T, Yang W, Shaman J. Science. 16 March 2020. [Preprint ahead of publication]

[2] NIH clinical trial of investigational vaccine for COVID-19 begins. NIH News Release, March 16, 2020.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

COVID-19, MERS & SARS (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences


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