Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Since joining NIH, I’ve held a number of different leadership positions. But there is one position that thankfully has remained constant for me: lab chief. I run my own research laboratory at NIH’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR).
My lab studies a biochemical process called O-glycosylation. It’s fundamental to life and fascinating to study. Our cells are often adorned with a variety of carbohydrate sugars. O-glycosylation refers to the biochemical process through which these sugar molecules, either found at the cell surface or secreted, get added to proteins. The presence or absence of these sugars on certain proteins plays fundamental roles in normal tissue development and first-line human immunity. It also is associated with various diseases, including cancer.
Our lab recently joined a team of NIH scientists led by my NIDCR colleague Kelly Ten Hagen to demonstrate how O-glycosylation can influence SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and its ability to fuse to cells, which is a key step in infecting them. In fact, our data, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate that some variants, seem to have mutated to exploit the process to their advantage .
The work builds on the virus’s reliance on the spike proteins that crown its outer surface to attach to human cells. Once there, the spike protein must be activated to fuse and launch an infection. That happens when enzymes produced by our own cells make a series of cuts, or cleavages, to the spike protein.
The first cut comes from an enzyme called furin. We and others had earlier evidence that O-glycosylation can affect the way furin makes those cuts. That got us thinking: Could O-glycosylation influence the interaction between furin and the spike protein? The furin cleavage area of the viral spike was indeed adorned with sugars, and their presence or absence might influence spike activation by furin.
We also noticed the Alpha and Delta variants carry a mutation that removes the amino acid proline in a specific spot. That was intriguing because we knew from earlier work that enzymes called GALNTs, which are responsible for adding bulky sugar molecules to proteins, prefer prolines near O-glycosylation sites.
It also suggested that loss of proline in the new variants could mean decreased O-glycosylation, which might then influence the degree of furin cleavage and SARS-CoV-2’s ability to enter cells. I should note that the recent Omicron variant was not examined in the current study.
After detailed studies in fruit fly and mammalian cells, we demonstrated in the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that O-glycosylation of the spike protein decreases furin cleavage. Further experiments then showed that the GALNT1 enzyme adds sugars to the spike protein and this addition limits the ability of furin to make the needed cuts and activate the spike protein.
Importantly, the spike protein change found in the Alpha and Delta variants lowers GALNT1 activity, making it easier for furin to start its activating cuts. It suggests that glycosylation of the viral spike by GALNT1 may limit infection with the original virus, and that the Alpha and Delta variant mutation at least partially overcomes this effect, to potentially make the virus more infectious.
Building on these studies, our teams looked for evidence of GALNT1 in the respiratory tracts of healthy human volunteers. We found that the enzyme is indeed abundantly expressed in those cells. Interestingly, those same cells also express the ACE2 receptor, which SARS-CoV-2 depends on to infect human cells.
It’s also worth noting here that the Omicron variant carries the very same spike mutation that we studied in Alpha and Delta. Omicron also has another nearby change that might further alter O-glycosylation and cleavage of the spike protein by furin. The Ten Hagen lab is looking into these leads to learn how this region in Omicron affects spike glycosylation and, ultimately, the ability of this devastating virus to infect human cells and spread.
 Furin cleavage of the SARS-CoV-2 spike is modulated by O-glycosylation. Zhang L, Mann M, Syed Z, Reynolds HM, Tian E, Samara NL, Zeldin DC, Tabak LA, Ten Hagen KG. PNAS. 2021 Nov 23;118(47).
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Kelly Ten Hagen (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research/NIH)
Lawrence Tabak (NIDCR)
NIH Support: National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
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)